This article does not necessarily reflect the views of any sister-city organization mentioned and are the sole opinions of the authors. Written with the permission of SKSCA and MSCA.
One great way to get involved with your local Japan-related community during college and beyond is to volunteer with your local sister-city organization. Japanese towns and cities have sister cities all over the world, so this post isn’t just limited to our US readers.
Because sister-city activities vary a lot between locations, we’ll be discussing our experiences with working with the Seattle-Kobe Sister City Association (SKSCA), a very active set of major metropolitan areas, and with the Mendocino Sister City Association (MSCA), which pairs the rural town of Mendocino, California with Miasa-Omachi, a rural town in Nagano prefecture.
What does a sister-city organization do?
Sister-city organizations help develop relationships between the two cities and their citizens. They are typically 501(c)3-designated non-profit organizations with a volunteer board of directors. General activities may include student exchange, cultural community events, arranging for delegations or politicians to meet, education programs, scholarships, etc.
Seattle and Kobe are both port cities with a history of international trade. In 1957, Seattle and Kobe formed the first sister-city partnership for both cities. Seattle, located on Washington’s Puget Sound, has a population of about 680,000 (3.7 million in the greater metropolitan area); Kobe, located on Osaka Bay, has a population of about 1.5 million.
SKSCA is active in a variety of exchange events. We hold an annual Jazz Vocalist Exchange with the Kobe-Seattle Sister City Association, during which the Kobe Jazz Queen and the Seattle female jazz vocalists travel to Seattle and Kobe respectively to give concerts. SKSCA runs cultural experience booths at Seattle’s Japan-related cultural festivals, including Sakura Matsuri, Japan Fair (formerly Aki Matsuri), and Kodomo no Hi (Children’s Day).
Our board members liaise with the Seattle city government to arrange travel for local government officials to Kobe in anniversary years. We also help maintain the Kobe bell and other gifts from Kobe, welcome short-term exchange students to Seattle and the Kobe Festival Ambassador at Seattle’s Sea Fair, sponsor a Japan-related film for the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), and organize a history project for our cities relationship.
Our volunteers help out with staffing our events, such as our yukata dress-up booth and Seafair, and also attend and host our member events, such as our New Year’s Party and members Happy Hour.
Seattle is also lucky to have a large number of other Japan-related volunteer associations and non-profit organizations, and SKSCA benefits from the overlap in membership and event offerings. Our local consulate, for example, hosts Japan nights with the Seattle Storm (WNBA), and the Japan-America Society of the State of Washington (JASSW) holds an annual dinner focused on nihonshu (sake) pairings.
Mendocino is an unincorporated community located on the Pacific Coast to the north of San Francisco. Mendocino itself is very small (population 894 at last census), and although the local school district serves a number of other small communities over a large rural area, the overall population of the region is less than 3000. Their sister city, Omachi, sits at the foot of the Japanese Alps, and has a population of just over 29,000 (although many of the events are focused in the Miasa area, a sub-community of Omachi that is home to fewer than 2000 people.) Both towns are rural, scenic, and home to a significant art community. It’s no coincidence that both towns were also appealing destinations for idealistic young people in early 1970s pursuing dreams of rural life. The relationship began as a friendship between two community-minded artists, Toshi Yoshida and Bill Zacha, and continues to be characterized by close personal connections between individuals.
Mendocino Sister Cities Association focuses primarily on two exchange programs, one for students and one for adult artists. The youth exchange has been going strong between Mendocino K-8 School and Miasa Elementary and Junior High School for 25 years, with each school sending students to visit their sister school on alternating years. Students benefit significantly from this program, and learn first hand about cross-cultural communication and international exchange.
The Art Exchange began in 2008, and capitalizes on the large number of artists and craftspeople who call these communities home. This not only gives the artists a chance to exchange knowledge and technique, but also offers an opportunity for community members and visitors to connect over art. In Omachi, the local craft community has successfully tied this exchange in with their new center for the arts, Asagura. As a rural municipality facing serious economic issues as a result of a declining population, they are effectively leveraging the Art Exchange toward a wider revitalization of community and tourism through art.
