Sister Cities of Boston

By Alicia Deily

In an age in which cultural clashes constantly appear in the news, Boston is doing its part to promote peace through intercultural understanding. Boston is an active member of the Sister Cities Program, with eight Sister Cities sharing cultural, economic, diplomatic, and educational ties.

The cities are located on three continents: Asia, Europe, and Africa. Sister City relationships connect Boston with cities that range from well-known ones to cities that many Bostonians have never even heard of, and the newest Sister City relationship is with Sekondi-Tekoradi, Ghana. Under a tie established under Mayor Menino in 2001, this city of 100,000 people is Boston’s first Sister City in Africa.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower started the Sister City Program nationally in 1956 as a way to promote intercultural friendship and understanding, a simple way to initiate peace among nations. After the horrors of the World Wars, it is easy to see why Eisenhower saw the need for such collaboration. Today, the Sister Cities Program is just as necessary as it was in the 1950s, if not more so. Globalization is increasingly making the world more connected, and intercultural understanding is vital to peaceful interactions among people from different cultures.

Besides the obvious diplomatic advantages, there are also economic benefits to the Sister City relationship, on personal and business levels. Tourism can be initiated through events related to the program, while networking between business people and students from two cities can lead to expanded international business and trade. Because the program is not funded through taxes, it does not cost the public anything. The Sister Cities Program is nonprofit and independently funded through donations.

Over time, many American cities have lessened their ties with their international counterparts. However, Boston has worked to keep its Sister City relationships strong through the years. Here are some of the many ways that exchanges are carried out between Boston and two of its oldest Sister Cities: Kyoto, Japan and Strasbourg, France.

Kyoto, Japan
Kyoto became Boston’s first Sister City in 1959, and the Kyoto-Boston relationship is still one of the strongest Sister City relationships. Boston and Kyoto have a lot in common; like Boston, Kyoto is an educational hub in Japan, with thirty-seven universities. Both cities are also sites of many historically and culturally significant buildings. Kyoto is a UNESCO world heritage site, due to its large number of Buddhist temples and shrines. The Sister Cities Program sponsors many student, professional, and cultural exchanges. 

To celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Sister City relationship in 1979, Kyoto donated a Kyoto-style town house (Kyo-no-machiyato) to Boston’s Children Museum (BCM) as a gift of friendship that is still located inside the museum today. This is one of the most generous gifts ever given between Sister Cities. “BCM's audience is young and for many people, the Japanese House is their first experience with a foreign culture and/or with Japan. It is a joyous experience for them, which makes them want to learn more as they grow up,” says Leslie Swartz, Senior Vice President for Research and Program Planning at BCM.  The Japanese house is a great way for children to be exposed to a foreign culture, to be inspired with lifelong curiosity, and to develop open-mindedness to different ways of life. 

In early 2009, the Museum of Fine Arts celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Boston’s Sister City relationship with Kyoto by featuring contemporary works by four Kyoto artists working in prints, ceramics, and textiles.  The exhibit was titled Celebrating Kyoto: Modern Arts from Boston’s Sister City.

Baseball is another unifying factor for these two cities. In Kyoto, there is a bar named Fenway Park, with Red Sox-themed décor. The bar has Japanese owners and attracts many Japanese Red Sox fans. In August, Fenway Park celebrated the connection through “Japan Night,” which honored the Japanese Red Sox players, including Hideki Okajima, who is originally from Kyoto.

Strasbourg, France
Strasbourg and Boston became Sister Cities in 1960. The exchange was originally musical because the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra at that time, Charles Munch, was a Strasbourg native and initiated the exchange. Since then, the relationship has grown to include constant cultural exchanges. Strasbourg is said to be located at the cross-roads of Europe. It also contains several major political institutions, including the European Court of Human Rights. This makes it a major cultural and political center of Europe and an excellent Sister City for Boston.

The Boston-Strasbourg Sister Cities Association (BSSCA) runs many of the exchanges between the two cities. The Association has worked hard to run events and programs to keep the relationship alive and thriving. “Over the last fifty years, the BSSCA has entertained Strasbourg mayors, sponsored numerous student exchanges, sent Bostonians to the European Parliament, sent scientists to French laboratories and business students on  internships, and enabled bakers, firemen, community gardeners, artists, and  musicians to visit their sister city,” says Mary Louise Burke, President of the Boston/Strasbourg Sister City Association. The Association also sponsors many student exchanges at both the high school and the college levels.  Watch for a date to be announced for a tour and reception at the Museum of Fine Arts, showcasing art from Strasbourg.

Over the years, many people in Boston and abroad have been affected by the cultural exchanges that have occurred due to the Sister Cities Program. Teachers, students, professionals, and children have been able to learn about other cultures and grow as global citizens. The Japan House that Kyoto gave Boston is a perfect example of a tool that has been used to educate the general public about another culture. “Boston gave the house to BCM to take care of it and provide public programs in it that would help to promote understanding between our two cities, cultures, and countries,” says Leslie Swartz of the Boston Children’s Museum.  
Not only does the Sister Cities Program promote peace and understanding, but it also strengthens Boston’s reputation as a global city. Be sure to keep an eye out for future events celebrating Boston’s ties with these international cities:
Kyoto, Japan – 1959
Strasbourg, France- 1960
Barcelona, Spain- 1980
Hangzhou, China- 1982
Padua, Italy-1983
Melbourne, Australia-1985
Taipei, Taiwan- 1996
Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana- 2001

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