During a trip to Europe last summer, my family and I had the opportunity to visit Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city. While there, I discovered that the city was not “twinned,” as it is called in the United Kingdom, with Japan, although it did have sister city relations with Dalian, China, and cities in a number of other countries. Upon further research, I learned that Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital, also did not have a sister city in Japan.

I began to wonder what other important cities in the world lacked a connection with Japan, and upon returning to Japan, where I have lived for 29 years, I started looking into what places Japan currently possessed sister city or other types of relations with.

Japan has 1,751 “sister city” (including at the prefecture, city, ward, town and village levels) relationships, as of June 1. As there are 1,728 local authorities in Japan, it appears that just about every municipality is twinned.

In fact, that is far from the case. Not every village, town, city or prefecture in Japan has a sister city relationship. Some have several, but many have none. Indeed, less than half (828) do. Four prefectures do not have state-to-state relations either.

The largest number of relationships are with communities in the United States, followed by China, South Korea and Australia. Linguistic, historical, cultural and geographic factors appear to be involved.

Currently 43 prefectures, 567 cities, 21 wards, 214 towns and 36 villages have sister city or comparable relationships with foreign counterparts, but many of those have more than one relationship and thus the number is not evenly spread. Comparing data from the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, prefectures have the largest percentage of relationships (43 of 47, or 91.4 percent), followed by 71.7 percent for cities. Unfortunately, there is a large drop with towns (28.7 percent) and villages (19.9 percent), suggesting a very low ability or interest by local leaders to be connected internationally.

Another concern regarding the data is that some of the sister city relationships may be in name only. In other words, there is no actual content or continuance in the relationships.

The first sister city was established by Nagasaki in 1955 with Saint Paul, Minnesota, in the United States and the numbers have constantly grown over the years since they first began to be seriously tracked in 1989. For example, in the 10 months since my visit to Glasgow, Japan has increased the number of relationships by approximately 20. Overall, however, the rate of increase has been slowing.

This is a shame as there is great potential for sister city relationships in commercial, educational and other fields. Indeed, the potential is limitless. Japan, with its declining population and lack of land and natural resources, should maximize these relationships for mutual advantage. Sister city relationships are one way to do this.

The Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR) is tasked with monitoring and advising on sister city relationships. It was established 30 years ago in 1988 as “a government-affiliated general incorporated foundation that works to support the internationalization efforts of local governments in Japan through providing training opportunities, fostering people-to-people exchange with the JET Programme and other initiatives, supporting multiculturalism, and by carrying out research on behalf of local governments, etc.”

According to its board of directors chairman Tamotsu Okamoto, “As globalization continues, local governments will have to work harder to attract overseas tourists, promote regional produce abroad and strive to make economic connections with overseas governments and businesses. It is CLAIR’s mission to support them in these wide-ranging efforts.”

Despite his call, and despite a number of “internationalization” policies, Japan in fact lacks an actual strategy and a full awareness of the potential importance that this type of relationship represents. Said another way, Japan has policies, but does not have a philosophy or strategy. Even the key document regarding the guidance for local authorities in their international relations produced by the then-Ministry of Home Affairs in March 1987 and still referenced today never once mentions sister city relationships.

There are numerous reasons why sister cities are increasingly important. As alluded to above, the promotion of trade and exports as well as attracting inbound tourists are some of the most relevant. In addition, existing products can be improved through intellectual innovation and commercial collaboration between sister cities if well-partnered. Moreover, traditional reasons — educational, cultural and people-to-people exchanges — for sister city relationships are more valid than ever in this rapidly changing world, with its 200 countries and hundreds of thousands of cities, towns and villages.

In particular, as Japan seeks to expand the number of foreign workers, sister city relationships can reinforce the bonds by assisting in the recruiting of possible candidates from the sister city or its neighboring area, supporting the candidates in cultural, economic or legal matters upon their coming to Japan, addressing any issues that may arise and promoting mutually beneficial trade coming from the company that hired them, for example. In other words, sister city relationships can expand beyond the simple place for “intercultural exchanges” that they are usually seen for.

Sister city relationships begin in a number of ways. They can be geographic in nature, have similar names, populations, climates or other characteristics, share common histories or key figures, or desire some sort of trade or educational relationship. CLAIR provides some information on its website (bit.ly/JapanSisterCities) and supports local governments trying to form such relationships.

I helped establish a sister city relationship when I served on the JET Programme in Hyogo Prefecture years ago and now assist different communities around Japan with their internationalization efforts. Not only is the final result fun and rewarding, but so is the process of developing the relationships, learning about one another’s communities and our own along the way.

Sister city relationships are actually easier to create than might be realized, although, of course, the other party has to be interested. For this reason, in my consultations I encourage communities to establish multiple relationships so that if there is a lull for any reason in one of the relationships it does not hinder overall internationalization or economic development.

I think four to eight relationships is a good number to pursue. The sister cities can also develop relationships, including commercial and education, between them as there is some commonality. Mutual support or other forms of cooperation after (or before) a disaster is another important area to pursue.

In recent years, bilateral problems have affected sister city relationships, such as between Shimane Prefecture and its Korean counterpart or Osaka and San Francisco. But it is precisely because of the political issues that grassroots types of sister city relationships are important.

For the above reasons as well as the need to enhance Japan’s public diplomacy efforts, the country should seek to develop sister city ties with as many places as possible and develop a strategy to do so immediately. Sister city relationships can be key to promoting not only Japan’s internationalization and international contributions but also its regional development as well.

Robert D. Eldridge is the North Asia director for the Global Risk Mitigation Foundation.

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