Every five years, citizens from Independence and Higashimurayama, Japan, spend several days in each other's locale in a sister city exchange.
And every year, a student exchange takes place over several days. This year's exchanges mark the 40th anniversary of the sister city relationship between the two cities.
The Independence delegation of at least two dozen is scheduled to leave for Japan on June 4 and return 10 days later, while the Higashimurayama delegation is scheduled to be in the Independence area Aug. 30 through Sept. 4 – during the Santa-Cali-Gon Days Festival.
“We hope to have them volunteer for 1849 Street,” said Jeannae Segura-Brown, chairperson of Independence's Japanese Sister City Committee, referring to the series of historic period booths that have become part of the annual festival. “They have been admirers of our Santa-Cali-Gon Festival for a long time.”
Sister cities are nothing unique in the United States, but the story of how Independence and Higashimurayama connected certainly is unique.
In the mid-1970s, Hajimei Ishizu had traveled from Japan to meet with an Independence educator whom he had met at a convention in Japan and had been corresponding with.
Unable to contact the local man after a couple days, Ishizu asked Kansas City Police for help. They remembered Lana White, a native of Nagasaki who met and married a serviceman from Independence after the war and had been a translator during a recent international convention in town. They put her in contact with Ishizu.
They couldn't locate Ishizu's friend, but White gave him a city tour, including the Truman sites and invited him to stay with her family.
So impressed with the hospitality and friendliness from his visit, he shared the story with Higashimurayama's mayor, Reiji Kumaki. Their city was similar in size to Independence (currently about 150,000 population), and as part of the bustling Tokyo metropolis could relate somewhat to Independence's proximity with Kansas City. Furthermore, Segura-Brown notes, having gained city status in 1964, attaining sister city status could give Higashimurayama some political clout in the Tokyo region.
Ishizu and White had continued to correspond, and White visited then-Mayor Dick King's office to pitch the friendship.
“She asked if we would be interested in being a sister city in Japan,” said Carolyn Weeks, then the executive assistant to the mayor. “She told him about the similarities and thought it would be a good match.
“He said if we could get a group together, he'd love to meet with them – so we did.”
Kumaki and King exchanged letters, and eventually the first Japanese delegation flew into Kansas City International Airport on Jan. 25, 1978. The mayors signed the sister city charter the next morning, and the Japanese delegation stayed several more days for various tours and visits.
A Japanese Garden, gifted by Higashimurayama, has been maintained since the mid-1980s outside the corner of City Hall to symbolize enduring friendship and peace, and the Sister City Commission hosts the annual Cherry Blossom Festival (April 8 this year) to celebrate Japanese culture.
Weeks credited Kathy Vest and Sue Hammett with getting the annual student exchange portion off the ground, and Glendale Elementary has maintained a sister school relationship with Megurita Elementary.
A student who was part of one exchange later went over and stayed in Japan to teach English, Weeks added.
“The student aspect has really made it thrive,” she said of the long-running sister city relationship. “The teachers at Glendale have been so helpful; they encourage the kids with their programs. A lot of people make it work.”
Segura-Brown said their Higashimurayama hosts are gifting the Independence delegation with a trip to Mount Fuji during their stay in Japan, and later in the trip the delegation will visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Atomic Bomb Dome (historic remains from the blast). She hopes to make a Hiroshima trip part of each student exchange visit by Independence students.
“The students we send back and forth,” Brown said, “we're trying to embody citizen diplomacy.”