Sister Cities: Seedbed for the Grassroots of U.S.-Japan Relations

Grace Ruch Clegg, Former Projects and Outreach Coordinator, East-West Center in Washington

Publications Sister Cities: Seedbed for the Grassroots of U.S.-Japan Relations

Grace Ruch Clegg, former Projects and Outreach Coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington, participated in the Sasakawa USA 2017-2018 In-Depth Alumni Research Trip to Japan. Here, Ruch Clegg shares her findings on the legacy, benefits, challenges, and outlook for sister city relationships between the United States and Japan.

On February 4, 2018, three American runners raced past palm trees and cheering spectators under a cloudy February sky, but they were not running in their home state of Florida. They were in Japan; selected by their local runner’s club to participate in the Tokyo Bay Half Marathon in Orlando’s sister city of Urayasu, Chiba.

Meanwhile, preparations are underway in Portland, Maine, to host the girls’ basketball teams who will arrive on Youth Sports Exchange with their sister city in Shinagawa, Tokyo. Put on every four years on the model of the Olympics, there is much to do to coordinate the ten-day homestays around daily matches with local teams.

At the same time, Hanamaki, Iwate, in Japan’s north, and the southern city of Hot Springs, Arkansas, are celebrating their twenty-five years of Sisterhood with an exchange of two artists. Following month-long residencies in their respective sister cities, they will produce commemorative pieces inspired by their experiences.

These are just a small sample of the vibrant people-to-people interactions that occur in communities throughout the United States and Japan through mutual sister relationships. Sister relationships are formal international partnerships between cities, counties, states, and other subnational entities. They are established to build civic and people-to-people relationships, and support educational and commercial ties between the two partners.

With over 440 sister cities and twenty-four sister states[1], and counting, the United States and Japan enjoy more sister relationships with each other than with any other partner. They represent communities large and small, rural and urban, in all regions of both countries. Currently forty-six states in the United States and all but one prefecture in Japan boast at least one U.S.-Japan sister partnership.

A 60-year Legacy of “People-to-People” Partnerships

The first U.S.-Japan sister city relationship was established in 1955, between St. Paul, Minnesota, and Nagasaki, Japan. It was enacted as a sign of peace on “Pearl Harbor Day,” ten years after the end of WWII, with the unanimous support of the Nagasaki city assembly. The following year in 1956, American President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “people-to-people program” of promoting peace through citizen diplomacy at the community level is generally credited as the launch of the sister cities movement in the United States more broadly.

Although this U.S. soft-power promotion program had a hard security edge in the context of the Cold War, the idea of “people-to-people” as a two-way exchange of values took root and flourished, particularly in Japan. The movement gained greater momentum in the 1960s and ‘70s once post-War travel restrictions on Japanese citizens were lifted. While American communities took the lead in establishing sister ties initially, the positive experience with U.S. partners lead Japan to not only expand its community linkages with the U.S., but to also reach out to its neighbors. China’s first sister city proposals, for instance, came from Japanese communities prior to the reestablishment of formal relations.[2]

U.S.-Japan sister ties increased rapidly beginning in the mid-1980s. These initiatives were largely Japanese-led as many local governments began looking for ways to better internationalize their communities in the face of globalization. The 1989 release of government guidelines for promoting international exchange at the local-level in Japan likely contributed to a jump of over 100 new sister relationships in a span of five years. Although the number of U.S.-Japan sister cities continues to grow, the rate has leveled off since the turn of the century. This is partially due to the success in already linking many of the countries’ largest communities and to Japan’s current policy of municipal mergers reducing the pool of unlinked cities. Shrinking finances may be a factor as well.

Structural Trends

Given the unique localized context of these relationships, a “typical” U.S.-Japan sister city template may not exist. However, some broad trends can be observed. Compared to other partners, in addition to being more numerous, U.S. and Japanese sister relationships tend to be more active. Their relatively longer durations have served to normalize exchanges between the communities.

While these interactions come in a plethora of themes and formats, U.S.-Japan sister partnerships tend to have a focus on student exchanges. Part of this is because sister relationships in the United States, unique among participating countries, are mostly volunteer-led or otherwise privately organized and funded. Within this structure, annual youth exchanges are manageable within the bandwidth of such organizations without a need for much official support.

