It was 1969. A group of 20 delegates, made up of Renton residents and Lions Club members, embarked on a trip to Japan to entertain the idea of a sister Lions Club. They found themselves in the city of Nishiwaki, just an hour outside of Osaka and located near the center of the country. Half a century later, 20 Nishiwaki delegates found themselves in Renton to honor what became a long-lasting relationship.
Last week, Renton celebrated the 50th anniversary of the sister cities program with Nishiwaki, Japan. Delegates from Nishiwaki explored the Boeing factory, downtown Renton and were honored in a ceremony at city hall.
Chris Johnson is the chair of the Renton-Nishiwaki committee and a seven-year member. Although the visit was fast-paced, in the span of three days, Johnson said the goals of the trip were met; an informal celebration at Luther’s Table on Oct. 16, a formal ceremony to honor the relationship at Renton City Hall on Oct. 17, and a going away party to discuss maintaining the sister cities relationship on Oct. 18. Twelve delegates stayed with host families in Renton and the other eight stayed at the Renton Red Lion Hotel.
Johnson said the sister city program objectives include increasing cultural understanding, providing opportunities for cities and individuals involved to learn and creating business and education partnerships.
Roger Richert, Wyman Dobson and Vicky Dobson, the only three living members of the 1969 trip, attended the Oct. 17 ceremony and were honored with gifts by the Consul General Yoichiro Yamada of Seattle’s Consulate General of Japan.
“The politicians may change but (you’ve had) generations after generations of friendship,” Yamada said. “I understand you, you understand me, and that’s important. (This is) a very rich experience for citizens.”
Yamada spoke at the Oct. 17 ceremony about how 1969 ushered in a new age of technical possibilities with the Apollo 11 mission, and also ushered in a new age for the people of Renton and Nishiwaki with establishing sister cities.
Founder Wyman Dobson said they’ve always been well-received when visiting Nishiwaki, which he’s been to four times. On the first trip to Japan, the Renton Lions Club was attending a Lions Club International Convention in Tokyo. The members attending had the option to walk in a parade, but Richert and Dobson decided to explore the city instead.
They met some teenage students who wanted to practice English, they chatted for two hours and the students gave them advice on cultural customs in Japan. They then traveled to Nishiwaki to see the sister city.
“We learned a great deal about things to do and were well-received,” Dobson said. “There was never any discussion about the wars going on or blaming each other, we wanted to meet with them they wanted to meet with us. We’ve had a great time.”
Nishiwaki was interested in finding a sister city in the U.S. at that time, and had similarities to Renton: it was a population around 41,000, it had three schools and was located along a river. Nishiwaki had a steady increase in population over the past 50 years, now around 55,000, while Renton’s population leaped to over 100,000.
The city is also close to Renton’s neighboring jurisdictions’ sister cities. Auburn is sister cities with Tamba, Japan, which is along the same river as Nishiwaki, since 1969. Kent has also been sister cities with Tamba since 1995. Seattle has been sister cities with Kobe since 1957, where Nishiwaki sends some of their cattle for Kobe beef.
The original sister cities committee had three members, including Dobson and Richert. Over the years, Richert has had family that moved and started businesses in Nishiwaki.
Richert gave a speech on behalf of the remaining members at the Oct. 17 ceremony, explaining the affiliation’s history.
“Our opportunities to visit one another countries, experience cultures different than our own, meet new people and establish wonderfully enduring friendships has changed our lives for the better and led to a greater peace between nations,” Richert said. “Both Nishiwaki and Renton have the profound gratitude of many for continuing the sister city relationship over the past half century.”
The highlight of the week, Johnson said, was seeing old friendships rekindled and new ones form. On Wednesday, Oct. 16 when the delegates arrived they held a welcoming event at Renton Technical College.
At the event, a Renton women in her late 20s recognized some of the delegates as her host family from participating in a middle school exchange trip. Johnson said the joy and love was evident on their faces, and that he saw this happen at least five or six other times during the delegates’ stay.
The sister cities program continues to be very active, with delegates visiting back and fourth about every two-to-four years, as well as the yearly trips from Renton School District eighth graders and Nishiwaki eighth graders for a one-week exchange. Renton students went on their trip to Nishiwaki a few weeks ago.
Yamada said the best thing about this relationship is how it impacts the future, and what students learn from visiting one another.
“We may be very different, but we are facing the same tasks: the deteriorating environment, education, caring for elderly and (so on),” Yamada said. “Youngsters (get to) go and see how Japanese are doing and that motivates them— when they come back to the place where they live they become a change agent for the future.”
Johnson said what keeps the Renton-Nishiwaki relationship so active is the personal relationships involved and support from local government on both sides. He said it’s more than a publicity event or chance to go on a trip: it’s longstanding personal relationships, from the residents at each city to the mayors.
During a speech at the Oct. 17 celebration, Nishiwaki Mayor Shozo Katayama, who met with Mayor Denis Law five years ago for the 45th anniversary, discussed Law’s retirement and thanked him for being a bridge for this program.
“We will never forget the memories with you,” Katayama said at the ceremony.
Katayama then presented Law and the city with the gift of textiles that can be used as backdrops in the city, created by a technique that makes the colors with intricate weaving instead of dyes.
After the ceremony, Law and Katayama met in the mayor’s office to discuss the state of both cities.
Law and Councilmember Randy Corman, who was also one of the hosts for the Nishiwaki visitors, presented each delegate with a gift bags including a glass coaster, centennial playing cards and a city mug. Each delegate also received a certificate honoring them as a “resident for a day” which was approved in a Renton city council proclamation on Oct. 14.
More information on the sister cities relationship is available at rentonwa.gov/city_hall/Mayor/Sister_Cities.