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First post-COVID reunion celebrates 60 years of goodwill, friendship through B-N Japanese Sister Cities program

Darren Sampson calls Norohiro Sagai his “brother from another mother” because he spent part of a year living with him and his family in Bloomington-Normal’s sister city of Asahikawa, Japan. It is a city of nearly 356,000 on the northern Island of Hokkaido, surrounded by mountains and traversed by 130 rivers and streams.

Sampson was 17 and Sagai was just 6 years old in 1984 when Sampson decided to be part of a year-long exchange program. Sagai recalls thinking that Sampson was tall, blond, and funny. Six years later, Sampson’s sister Jana, who now lives in San Francisco, followed her brother into the exchange program and lived part of the time with Sagai’s family.

Darren Sampson, Norohiro Sugai and exchange student Jana Sampson
Colleen Reynolds
1984 exchange student and Sister City Committee chair Darren Sampson, host brother Norohiro Sugai and 1991 exchange student Jana Sampson, Darren's sister.

Jana Sampson recalls eating snails directly off a rock with Sagai’s dad as they spent time along the sea of Japan. It was 1991. She felt like one of the family and Sampson said it eased feelings of being homesick.

“This was before cells phones. This was before the internet. This was before any kind of easy communication where you could quickly access home," she said.

Darren Sampson said it was great to be in a house with four children, including Norohiro’ s older brother who was about his age. He said there was always a lot to do, exploring nature or going into the city center for excursions to the zoo or sporting events.

Sampson said the bonds formed as children are cemented in lifelong friendships. He has seen “Nori,” as the siblings call him, three times in the last five years.

“The last time I was there (Asahikawa) was 39 years ago, but it’s like it was yesterday every time I see him,” Sampson said as his voice cracks a bit with emotion. “The connections to Asahikawa remain strong and I know for my sister Jana and I, they’re held so dear because it was such an influential part of our lives.”

celebratory toast
Colleen Reynolds
Lunch kicks off with a celebratory toast with ice teas during the Bloomington-Normal Asahikawa Sister Cities 60th anniversary visit.

Sampson is happy the program is restarting after three years in low gear, with no exchanges during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said it’s important to keep the Sister Cities program going because it offers a unique experience that allows students the opportunity to overcome their fears so they can see the world through a different lens.

“It’s a program that gives student after student, year after year, the opportunity to explore; learn about themselves in an environment … test themselves, grow and become a positive contribution in the world because now all of a sudden, the world has become a much smaller place.”

For many students and hosts, Sampson said, they feel as though they’ve added new members to their family.

“Basically, everyone we met, every parent we had over there becomes special … becomes family, so it’s about the people mostly," he said.

Nori Sagai said he was forever changed by the lessons he learned from his American siblings. What did he learn?

“To enjoy life. That’s one thing. To not be scared because Japanese people tend to be too passive, too polite. American people have more straightforward personalities so that might be something I learned from them," he said.

Bloomington High School grad Mary Cushing Resch, now of Springfield, was the second exchange student to go to Asahikawa at age 17 for what she called a life-changing experience. She first met her Japanese “sister” when Chizuka Nakata arrived at BHS in 1969, and Mary’s teacher paired her with the new exchange student to provide support.

Nakata eventually convinced Resch to become an exchange student to Asahikawa. The time spent together solidified a 54-year friendship, fostered over the years by trips, letters, social media, plus regular text and photo exchanges.

“I think it says a lot that we’ve both put forward the effort to stay close,” Resch said.

Nakata said she remains impressed with “Mary’s big heart” and shared that her own daughter proclaimed recently, “I want to be like Mary!”

Resch said exchange programs, like the Sister City initiative help individuals overcome their fear of other cultures and she paraphrases Mark Twain’s sentiment that travel is an antidote for bigotry.

“If you travel around, you’re just going to see that people are people and you don’t need to be afraid of them because they look different, or they talk differently, or they eat different things," said Resch, adding she also believes citizen exchanges can promote peaceful coexistence on a global scale.

“If there’s any hope for peace in this world, it’s just that. You have to accept everyone and give people a chance.”

Delegations of local leaders from Bloomington-Normal and Asahikawa have alternated visits to each other’s countries every five years to continue the sister city relationship. It was 1962 when former Bloomington Mayor Judy Markowitz, who was at the time a teacher in Naganoshi, Japan, became Bloomington’s first “emissary of good will” to Asahikawa. The sister city program later expanded to include Normal.

Student exchanges resume

The student exchanges resume in the fall for the first time since the delay that began with the COVID-19 pandemic. A two-week summer student ambassador program is still on hold until next year because of difficulty finding Japanese hosts in a country that came off pandemic restrictions more recently than in the U.S.

At a welcoming ceremony and lunch on Sunday, Normal Mayor Chris Koos pointed out the relationships built through the sister city program bring value beyond simply sharing and understanding cultures. He said it gave the community a reputation that helped land the Mitsubishi Motors plant, now the site of Rivian Automotive.

“They understood us to be a very welcoming community and they knew the Japanese workers who would come here would be welcome and safe,” he shared.

The lunch included an exchange of several gifts among leaders. Gifts serve an important function in Japanese culture — not only as a way to show appreciation, but as a way to strengthen and maintain relationships and show closeness or fondness.

Art, plaques, and goodie bags were gifted, but possibly the most impressive was Sister City Committee chair Darren Sampson receiving an International Good Will Award for elevating international friendship. He also was bestowed with a special medal signifying his contribution to the Sister City program.

The delegation and former exchange students and host families are spending three days together, visiting local attractions such as Miller Park Zoo, Illinois State University, and the Rivian plant among other sites.

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Colleen has spent most of her adult life working the streets and beats of Bloomington-Normal for WJBC-AM where she won numerous reporting awards for hard news, feature writing, and breaking news coverage.
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