Delegation from tsunami-stricken Japanese town makes Napa pilgrimage

Bonds between two cities go back 40 years
2013-02-12T18:09:00Z 2013-02-13T19:18:17Z Delegation from tsunami-stricken Japanese town makes Napa pilgrimageHOWARD YUNE Napa Valley Register
February 12, 2013 6:09 pm  • 

A post-tsunami delegation from Napa’s sister city, Iwanuma, Japan, is in town this week to keep 40-year-old bonds of friendship alive.

Seven residents of Iwanuma, a suburb and airport hub of Sendai, on Tuesday afternoon marked the centerpiece of their week-long tour of Napa with a visit to City Hall and the police and fire departments. During a 20-minute ceremony hosted by Mayor Jill Techel at the council chamber, the visitors greeted Napa officials with mementos of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated coastal Japan and killed more than 15,000 people, including 200 of Iwanuma’s 50,000 residents.

After bowing to her Napa counterparts, Michiko Iwabuchi, a civil servant in the Iwanuma city government, presented Techel with a commemorative book the Japanese city published to showcase the story of her hometown’s destruction and revival.

The delegation also included two men whom the earthquake’s water surge had directly threatened. Sai Toichi was one of more than 2,000 Iwanuma townspeople to lose homes in the disaster, while Kotaru Watanabe barely held on to his home, though his neighboring storehouse was washed away.

In the wake of the catastrophe, Napans raised about $60,000 to benefit survivors in Iwanuma, and the Japanese government last year chose Napa to receive a commemorative cherry tree in gratitude. But Watanabe, 73, cautioned outsiders not to forget the scale of the reconstruction still left to be done. “It’s only starting — it takes more than 10 years,” he said.

The Napa-Iwanuma partnership dates to 1973, shortly after Japan Airlines opened a flight training school at Napa County Airport. Four decades of reciprocal visits across the Pacific have followed — a period in which one Napa organizer described seeing the gradual warming of attitudes between hosts and guests, in both nations.

“There was a lot of animosity toward Japan in the old days, left over from the Second World War,” said Charlie Ray, Napa sister city liaison and a founding member of the program. “The goal then was to ease the transition for Japanese students and pilots, and I hope we did our small role in making them welcome.”

The Iwanuma group that has taken the Wine Train, visited Calistoga and St. Helena, and toured Napa police headquarters since arriving Saturday is part of a much smaller, Internet-connected world than the one in which the sister city program began.

But Ray, a member of a dozen Napa delegations to Iwanuma, declared the exchanges as valuable as ever, saying cultural understanding remains more taught than inborn.

“It broadens people’s understanding of different cultures, makes folks accepting of those not like themselves,” he said. “These folks are very gracious when we visit them, but sometimes, some of the kids will gawp and point and say ‘gaijin,’” referring to the Japanese term for foreigners.

Amid the sightseeing and the banter with Napans, leaders of both sides of the exchange program felt an urgency to bring younger members into the fold and help preserve its relevance.

Ray has been a Napa organizer since the exchange’s founding, and the 73-year-old Watanabe became the Iwanuma branch’s chairman in August after the previous director became too old and infirm to travel.

“We know each other; two countries get together and have a tight relationship,” he said through an interpreter. “But the original people (involved with) the sister cities have passed on. Now. we need new blood.”

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