America celebrated its bicentennial in 1976. We were 200 years old. As a part of our celebration locally, Fort Wayne formed a sister city relationship with the city of Takaoka, Japan. During that summer, a woman named Hisako Tanabe brought 10 Japanese high school girls to Fort Wayne to spend a month with host families, to learn about another culture and, in particular, to learn about their new sister city. Hisako was an English teacher in Takaoka, and during that month she stayed as a guest in our home.
The following spring, Takaoka invited Mayor Robert Armstrong to come to Japan for an official recognition of the new relationship, and my wife Betsy and I went along. There were more than 40 of us. While we were there, Betsy and I went to dinner at the home of Hisako, her husband and her two daughters, Yoshiko and Yumiko. The two daughters were young children and did not speak English; but after we left, Yumiko told her mother that, after meeting us, she was determined to learn.
In 1989, I revisited Takaoka with Mayor Paul Helmke as part of an economic development effort that included other cities; but the highlight was Takaoka. By then, Hisako was a volunteer working as an interpreter for the Takaoka Sister City Committee. She told me that her youngest daughter, Yumiko, would like to have a chance to say hello, and I was to meet with her in the hotel lobby at a certain time. I went to the lobby as arranged, and I heard someone behind me say, “Pardon me, but are you Mr. Chapman?” It was Yumiko, now a lovely young woman and speaking excellent English. We had a long talk, during which she told me she had been taught by her mother.
In 1997, I returned, again with a group headed by Mayor Helmke. By this time, Yumiko had married, and we had a reunion among Betsy and me, Hisako, Yumiko and her young son Naoki. As always with Japanese friends, we exchanged gifts and addresses, caught up with all that had happened since our last meeting, and even found ourselves on the local television and in the newspaper, recounting an international friendship that had by now spanned 20 years.
This September, the city of Takaoka invited Fort Wayne to join in the celebration of its 400th anniversary, and I was part of a delegation led by Mayor Tom Henry. By now, hundreds of citizens of Fort Wayne and Takaoka, both students and adults, have exchanged visits, and I have met many of the Japanese visitors. As a result, this latest trip was much like old home week. It was an extraordinary visit, and our delegation, carrying both the American flag and also our Fort Wayne flag, participated in the most amazing parade I have ever witnessed – but that is for another story.
Hisako joined us for a part of each day, and we set up a time when she and I could meet Yumiko at the Aeon Mall, a beautiful, modern shopping mall in Takaoka. Yumiko now has three sons. Two were in school, but she brought her youngest, Yuji. It was a wonderful reunion, and this time we exchanged not only addresses, but e-mail addresses. The advent of modern technology will make it easier to keep in touch.
A sister-city program has three primary motivations: economic development, education and cultural exchange. Economic development is usually the principal factor in spurring the relationship in the first place but, for me, the last two are by far the most important.
Giving our young people the opportunity to experience another culture improves their ability to understand the world around them, and often changes their lives. The friendships that are created and endure are bound to shape our attitudes, for young and old alike.
Fort Wayne’s sister cities are treasures, and then some. Where there are sister cities, there will be no wars.