For their Japanese partners though, sister relationships are typically run by the municipal governments’ international relations departments, and receive direct public support. However, these departments are increasingly tasked with addressing the needs of the local “foreign resident population” and some communities face the strain of shrinking tax bases. As a result, there is a growing trend to share or delegate sister city coordination duties to “exchange associations” and seek private funding.

This shift to a more “American” approach is interestingly occurring at the time of increased involvement by U.S. city governments. Following the economic downturn of the “Great Recession” in the late 2000s, city leaders are taking a more active role in their sister partnerships, to leverage these ties to develop exchange activities that support business, innovation, or other community goals.

Soft Power, Concrete Benefits

In its most basic form, sister relationships generate grassroots goodwill between Japanese and Americans, as positive impressions are made, and deep, lasting friendships are formed. Beyond these “spiritual benefits,” sister relationships are of tremendous value to participating communities in both the United States and in Japan; with coordinators on both sides expressing appreciation for many of the same aspects.

Cultural Exposure

Sister relationships create an avenue for international exposure, which is particularly important for communities beyond the large urban areas where such opportunities are few. Typical activities toward this include regular exchanges where citizens travel to, or host citizens from, their sister community; cultural demonstrations by and for visiting delegations; and educational or commemorative displays on sister partners in public spaces. These can be as simple as origami demonstrations during a school visit, or delegates’ participation in annual festivals or holiday celebrations, to formal programing. Visiting students in one sister relationship always put on a “Japan Night” or “USA Night” at their sister high school during their week-long visit.

The sister framework helps create sustained exchange that allows for a deeper understanding of a people and culture, while normalizing the idea of cross-cultural engagement over time.  This cultivates a global outlook among citizens as “the world” is no longer a far-off abstraction, but an extension of the community.

The intrinsically different historical and cultural contexts of the United States and Japan bring added value to these people-to-people encounters. While Japanese communities point to their homogeneity as a reason to appreciate the international exposure their U.S. sister cities bring, the same can be said for many American partners with largely homogeneous populations of their own.  Interestingly, this experience of sharing and explaining ones’ own culture to partners from such a different background also helps cultivate a greater awareness of local heritage and regional pride, in some places contributing to local historical preservation efforts.

Opportunities for Education and Collaboration

Given the prevalence of student exchanges as a mainstay of U.S.-Japan sister relationships, the educational opportunities they provide to youth are highly valued among partners. Whether through sister agreements established between specific schools in the partner communities, or open recruitment programs, students participating in such exchanges typically spend time visiting local schools and engaging with their peers.

For Japanese students who are required to study English as part of their core curriculum, they present a practical application of their skills. For American students, Japanese language class is rare, and in some cases only available through connections made through their sister partnership.

Beyond linguistic skills, they offer a concrete way for schools to meet the challenge of preparing students for a globalizing world.  Sister city activities provide a vehicle for experiences that challenge them to confront stereotypes and diverse perspectives—necessary skills for success in higher education and beyond.  More direct to that aim, the relationship can help open imaginations to expanded pathways for future careers beyond the students’ hometowns.

The educational opportunities are not limited to youth. For professionals, sister relationships can be a platform to share ideas on numerous issues. U.S. and Japanese communities share a number of common challenges, including aging populations, rural decline, and disaster management. Exchanges that allow city leaders and other professionals to go on sector-specific site visits, engage with counterparts, or similar activities provide opportunities to collaborate on issues of mutual concern and share municipal best practices and new ways of doing business.

For instance, a Japanese manager of an elder care home on a visit to his American sister city was impressed by how volunteers were integrated into a retirement facility there, and implemented a similar program. Similarly, the president of a local bank in the United States brought back the idea of providing reading glasses at customer kiosks from a visit to the banks in his Japanese sister community.

Business and Economic Development

Despite a general consensus that economic benefits for the community would be welcomed, they are rarely a top priority of U.S.-Japan sister partnerships. Coordinators, whether city government employees in Japan or foundation volunteers in the United States, tend to shy away from the idea of “monetizing” the relationship. This aversion is backed to some extent by economic principles: only exporting to or investing in the city that yours is paired with may not make the most business sense.

