Sister City program survives pandemic

  • CLEMENT

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has put pause to the customary travel among sister cities, but Hawaii County and local organizations have found workarounds to keep the relationships alive until officials can return to the skies.

The County Council and Mayor Mitch Roth budget less than $20,000 for sister city relationships. But government travel budgets and outside donations usually fuel several trips annually for groups of officials pursuing improved relations between the Big Island and other nations.

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The County Council Committee on Governmental Operations, Relations and Economic Development heard an update Tuesday from Jane Clement, an executive assistant to Roth who serves as sister city protocol officer.

The program began in 1962 on the Big Island with its first sister city, Oshima, Japan, and has since blossomed to 11 relations, primarily in Japan, but also including two in the Philippines, one in Chile and one in France. Clement praised the local host organizations such as the Japanese Chamber of Commerce & Industry of Hawaii, Kiwanis Club and the Japanese Community Association.

“With every change of administration, they have been the constant presence that kept our relationships going,” Clement said.

The county received approval from Hawaii Airport District Manager Chauncey Wong Yuen to install a free-standing or a wall-mounted display case in the new federal inspection station at the Kona airport and in the departure lounge at the Hilo airport to showcase the county’s sister cities. The display will include curated items the county received from its sister cities as gifts and omiyage over the years and information about each of the sister cities. Students’ artwork from the sister city art exchange program may also be showcased.

The Roth administration, which took over when travel was almost at a standstill because of coronavirus, has turned to the digital universe to keep the relationships thriving. Virtual meetings have replaced in-person get-togethers and ceremonies such as a sister city virtual conference, themed “A Whole New World,” showcased mayoral messages and cultural performances from eight sister cities that premiered July 30 on Na Leo TV.

More recently, a virtual sister-city meeting on Zoom brought representatives from across the globe in a two-hour session across time zones. Several council members praised Clement for her enthusiasm for the program.

“Jane has done such a remarkable job under challenging circumstances,” said Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy.

Dwayne Mukai, president of the Japanese Community Association, also praised Clement and the Roth administration.

“”What the administration did was pretty amazing,” Mukai said. “They want to more put more emphasis on sister cities. In the past it was something that was there, but not a lot of emphasis.”

The mission of the sister city program is to promote friendship, goodwill and understanding between global communities by providing opportunities for the residents of Hawaii Island and their sister cities to experience different cultures through education, social and economic interaction.

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The Japanese Community Association, meanwhile, is planning to continue its student exchange program with Shibukawa, Japan, this year, if only virtually. The Japan contingent that customarily visits to participate in the Merrie Monarch Festival didn’t happen this year, but Mukai said he’s optimistic next year will be better.

“We’re maybe being overly optimistic,” Mukai said, “but we’re already planning events next year, COVID permitting.”

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