COLUMBIA — The images of damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan have been broadcast across the world. More than 10,000 lives have been lost, according to the International Business Times, and that number is expected to continue growing with more than 17,000 reported missing.
More than 6,300 miles separate Columbia from Japan, but for some Columbia residents, the city is more closely tied to the region and what it is experiencing through its sister city, Hakusan, Japan.
Hakusan is on the west coast of Japan, removed from both the epicenter of the earthquake and most of the damage the country has experienced. Although no structural damage or deaths have been reported so far, Hakusan has still felt the indirect effects of the earthquake.
"The morning after the earthquake, I immediately emailed my contact in Hakusan city," said Renee Graham, who keeps in touch with Hakusan on Columbia's behalf. "Some of the rolling brownouts were affecting the city, but they have been very brave and have a sense that they will recover from this."
"They have expressed a great deal of appreciation for the support that they’ve been receiving from countries all around the world," she said.
In the past, Columbia's relationship with Hakusan was facilitated by an exchange program between Columbia Public School students and Japanese students. Every other year, students taught by Japanese instructor Yoko Smith would go to Hakusan to stay with a family there, and in the alternate year, Japanese students would come to Columbia.
"Students would homestay for 10 days," Smith said. "Staying with Japanese families was the best way for them to see the real Japan. It’s quite different from staying in a hotel."
But since the 2008 recession, the program has been on recess because of budget cuts, Graham said.
Smith was born in Fukuoka, Japan, but has been teaching in Columbia since 1991. Although the exchange program with Hakusan has not been kept up, Smith has not ended her relationship with the city or its people.
"Fortunately, they weren’t really affected by the earthquake and tsunami," Smith said. "I just talked to the city yesterday, and they were doing fine. I’m sure the Hakusan City people are doing a lot of donating and opening their homes."
Since the program has been on hiatus, Columbia has had to look for other ways to facilitate contact between the two cities.
"That exchange program was really our strong suit, and in fact, that was one of the reasons why we’ve been sort of looking for other opportunities for points of contact," Graham said.
Another link between the cities is the cherry grove in Columbia's Cosmopolitan Park, whose saplings were donated to the city by the mayor of Hakusan.
"Every few years, the cherry trees have to be replenished," Graham said. "My hope is to work with Columbia Public Schools and find some of the local students who went on exchange trips to Hakusan and to see if they will come help plant that tree."
Mitsuo Kado was the longtime mayor of Hakusan who helped strengthen the bond between the cities, Graham said.
When Kado died suddenly this past November, Columbia Mayor Bob McDavid sent the city of Hakusan a letter expressing his condolences and wrote:
"As our citizens come to enjoy the peace and beauty of the cherry blossom grove at our largest park they will read of Mayor Kado's dedication and service. They will learn that 460 students participated in nine middle school and junior high exchange programs between Columbia and Hakusan. And they will know that Mayor Kado was instrumental in the maintaining the deep abiding friendship between our communities."
Hakusan is one of Columbia's five sister cities, three of which are in southeast Asia:
- Hakusan, Japan.
- Suncheon, South Korea.
- Qingdao, China.
- Sibiu, Romania.
- Kutaisi, Georgia.