The Japanese Connection

Political alliances can change mightily in this turbulent world, with former enemies becoming allies and vice versa. If that were not the case, I — an Air Force brat — would have been born somewhere other than Japan. I actually had dual U.S.-Japanese citizenship until age 18.

Although I’ve never returned to my country of birth, it always has lived in my consciousness. And so it is that I’m quite pleased about a special relationship that began in 1959 and continues to this day between the city of Nagano, Japan, and my resident city of Clearwater.

1. This Sister City relationship originated as an idea by then-Mayor Kurashima of Nagano to locate a city in the U.S. interested in partnering cultural exchanges and in spurring mutual economic growth. Tourism is important to both communities, with Nagano’s ancient Zenkō-ji Temple drawing the attention of travelers just as beaches do for Clearwater.

2. Exchanges of teachers and students rest at the heart of the Sister City Program, which has blossomed over the past 55 years. Each year, both cities send two teachers for one-month visitations during which they instruct and give presentations while living with home-stay families. Likewise, annual visitations for a shorter duration take place with middle and high school students who interact with their counterpart peers.

Present-day Mayor Shoichi Washizawa of Nagano and Mayor George Cretekos of Clearwater remain committed to this special bond. A visit to Clearwater’s main library downtown reveals three large glassed-in displays just inside the entrance filled with Nagano cultural artifacts such as decorative plates, statuettes, carvings, proclamations and ceremonial keys to the city; similar tributes to Clearwater are evident in Nagano.

Felicia Leonard, Clearwater’s administrative support manager for the Parks and Recreation Department, has overseen the Sister City Program for about six years. She believes the exchanges have promoted friendships and fostered better appreciation of each community’s character.

“The benefits include education and cultural awareness, understanding the United States in a global context and improved understanding of cultural diversity,” Leonard said. “There have been hundreds of people in Clearwater touched by the Sister City Program.”

Nagano, best known for hosting the Winter Olympic Games in 1998, has a population of about 400,000 — nearly four times the total of Clearwater — and is located approximately in the middle of Japan on the main island of Honshu. This past March, Masahiro Ogino, the deputy consul general of Japan who’s based in Miami, visited our city and met with Cretekos, City Manager Bill Horne and others. In February, a delegation from Nagano again will be coming to Clearwater, and a reciprocal visit is in the planning stages. This tradition of cross-visiting officials occurs every five years.

A nonprofit affiliated group called the Clearwater Sister Cities Organization sponsors the Young Ambassadors program whereby kids from Clearwater visit Nagano each June. For more information about this and the Sister City Program or how you can serve as a home-stay host, contact Leonard at (727) 562-4852 or visit

I’m planning on revisiting Japan next year for the first time since my days as a babbling baby, and travel plans definitely include a stop in Nagano. For once it will represent a mental exercise in reverse — I’ll be fondly cogitating about Clearwater while in Japan.

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