Sister cities, twin cities, city diplomacy ….the names may vary but they are all based on the premise of communities connecting world-wide. Whanganui is a player in this global game but really, what's it all about. Reporter John Maslin looks for some answers.

In a little over a month's time a delegation from Whanganui will visit Nagaizumi-cho in Japan, to celebrate 30 years of connection between the two cities.

We're no strangers to this sort of community bonding. In fact our first taste came in the 1973 when the city set up a link with Reno, the gambling capital of the state of Nevada in the USA. But this connection was more flirtatious than permanent (it was officially terminated a few years ago).

In 1983 the council connected with Toowoomba (Queensland) and a year later with Nagaizumi-cho, and it's this latter connection that has gained traction.

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But sister city relationships, while championed by some, can be dismissed by others or ignored altogether. Whatever, views can sometimes be polarising.

The majority of Whanganui folk have probably given little thought to the idea of relationships their city has forged with cities in foreign lands.

Analysis showed sister city relationships had produced 'no tangible economic gains' for Whanganui, a news item reported last year. Graphic / file
Analysis showed sister city relationships had produced 'no tangible economic gains' for Whanganui, a news item reported last year. Graphic / file

Yet while there have been visits and discussions and more visits, mostly involving the Japanese city, you could be forgiven for asking: "Show me the money" and proof of tangible economic outcomes from these relationships.

Late last year the council received a report which looked in depth at existing sister city relationships and how these could be built on. It said while cultural exchanges and official delegations had occurred, the council could not explicitly link these relationships "to tangible social and economic gains for the (Whanganui) district".

These gains included increased visitor numbers, investment in the region, more trade and "increased satisfaction" within the community. The report that said without these measures in place council could not draw sound conclusions as to whether it was getting value for money.

These sister city links come with a cost even if it's at the lower end. In Whanganui's case it has set aside about $12,000 a year and in some years it's been underspent. This year a little more has been added as the council is looking at a sister city link in China.

But the report highlights opportunities - some on the immediate horizon - to make tangible economic gains. These included raising Whanganui's profile in Japan during next year's Rugby World Cup and again when Japan hosts the 2020 Olympic Games. There will be a chance to raise these topics when the Whanganui delegation heads to Nagaizumi-cho in August to celebrate the 30th anniversary of this mutual contact.

Other initiatives from the report include exploring opportunities to export high quality foods such as honey, increasing the number of youth exchanges and attract tertiary students to Whanganui long term. Then there are opportunities around working with local iwi to attract investment from Nagaizumi-cho in high value food products.

Mayor in 2015 Annette Main met with Hideo Endo, Mayor of sister city Nagaizumi in Japan, to celebrate the tea house relocation at the Bason Botanic Gardens. Photo / File
Mayor in 2015 Annette Main met with Hideo Endo, Mayor of sister city Nagaizumi in Japan, to celebrate the tea house relocation at the Bason Botanic Gardens. Photo / File

Obviously there can be much more to sister city relationships than overseas trips and a lot of glad-handing.

Nagaizumi-cho is a city of comparable population on the south-eastern coast of Japan's main island. It's a bullet train-ride south of Tokyo and Mt Fuji is not too far north of it.

Our relationship with that city took a significant step in 1991 with the establishment of the Nagaizumi-cho Friendship Centre in Wanganui East. The centre was funded by Japan and had a manager appointed by the Nagaizumi-cho council.

A prime supporter was Japanese businessman, the late Tomonobu Nakamura. Since 1997 he and his wife Chizuko had made donations to the Wanganui Sister City Association to fund travel and expenses for Whanganui students, teachers and supporters to benefit from cultural and educational experiences in the Japanese city.

A number of delegations from Whanganui and Nagaizumi-cho have visited each other since the mayors of both cities signed a sister cities agreement in 1988. The last was four years ago when Mayor Annette Main and chief executive Kevin Ross visited.

A delegation from Nagaizumi-cho will visit Whanganui in January next year and will send a contingent to take part in the 30th anniversary of the NZ Masters Games to being staged here in February. And every year a number of students have come to Whanganui, visiting Whanganui Girls' College and Rutherford Junior High.

Most NZ communities have sister city ties. The sceptics will say these links are nothing more than window dressing and the time, effort and money keeping them active isn't worth it. But there is some research that tells a different story.

In 2003 a NZ Institute for Economic Research report on the economic benefits of sister city relationships found that businesses using sister city connections had delivered economic benefits locally. And these links created an easier pathway for businesses to make connections for new markets and products.

Around the world sister cities are sometimes called twin cities. More recently the term "city diplomacy" has been used. But don't assume this is something new.

The former Nagaizumi Friendship Centre in Wanganui East, which closed in 2014. Photo / file
The former Nagaizumi Friendship Centre in Wanganui East, which closed in 2014. Photo / file

The concept gained traction after World War 2, intended to foster friendship and understanding between different cultures and former foes as an act of peace and reconciliation, as well as encouraging trade and tourism.