Despite this, sister cities do bring economic benefits to communities. In terms of bringing in outside money, typically spent locally at small and medium businesses, exchanges are an export in-and-of themselves. For local businesses interested in international expansion however, sister relationships also offer a low-risk opportunity to gain insight on a starkly different business culture through engagement with their counterparts. This can allow business owners a better footing to expand their operations to the United States or Japan, even if not localized to the sister community. In some cases, business partnerships or projects do stem from individuals or firms being introduced through their sister cities, or spearheaded by local business groups. However, these are generally not official activities of the sister relationship.

Goodwill Multipliers

The bilateral goodwill generated through sister partnerships is not limited to individual participants in exchanges. For example, the experience of hosting an individual is shared by family members, neighbors, coworkers, and classmates, on both sides. Schools benefit from visiting peers walking in their halls, even though not every student will share a classroom with them. Communities benefit from the sister city related exhibitions and events, even if the majority of citizens cannot make the trip abroad. Positive impressions of sister partners may grow from a first-hand interaction, but are spread through the communities through stories, shared memories, and media coverage. These ripple effects help solidify feelings of a genuine co-community with their sister partners, and a generally favorable opinion of the other side.

Grassroots to Blade Tip

The benefits of these sister ties are not limited to the local or state level, but extend from these grassroots to the highest levels of the U.S.-Japan relationship.

As a basis for bilateral goodwill, sister city relationships produce support for policies of engagement and collaboration between the United States and Japan. For two democracies with elected representatives, this also helps build local constituencies for foreign policies that promote positive bilateral relations. For lawmakers, participating in official delegations to their sister counterparts and witnessing exchange activities in the course of constituent business in their home districts, has a more lasting impact than abstract policy recommendations. Even in the event of periods of bilateral tension or political or policy disconnect, the firm foundation these grassroots connections build drives the overall relationship to continue through the rough patch by maintaining the relationship locally.

As a tool for policy practitioners, sister partnerships follow in the legacy of Eisenhower’s “people-to-people” program as a platform for public diplomacy. In them there is both a receptive audience for the promotion of strong relations, and a self-sufficient source of everyday examples of positive engagement that can be shared more broadly for the sake of diplomatic promotion. As a talking point for a meeting of principals, it is more interesting to cite the number of sister cities, or reference a bilateral connection unique to the counterpart’s home region, than to simply say “our two countries have deep and enduring ties.”

Going beyond Foggy Bottom and Kasumigaseki, they can serve as a ready-made base for nearly any type of exchange or cooperation initiative, not simply in the traditional areas of education and culture. Policy makers can leverage a growing interest at the local and regional level in collaborating with sister partners on issues of shared concern, and connect experts and stakeholders on these issues to find new solutions or share policy ideas. This is particularly true for agencies that work in areas traditionally seen as domestically focused, such as community health, natural resource management, urban development, etc.

Finally, for the “Japan-hands and alliance-managers” who are concerned about where the next generation of U.S.-Japan experts will come from, sister partnerships are a powerful leadership development tool. They not only plant the seeds of interest in the other country, but can be an incubator for cultivating a passionate interest in U.S.-Japan relations that goes beyond pop-culture consumption, and a vector for the educational commitment needed to serve one’s country in that capacity.

Challenges to Sisterhood

Unfortunately, there are challenges to realizing the full potential of U.S.-Japan sister partnerships at the policy level and locally. Some appear to be perennially in bloom, others run the risk of going fallow through lack of attention or support. Meanwhile, none are immune to the logistical lift that is cross-continental coordination.

Not Well Understood or Appreciated

Put simply, sister cities are not currently considered seriously as a U.S.-Japan policy tool. To date, official engagement is ad hoc, often tied to visiting governmental or lawmaker delegations and not part of a systematic strategy. While there is a growing interest in developing such a strategy, policymakers face what appears to be a large set of unique relationships, with different dynamics, coordination structures, and needs. Because so little scholarly or analytical attention has been paid to sister relations, there is no body of research cataloguing them and their characteristics. Without being able to broadly identify needs or vectors of engagement, the development of a calibrated policy is stymied.

