Historic Ties, Desire for Peace Link First U.S.-Japan Sister City

By Anthony Kujawa
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - The first sister-city affiliation between a city in the United States and city in Asia grew from the ruins of war, a desire for peace and a wish to increase understanding through citizen-level contacts. 

On December 7, 1955, the anniversary of Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the mayors of Saint Paul, Minnesota, and Nagasaki, Japan, formally established a sister-city partnership.  But the relationship between the small Midwestern city and a Japanese city emerging from war, were based not only on their common aspiration for peace, but also on little-known historic ties dating back to the early 20th century.

The river city of Saint Paul, built on the banks of the Mississippi, emerged as a hub of lumber and fur trade in the early 19th century and in 1849 it became the capital of the newly established Minnesota Territory.  The city was also home to James J. Hill, who established the western terminus of the Saint Paul-based Great Northern Railroad in 1893. Hill also launched a steamship company - the Great Northern Steamship Company - linking Seattle and Shanghai, China.  Nagasaki was one of the destinations of the Minnesota and Dakota, two steamers of Hill’s company that at the turn of the 20th century delivered Midwest grains to markets in Asia and returned to the United States loaded with Chinese silks and other Oriental goods.

Nagasaki, established in 1570 by the feudal lord Sumitada Omura in order to provide a port for trading with the recently arrived Portuguese, became a flourishing Japanese town that also hosted many international residents.  During Japan’s period of national isolation 1641 - 1853, Nagasaki was considered Japan’s “window to the world,” as it was the only harbor that permitted entry of foreign ships.  The city’s atmosphere was greatly influenced by British, Chinese, Dutch, Korean and Portuguese merchants and travelers during that time. Following the end of Japan’s isolation in 1853, Nagasaki became a busy international port that played a pivotal role in Japan’s modernization and industrialization.  Nagasaki was heavily bombed during World War II, including the August 9, 1945, atomic bomb that destroyed much of the city. 

After the devastation of World War II, people and leaders in both cities were able to build on these historic ties from the times of the Great Northern Steamship Company. The “twinning” of the two cities 51 years ago by Nagasaki Mayor Tsutomu Tagawa and Saint Paul Mayor Joseph E. Dillon has led to an array of exchanges and numerous friendship, as dedicated volunteers facilitated partnership of groups with similar interests. Community orchestras, square dance fans, gardeners, Boy Scouts, tennis players, chess players, Rotary clubs and schools in both cities have created many dynamic exchange programs.  (See related article.)

Asked about the importance of Nagasaki-Saint Paul sister-city ties, Norm Coleman, a U.S. senator from Minnesota who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was mayor of Saint Paul from 1992 to 2002, told the Washington File: “The values of the exchanges cannot be overestimated, as this program has allowed Minnesotans and Japanese to come together to understand the many things we have in common as well as celebrate our differences.”