During visits to both Japan and the United States, students and chaperones visit other cities and tourist sites, but the focus of the trips is on school/studio visits and homestays with families in the sister city. In both towns, this means a huge percentage of the population is participating in the exchange in some way, whether as students, artists, parents/family members, chaperones, host families, or community participants.
Other fundraising activities are carried out throughout the year to support these two important exchanges, and include a Charity Dine-Out and Auction at a local restaurant. In the past, MSCA has also participated in local events, such as the local 4th of July Celebration, in order to raise awareness and ask for donations, but with limited time and resources, focusing on one large fundraiser has ultimately proven more profitable.
A huge amount of community and volunteer support is needed to pull off these exchange programs. Aside from offering to host visitors, volunteers can also participate by helping to prepare and serve meals for a reception, collecting silent auction donations, or providing an experience for visitors (i.e. playing music for and calling a line dance.)
Joining a board
SKSCA board elections are biannual (every other year); we have 13 members. When we have open positions due to members stepping down from the board, we nominate community members that we feel have the experience and vision we want for our organization. For example, we often scout new board members from our volunteer pool and local companies/non-profits with connections to Japan. A knowledge of Japanese language and culture are certainly helpful, which is where people with academic experience come into play, but experience in relevant fields is also desirable: we also have members who are former JETs; members who are employees of or volunteers for other exchange organizations with a Kobe connection, such as the YMCA, Seattle Yacht Club, the local Japanese gardens, and student exchange organizations; members who are Japanese teachers; et al. In my case, my boss encouraged me to get involved with SKSCA and introduced me to the then-president; I got involved as a volunteer that fall and was elected to fill a vacancy in the spring. I now act as board secretary and am a member of the communications team.
MCSA takes on new board members throughout the year to fill their 10 spaces. They are generally excited to bring in new members, and although there are not always vacancies, they try to incorporate anyone who shows dedication by showing up regularly to monthly meetings. Although most of the board members have been involved for quite some time and have been to Japan with one of the delegations, knowledge of Japan and Japanese language are not a must. Some had no prior Japan-related experience before becoming involved.
Being a volunteer and serving as a director at large has helped me further develop skills I began working on in college and on JET as a CIR: event planning, public speaking, editing, cross cultural communication, networking, organizing volunteers, social media, and community outreach. I really appreciate the opportunity to give back to my adopted community by teaching others about Kobe and Japanese culture and providing opportunities for the exchange of ideas and culture. On a personal note, I love working with SKSCA because the board is so positive, responsible, and caring. It’s exciting to be in a room where others share my dream of sharing knowledge about each other’s cultures and cultural diversity to make our city connected, engaged, prepared, and compassionate. I am currently the board secretary and a member of the social media team.
Mendocino is not home to many Japanese speakers, so I used my language skills a lot as a sister city volunteer. I am particularly grateful for every opportunity I was granted to clock hours in both interpretation and translation. Sister cities events became a fun and supportive venue to practice interpretation in particular, which is a skill I was grateful to have as a CIR with the JET Program, and which I continue to use in my multilingual workplace today. I also enjoyed learning more about the history of my own hometown through working as a chaperone and guide for visiting groups. Mostly, though, I enjoy watching the genuine friendships that develop and grow each time our two communities come together. My first visit to Japan was with the student group when I was 13 years old, and while I think I’m an extreme case in terms of how much the trip changed the course of my life, I know it has a huge effect on all of the people who participate. Particularly for kids from small, relatively homogenous rural communities, having a homestay experience in another country is an extremely valuable opportunity.
Volunteering with a sister city is a great way to put your Japanese background to use wherever you live and to develop valuable career skills. Joining a sister city organization can give you the chance to meet fellow community members, make connections, and make positive contributions to relations between your home country and Japan on a grassroots level. You can find your sister city on Sister Cities International and check in with your chapter to see how active they are. Your local city hall or your closest Japanese Consulate are also good resources for locating pre-existing relationships–or for starting your own!