Spotlight takes a look at cities and towns in Japan that promote cultural exchange with the rest of the world.
Ahead of next summer’s Olympic and Paralympic Games, nearly 500 cities and towns in Japan have formed or strengthened ties with other parts of the world. Although the Games have been postponed to 2021, the organizers were keen to continue their exchange programs, including the Host City initiative.
“Life is changing… I am living a new world”
Maebashi is one of hundreds of local governments in Japan showing this kind of international solidarity. While some Host Towns hold cultural or economic exchanges, this city has welcomed South Sudanese athletes who are unable to train in their hometowns due to conflict or lack of facilities.
“South Sudan finds itself in a difficult situation… We thought that the city of Maebashi could make a contribution in terms of sports, so we brought the athletes here,” said Kazuhiko Kuwabara, Director of the Sports Unit at Maebashi’s municipal office.
“We are looking forward to the Olympics. Of course we will encourage Japanese athletes, but I think the pleasure will be doubled as we can encourage South Sudanese athletes as well.”
Young Sudanese athletes have been training here since last November. Despite the postponement of the Olympics, their stay was welcomed, all financed by donations from Japanese citizens.
Sudanese Athlete Kutjang Michael Machiek Ting said, “It’s life changing. I train under very difficult conditions… so it’s a new world, I’m experiencing a lot of things, it’s a bit of an interesting time for me.”
Many Maebashi residents, such as Coach Hiroshi Yoshino, offer assistance.
“I had just finished my job as a teacher, so I agreed to help South Sudanese athletes.”
Shohei Sato, Director of the South Sudan Support Committee, says locals are doing their best to make the athletes feel at home.
We designed these t-shirts so that South Sudanese athletes living in Maebashi do not feel lonely and sad and feel the support of the whole community.”
Yamada Machi was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. As a way of thanking the world – especially from the Netherlands – for the help it has received, it has been dubbed the “Arigato Host Town in Support of Reconstruction”. Recently, the town has hosted Dutch karate athletes.
“We wanted to express our gratitude for the support we received from all over the world through the Host Towns and thus create a connection… Many people helped us build the Oranda Jima House… The idea was to create an after-school club for children. It’s for kids to get an education,” says Shinitsu Sato, Yamada’s mayor.
As seen during the last Rugby World Cup, residents of Yamada use the Games as an opportunity to share Japan’s unique hospitality with visitors. One way this is done is with the traditional “omotenashi” tea ceremony. It is seen as the embodiment of the ancient Japanese tradition of welcoming, where the host takes care of the guest’s needs.
“We purify ourselves by chasing inconsistent thoughts to become a person who senses what guests are thinking or perceives the difficulties they are going through,” said Sohen Yamada, Grand Master of Sohen Tea School.