Oakland Fukuoka Sister City Association marking 60th anniversary
By Lou Fancher
Impressive facts and figures describe the Oakland Fukuoka Sister City Association’s history, but the astonishing poetry of human lives and complex social connectivity between American and Japanese culture best explain its longevity.
Marking the 60th anniversary of the relationship between Oakland and Fukuoka, the capital city of Fukuoka Prefecture on the northern shore of Japan’s Kyushu Island, the association has embarked on a commemorative, public art mosaic mural project. Embracing a thematic message, “Compassion, Peace and Community,” the mural will be installed in The Gardens at Lake Merritt in August.
The story of friendship and compassion told in the Oakland Fukuoka Sister City Association mosaic mural’s design, above, arrives in bright sunlight illuminating a black-crowned night heron carrying an oak tree branch with an acorn. (photo courtesy of Rachel Rodi & Guy Fuerte) Oakland Fukuoka Sister City Association (OFSCA) mural project coordinator and board member JJ Kotler says the board chose Bay Area artists Rachel Rodi and Guy Fuerte of Rachel Rodi Mosaics to design the mural. Oakland woodworking artist Jay van Arsdale will create the large framework into which the artwork, featuring stones gathered by the local community and tiles contributed by members of the organization, will be placed.
The story of friendship and compassion told in the mural arrives in bright sunlight illuminating a black-crowned night heron carrying an oak tree branch with an acorn. The heron is accompanied from Oakland by a Japanese bush warbler and together, they approach a second warbler perched on a plum blossom tree with their gift. Below the three birds, gentle blue-green water waves undulate.
“A mosaic is a poem with deep symbolism,” says Kotler. “Each part, broken, is unique. But also when you put it together, it embraces difference and unity at once. We solicited input by creating a committee to talk about our message.
“We invited people in Japan to participate virtually and had local youth and board members join in deep thinking about the symbols of the mural. We did live drawings with the artists so we were creating the artwork together. All along, we’ve been thinking about who we could include—from the art design to pebble collection that has happened in Fukuoka and in Oakland.”
The OFSCA partnered with the East Bay Regional Park District and received permission to collect pebbles during a tour led by regional park naturalists.
“We were at Roberts Regional Park with youths, and those pebbles are with the artist right now,” Kotler said. “The pebbles will be in the mural’s water wave, with pebbles from Japan starting on one side and those from Oakland on the other. They will meet in the middle to represent our coming together.”
The OFSCA is a member of the California-Japan Sister Cities Network. Members come from the Oakland hills and flatlands, Berkeley, Alameda, Orinda, Walnut Creek, Lafayette and Castro Valley. The association is one of the oldest sister city relationships in Oakland and was in part formed by Frank Ogawa, Oakland’s first Asian councilmember.
OFSCA programs include high school student and adult exchanges, the multi-international Asian-Pacific Children’s Convention, local festivals, Japanese-American cultural presentations, virtual events such as cooking classes and youth summits, holiday celebrations and more. A joint project with the city of Oakland had the Torii Gate at Lake Merritt rebuilt by Japanese craftsman Hiroshi Sakaguchi. Later, Japanese stone lanterns were added and gravel paths are maintained by youth participants.
The association’s board President Gary Tominaga has volunteered with OFSCA for 15 years.
“I got involved as a chaperone because of the pricelessly positive high school exchange program experiences for our grown children, Alison and Grant, and the inspiring, shining examples of legendary, longtime OFSCA members,” he said.
Tominaga traveled in 1970 as a Boy Scout to Japan and says staying in a home with a Japanese family is most significant for youth.
“My children shared in the joys and commonalities and even the differences while staying with a family. It set my daughter on course in what is now her work in diversity. She had a more global view while growing up. Grant benefited because he is aspiring to be a doctor, speaks better Japanese than I do, and as part of his training he worked in Asia delivering babies. He’ll be a better doctor because he’s seen impoverished people in other countries such as Japan and Mexico.”
In Tominaga’s family history are also stories of pain and isolation.
“My paternal grandparents and my father were imprisoned in Topaz concentration camp. My mother was interned in the Gila River camp in Arizona. I, like most third-generation Japanese Americans, was raised to be American first. I didn’t learn my history until I was in college. It’s like recovering my culture as I learn the language and meet my Kyushu ancestors in Japan.”
Tominaga is proud of his family members who have served in the U.S. military but says all Americans regardless of their ancestry should learn about world cultures.
“I think then we’d have understanding in the world instead of what is happening now. We were taught during the McCarthy era that we should not speak our language. It’s what happened, and we don’t need to be ashamed or feel we’re caught without a country. … We have paid our dues.”
During the pandemic, the actual summer exchange program was canceled in 2020 and forced on continued hiatus to offer only a virtual program in 2021. Bilingual guest speakers spoke with exchange students in both countries gathering on Zoom to hear about different careers in pharmacy, television media and other professions. Tominaga said this year’s program is still being planned, with a possible in-home component added.
“Kids get tired of Zoom, so we didn’t want to do more than that, but we didn’t want to just sit and feel sorry for ourselves either.”
Kotler was an exchange teacher in Fukuoka Prefecture and joined OFSCA upon returning to the East Bay in 2014.
“I had the pleasure of building relationships in Japan, and our mission is about people-to-people connections on a global scale,” Kotler said. “To my surprise, I discovered Oakland and Fukuoka were sister cities. It was serendipitous.”
She says the bustling port cities are distinctly similar.
“They have diversity in the local culture but also in terms of business,” she says.
“Fukuoka is a city of a vast population equal to combining all of the East Bay, but they don’t emulate other big cities in Japan. It’s often overlooked by tourists, and it should not be missed. It’s more genuine than touristy. Like Oakland, they don’t march to the anyone else’s drum.”