This is not a strategic-level issue alone. Outside of the capitals, the connection between local sister city activities and foreign policy is not well understood, even in communities that facilitate them.  Further, unless they are directly engaged, it is not uncommon for citizens of cities or regions with sister-partnerships to be unware of their existence, or even what they are and what they do.

Small (or Shrinking) Participant Pools

This local lack of awareness of sister partnerships is partially due to the fact that in many instances participation is limited to either the rare internationally-inclined citizens, or those who are associated with the right groups (schools, associations, social cliques, etc.). Some coordinators estimate that only small portions of their communities’ populations are engaged in sister city activities. Of these, in cases where participation is contingent on the ability to pay one’s way—which is typical on the American-side—cost is a large barrier for many families. As such, there is often a lack of socio-economic and racial diversity among those who can participate. Comfort with English is another limiting factor among Japanese communities.

This small pool is felt acutely where student exchanges comprise the bulk of sister activity. Demographic effects in many parts of the United States and in Japan more broadly are resulting in fewer students available to participate. This is compounded by interest shifting to China by U.S. students (and parents) looking to improve future job prospects, and concerns among Japanese students of the value of long-term study abroad for their own career paths.


The system of sister relationships managed by passionate volunteers in many U.S. communities is like an orchid: unquestionably beautiful, but fragile. Precisely because they exert a tremendous amount of effort to maintain the partnerships, if at any point certain key volunteers or groups have to stop, some sister relationships are at risk of stopping with them. This risk is growing as many of those who helped launch the sister relationships in the ‘80s-‘90s wave are retiring without ready replacements. While in some cases there is a new-generation coming up from among those who participated as students who want to keep the sister ties going, they lack the resources or connections of their predecessors.

While these volunteer concerns are less felt on the Japan-side supported by city government, sustainability challenges remain. As the tax-bases decline with the local population, much less money is available for international relations activities. According to reports by Japan’s Council for Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR), a foundation that supports the internationalization efforts of the country’s local governments, in some cities international relations budgets have been cut by 50 percent, with sister activities being cut accordingly. Where this is the case, some are moving the sister partnership management to a self-supporting association model, but private fundraising is largely undeveloped.

Stuck in Stasis

Due to some of the challenges described above, long-standing sister partnerships risk becoming stale as they settle into patterns of the same exchanges over and over. Where there is an asymmetry in organizational resources, there is sometimes a desire on one side to do more, but they are limited by what their sister partner’s bandwidth will allow.

In other instances, a downside of the longevity of some sister relationships is that institutional inertia sets in as partners continue down the same well-worn tracks along the thinking of “We’ve always done it this way…” or “We only do XYZ.” Part of this comes from the policy of municipal worker rotation in Japan, in which staff changes positions within the city government every few years. This reinforces institutional inertia when those responsible for sister city activities are constantly new and catching up, reducing appetite to take on something new.

Further, the lack of participation of different segments of the community in sister relationship coordination limits the ideas presented, resources brought to bear, and ultimately, the breadth of engagement. Occasionally, this is the result of the parochial interests of existing groups not wanting to expand territory or share “turf” with new players.

Local Politics

Engagement by local leadership matters to sister relationships, strongly influencing the contours of the programs. The involvement and direction of mayors and governors, in particular, can have a huge impact, not only in establishing ties, but on their depth and direction by promoting areas of focus or expansion. The stronger the official support is for a relationship, the more solid its institutional footing.

However, even if convinced of the merit, it is often difficult for city leaders to travel to their sister city to participate in official programing. The optics never look good if public money is involved, and yet it can be prohibitively expensive to go out-of-pocket, much less with regularity. To not participate, however, runs the risk of the relationship lacking official standing, particular to Japanese audiences. It also represents a missed opportunity to engage with counterparts on any number of municipal issues and maximize the benefits of the relationship for the community.

Distance and Dialects

While advances in telecommunications and air travel have “shrunk” the world, the fact remains that the shear distance and barrier of language present challenges to U.S.-Japan sister partners. Unlike with sister relationships with nearby countries like South Korea or Mexico, the time zone difference makes real-time communication difficult, and the long travel time makes any sort of trip a major—and expensive—undertaking. Due to the respective difficulty of the English and Japanese languages, sister activities can only occur where there is interpretative support available, or enough participants can understand the host language. Even then, it is more likely for American participants to have to lean on the English ability of their sister partners due to the rarity of Japanese language study in the U.S.

