No, I’d never worn a kimono, but citizens of Shizuoka kindly dressed my wife and me — and a number of other Omahans — in the traditional Japanese garb.
It happened at the recent 50th anniversary banquet in Shizuoka, celebrating the sister-city relationship with Omaha.
City Councilman Pete Festersen, the official leader of the 69-member Omaha delegation, didn’t don a kimono, but his wife and two daughters did. Because the family’s luggage didn’t arrive in Japan for four days, the Festersens quipped that they were glad for any contribution of clothing.
The Omaha delegation’s nine-day visit to Shizuoka, Kyoto and Tokyo was full of warmth — personal and meteorological.
Accompanying the Omahans for the entire trip — including a final-night karaoke party — was Mary Kane of Washington, D.C., president and CEO of Sister Cities International. President Dwight Eisenhower, she said, would be proud of the citizen-to-citizen diplomacy that has resulted from his post-World War II creation of Sister Cities in 1955.
“If you think where we were with Japan and Germany 70 years ago,” Kane said, “Sister Cities has proven itself. Our job now is to reach out to other countries, especially countries in conflict.”
America and Japan fought the hugest of conflicts. The half-century, cozy relationship between Omaha and Shizuoka is all the more remarkable when one considers the night of June 19, 1945 — when the Japanese city was bombed by 123 B-29s, including one named the City of Omaha.
Masahiro Sone, 75, a former network correspondent and executive still active as a consultant, remembers that night.
“Our family ran away to the mountains,” he recalled. “My aunt and two of her children died.”
Sone-san and his wife of 49 years, Fumiko, hosted my wife, Barb, and me on a Saturday in Shizuoka. After visiting their 28th-floor home with a view of Mount Fuji, we joined them for a lovely sushi dinner at The Terrace, overlooking Suruga Bay, where a chef cut and served us eel, mackerel, tuna and other delights.
Sone good-naturedly advised: “Just pop it in your mouth all at once.”
We rode a gondola on a cable across a chasm to a Buddhist shrine near the sea, and then visited the couple’s second home, enjoying sweet persimmon from a tree in their tiny yard.
As a psychology major, Sone graduated from Waseda University in Tokyo before studying at the University of Michigan and MIT. He served as a Japanese TV correspondent in Washington, New York, London and Moscow and then rose to top management.
He and Fumi returned to Shizuoka in 1994 and remain active in the community of 700,000-plus. Many Japanese are grateful, he said, for America’s help after the war.
There’s much horror to remember, including Pearl Harbor, the Bataan Death March and the treatment of U.S. prisoners. The U.S. bombed cities relentlessly in the summer of ’45 and then dropped two atomic bombs, which ended the war but remain controversial.
The June 19 bombings killed 2,000 in Shizuoka and destroyed two-thirds of the city’s structures. Two planes collided, killing 23 Americans. On the Saturday closest to the anniversary each year, people from both countries commemorate the fateful day.
“War is war,” Sone said. “Japanese forget very quickly and face new things. After the war, America was the best friend of Japan.”
From the time we left our home in Omaha until we checked into our hotel in Shizuoka, 24 hours passed — including 12 in the air from Minneapolis to Tokyo-Narita airport. In other words, you have to want to get there.
To reach our destination, we rode the Shinkansen, the bullet train, which can reach 150 to 200 mph and in 51 years has never had a fatality.
With the time change to the other side of the world, our Tuesday morning departure on Oct. 27 got us to Shizuoka on Wednesday evening. Exhausted, we smiled when middle school Girl Scouts, other citizens and Mayor Nobuhiro Tanabe greeted us at the train station with applause and a sign: “Welcome to Shizuoka.”
The next morning, our delegation entered City Hall to clapping by city staffers. With Festersen at his side, Mayor Tanabe filled in the other eye on the face of a papier-mâché daruma, signifying completion of the 50th anniversary exchange.
About 100 Shizuokans, including Tanabe, had visited Omaha in September. That’s when Mayor Jean Stothert filled in the first eye.
At Shizuoka’s Nihondaira Zoo, which has exchanged animals over the years with Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, Omaha presented a 6-foot, 900-pound ceramic Tanuki. A raccoon dog in Japanese folklore, it was sculpted by Japanese-born Jun Kaneko of Omaha.
Thanking Shizuokans at the zoo for the warm civic welcome everywhere we went, Festersen quipped: “I’m not used to hearing applause when I walk into City Hall.”
After a visit to the wood-walled chamber of the City Council — 48 elected members, while Omaha has seven — Omahans enjoyed a Japanese garden at Sumpu Park.
At a public high school, college-bound students in uniforms arrive by bicycle, not cars. Omahans sat with small groups of four or five teens practicing English on us.
We saw extracurricular activities for students such as music, archery, basketball, the martial art Kendo — and cleaning the school.
At an assembly, Richard Barea of Omaha, an elder in the Omaha Tribe, dressed in colorful regalia that included bells and 60 eagle feathers. He asked for a student volunteer to join him onstage, finally coaxing one with, “Who’s the class clown?”
With two students and two teachers (one wearing an Omaha Storm Chasers baseball jacket), Rich bent over at the waist, dancing to the rhythm of tribal music. “This is real simple,” he said with a smile. “Even teachers can learn it.”
A 67-year-old Vietnam veteran and former City of Omaha housing inspector, Rich turned serious in thanking the Japanese for their hospitality. He apologized for tearing up, explaining to the Japanese students: “I’m from the Omaha people. When I hear you speak, it sounds like my people speaking.”
But the Omaha language is dying. Only about a dozen people, he said, speak it fluently.
At the Daidogei Festival in Shizuoka, with jugglers, stilt-walkers and other street performers, the 16-member University of Nebraska at Omaha Jazz Ensemble dazzled.
A paid audience of about 500 applauded vigorously. Among the musical pieces was one written for this trip by professor Darren Pettit, “In the Shadow of Mount Fuji.”
The ensemble, led by professor Pete Madsen, later traveled to China.
In and around Kyoto, Omahans saw numerous Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. At one, deer roamed freely in a park.
About 1 percent of Japan’s population is Christian. By the time we reached Tokyo and the upscale Ginza shopping district, we saw red-and-green signs for the coming holidays: “Merry Christmas Ginza!”
With 127 million people in a nation the size of California, including 13 million in Tokyo, quarters are tight. The cities are clean, and mass transit is excellent, but stations swarm with people at rush hour. Taxi doors automatically extend outward when a driver stops for you, and you can’t get out until you pay.
Omahans gained a greater appreciation for our personal space. In the three cities we visited, we didn’t see a lawn. Some nice parks, but not grass that people mow at home.
The Omaha Sister Cities Association is a nonprofit group and receives no tax money, operating on donations.
George Behringer, chairman of the 50th anniversary celebration, said travelers in the Omaha delegation paid their own way. (That includes my wife and me, taking vacation.)
The association has focused on cultural and student exchanges, but Behringer said hopes are to become more involved in economic development.
Kane, the Sister Cities CEO, said a number of cities are doing that, including Hot Springs, Arkansas. Through its sister-city ties, she said, it is developing a new local industry — production of sake.
The bullet train was built for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, and now the capital city is gearing up for the 2020 Olympics.
At a reception at the Marubeni Corp., which owns the grain-trading company Gavilon in Omaha, we were told that the 16-story Tokyo headquarters would soon be demolished and replaced with a 22-story structure in time for the Olympics.
We departed Narita airport at 5:40 p.m. Friday. With a 15-hour time difference, we arrived in Omaha at 5 p.m. Friday — meaning we got to Omaha before we left Japan. That’s makeup for the day we lost going over.
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