Recommendations for Cultivating Sister Partnerships

When considering how to support grassroots initiatives, there is rightly concern about how best to cultivate them without accidentally trampling the soil. However, given the possibilities that U.S.-Japan sister partnerships represent and the challenges they face, there are concrete actions that can be taken to support them while protecting their local people-to-people lens.

Survey of U.S.-Japan Sister Relationships

The first step in developing a calibrated engagement strategy is getting more information on the pool of sister relationships. This could be accomplished through a survey of sister city coordinators on both sides to identify basic characteristics (age, slate of activities, management structure), specific challenges, and whether/how the central government might play a role in supporting sister relationships. Through this, it may be possible to define broader categories of sister cities, vectors for engagement, demand areas for assistance, or opinions on the appropriate government role. At a minimum, it would build a robust index of partnerships and a list of contacts for follow-up by embassies and agencies.

Small and “Micro” Grants

Increased financial resources are something every program wants, but sustained funding programs are unlikely. Fortunately, at this scale, even modest, one-time support can have an out-sized impact in such areas as:

• Micro grants” for sister city events: Support for small programs to keep up momentum and interest, particularly where there are “off-years” for large-scale exchanges.

• Exchange “scholarships” for students and citizens: Expand the participant pool by covering the costs of participating in exchange activities in their sister community for students and citizens who could not otherwise afford it.

• Travel funding for city leaders: Available to mayors or other city leaders to cover air travel to their sister cities for commemorative anniversary activities, to maintain the relationships’ official standing and cultivate leadership engagement.

• Specialized “one-off” exchanges: Provide an opportunity for community leaders outside of the existing sister partnership circles to travel to their sister city or region for a program tailored to their professional or civic interests. A positive experience among these leaders can generate local buy-in that can be a “game-changer” for sister partnerships, and can therefore be targeted to relationships that need a boost for any number of reasons.

CLAIR in Japan does have a modest grant program for sister programing, primarily focused on developing innovative exchange projects, or building up municipalities’ human capital for international exchange. However, they are inundated with applications each year as there is no similar program at the federal level.

Design a “Tool Box” for U.S.-Japan Sister Partners

In lieu of direct operational support, embassies or the foreign affairs agencies can create an online resource for sister partnerships to better promote their programing, access cultural explainers and travel guidance, and learn best practices and exchange ideas. These can also connect them to opportunities for citizens’ continuing engagement with the United States or Japan, thereby helping to cultivate the next generation of U.S.-Japan experts and champions.

These can draw on outreach resources already in hand, such as guides for local and social media engagement, lists of educational and exchange opportunities, and links to larger resources, including Education USA, Select USA, and Japan’s equivalents.

Integrate Sister Relationships into Public Diplomacy

Sister partnerships would benefit from greater visibility both in policy circles and locally. Including them in ongoing public diplomacy efforts can achieve this visibility at next-to-no cost. When principals or VIPs tour either country, stopping to engage with sister partners can be a major local morale boost that is almost certain to result in media coverage. Diplomats should take every opportunity to explain to sister partners the role their community plays in bilateral relations and citizen diplomacy. Likewise, they can raise the profile of sister relationships by speaking about them more in media and public fora. As one coordinator put it “they can only speak to good!”

Encourage Greater City Support

The limited city involvement in sister relationships on the U.S.-side in the past represents a huge growth potential. Increased municipal support can increase the bandwidth to expand activity offerings beyond student and cultural exchange. In addition to encouraging cities to take on a more active role, support for local international relations support staff at city offices to manage these exchanges is equally important. As an alternative to grants, diplomats could be seconded to this role as a domestic assignment similar to the “Diplomat-in-Residence” program, or JET assignments could be extended to include a year of service in the United States serving in this capacity.

Create More Opportunities for Sister Partner Networking

To fight “staleness,” share experiences, and leverage sister relationships as a platform for multilateral exchange of ideas, opportunities should be created to allow the coordinators of different U.S.-Japan sister relationships to engage with each other. These can be stand alone, such as a collaboration between CLAIR and the U.S. Embassy or Sister Cities International and the Embassy of Japan, or on the sidelines of other gatherings, such as CULCON, the National Governors Association, United States Conference of Mayors, or Japanese counterparts.

Integrate More Innovative Technology

Technology has had an impact on sister partnerships. In the past 20 years, email has revolutionized the ability of partners to coordinate exchanges, and social media now allows friendships to be more easily maintained once exchanges are over. However, effort should be made to utilize technology to not just support the same exchanges activities that have continued for decades, but to open new avenues for engagement to a larger share of the community at a lower cost. Airfare is still expensive, and kanji difficult, but with new tools from streaming video to increasingly sophisticated automated translation programs, even the barriers of distance and language can be better mitigated if new technology is creatively applied.


Despite the challenges, U.S.-Japan sister relationships remain a vibrant element of the broader bilateral relationship. There is plenty to be done to learn more about the body of these partnerships, but even acknowledging their role is an important first step.  From there a cohesive strategy for engagement can be developed that cultivates these grassroots without “crushing” them.  With increased support and visibility, the educational and cultural benefits that sister partners already cherish can be augmented by new participants and pathways for exchange, and their community’s role in the U.S.-Japan relationship can be better understood and appreciated.

Some towns are already leading in this way. As one coordinator, speaking to the value of the friendships developed as a result of their sister city, explained: “Arkansas and Hanamaki are small pieces of the national puzzle, but the more connections between cities, the stronger our countries can become.”

[1] “Sister Cities.” Japan Matters for America. Accessed April 28, 2018.

[2] A full history of the sister city movement in Japan can be found in 姉妹都市の挑戦――国際交流は外交を超えるか[The Challenge of Sister Cities: Does International Exchange Exceed Diplomacy?] by Toshihiro Menju, published by Akashi Shoten (Japanese only). Details described here reflect the English-language interview with the author.

For more information, please feel free to contact Clegg at

Author’s Note

Research Trip Details and Methodology: This paper is the result of my participation in the Sasakawa USA In-Depth Alumni Research Trip, with the core question of “How can sister relationships be better utilized and supported to enhance the U.S.-Japan relationship?” It is based on a series of interviews, conducted in both the United States and over the week-long trip to Japan in February 2018. In addition to the support of Sasakawa USA, I am supremely grateful for the time and frank conversation provided by each of the interviewees for this project, without whom, this would not have been possible.

In the capitals, the questions focused on the macro-level (bilateral policy and national trends). These included meetings with experts and practitioners at Sister Cities International (SCI) in Washington D.C., and in Tokyo with U.S. Embassy, the Japan Center for International Exchange (JCIE), and the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR). In the field, I selected three sister city pairs as case studies: Urayasu, Chiba and Orlando, Florida; Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo, and Portland, Maine; and Hanamaki, Iwate and Hot Springs, Arkansas. With the aim of learning the sister cities’ stories, interests, and goals from the local citizens themselves, I interviewed coordinators from both sides of the relationship—Japanese in person, and American partners over the phone. While these represent variety in regards to community size and geographic distribution, this is a small sample necessitated by the limited duration of the trip. As a result, this paper can be considered as a preliminary evaluation, with the expectation that broader research may reveal different conclusions.

Due to the fact that conclusions described below reflect the synthesis of responses from numerous sources, and out of respect for the confidential nature of the interviews, the names and/or affiliations of sources are not identified in this paper. 


About the Author

Grace Ruch Clegg is the former Projects and Outreach Coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington. Among her various portfolios, she served as coordinator for the Visiting Fellows and Visiting Scholars programs; coordinator for grant and partner projects; and managed educational and dialogue projects, such as the Congressional Staff Program on Asia, and the recent US-Japan Relations and Southeast Asia project, where she served as both coordinator and participant.

With research specializations in Japan, and broader U.S.-Asia affairs, she formally joined the EWCW as the researcher for the initial Japan Matters for America publication—highlighting the economic and social significance of U.S.-Japan ties at the state and local level. She later remained involved in the research, analysis, and project management of numerous elements of the Asia Matters for America initiative.

Clegg received her MA in International Affairs from the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University, during which she was an exchange student at Waseda University in Tokyo. She earned her BA in East Asian Languages and Culture (Japanese) from Michigan State University, concentrating on Japan and the history and politics of Northeast Asia.

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