So what about Nagaizumi-cho? It's recognised as a "bedroom community", meaning many of its residents live in Nagaizumi-cho but commute to work in other centres.

Large factories nearby are operated by corporates such as Toray Industries, the world's largest producer of carbon fibre, the Olympus Corporation (specialists in optical equipment) and pharmaceutical manufacturer Kyowa Hakko Kirin.

Mayor McDouall and Whanganui District Council's chief executive Kym Fell are part of a seven-strong official council delegation that includes Whanganui & Partners general manager Phillipe Ivory and NZ International Pilot Academy chief executive Phillip Bedford.

The generosity of Nagaizumi-cho hosts means the accommodation and internal travel costs of the council's seven representatives will be taken care of, with the council only needing to cover airfares.

Another eight delegates will travel to Japan on a self-funded basis. Among them are community members with ties to Nagaizumi-cho, including education providers and business leaders.

One of them is Jeff King, a former Rangitikei College deputy-principal who now who works for Talent Central in Palmerston North, creating pathways for students between school and industry. He's also a director of Kintal apps, a NCEA-focused software company he helped create.

King said he would use the trip to show off the software but as well as that going to Nagaizumi-cho was a personal journey. He spent his first two years as a teacher in the city, teaching English as a second language.

"I'm keen to show them what I've been doing over the last 20 years but also show them the sort of software applications that are available. It will be interesting because the Japanese education system hasn't changed for decades," he said.

Members of a Whanganui school contingent assemble in the Friendship Centre teahouse.They are (from Left) Liam Smith, Alex Clark, Sarah Hawkes, Natalie Mason and Leader Miriam Borrie. Photo / file
Members of a Whanganui school contingent assemble in the Friendship Centre teahouse.They are (from Left) Liam Smith, Alex Clark, Sarah Hawkes, Natalie Mason and Leader Miriam Borrie. Photo / file

Tania King, principal of Whanganui Girls' College, is another in the party.

Her college not only has a connection with Nagaizumi-cho but struck up a sister city relationship with a secondary school in Kobe 25 years ago.

"My visit is three-fold really. We've had students from Nagaizumi-cho stay at our hostel before and every year students from Kobe Yamate stay with us for about a week every March. I last visited that school two years ago.

"Thirdly, I'll be visiting some agents we have a connection with as well as a school who send a student to us every year in Tokyo," King said.

She'll not only be wearing her Girls' College hat but also another badge of office – she's on the board of Whanganui and Partners, the district council's economic arm.

She said having Japanese students here meant everyone benefited from "a great cultural experience" make life-long friends while improving their English.

"Many gain university entrance and go on to universities in New Zealand."
She said some of Girls' College pupils have gone to Japan but not specifically Nagaizumi-cho as their trip was organised by the Japanese Education Board.

"We would definitely consider sending a group overseas on a short or long-term arrangement if the interest was high enough," King said.

She hasn't been to Nagaizumi-cho before and was excited about the chance to developer closer education links between the cities.

"There are many benefits we can gain, the cultural experience which students from either city will gain, along with the language immersion, the sights and economic benefits."
McDouall said the linkage shouldn't be seen as just an economic pathway, although those opportunities must be considered. He said an important part of any sister city link was the cultural connections that shouldn't be blithely dismissed.

"I'm a supporter, although cautious about it. We shouldn't rush to every country waving a Whanganui flag and saying come and sign up with us. I think that depth of connection was shown when we broke off our relationship with Reno."

AS well as Nagaizumi-cho and Toowoomba, there is a lower level connection with Lisburn in Northern Ireland, birthplace of John Ballance. And the district council is pursuing other potential relationships with comparable cities in China but McDouall said that remains a "work in progress".

"When you look at the history of our link with Nagaizumi-cho there has been great benefits to Whanganui and probably less so to Nagaizumi-cho. We get a group of students from there every single year and that's been going on the best part of two decades.

He said while you can't point to any one business venture developing from the link "it does make it easier to communicate and ultimately do business".

He said having a link with a city in Japan, Australia or China certainly opened up opportunities for business to garner markets.

"I agree the formal relationship kicks things off and other stuff can come in behind. These things have to be shared equally; they can't exploitative favouring one or the other.

"Looking at the Chinese options, we're looking for a place that has similarities (with Whanganui) which might mean an ethnic mix, a river, boat-building or eco-tourism. We'd prefer a sister city that we could build business relationships with," he said.

McDouall said he remained passionate about retaining the Nagaizumi-cho connection: "Japan's the third or fourth largest economy in the world so you wouldn't to break a relationship like that? But sometimes it's not all about economics because if it was we'd simply sign a contract."

He said it was quite right that people should ask if the community was getting some bang for its buck with these connections "but considering the limited resource we earmark for the sister cities, I think we're doing pretty well".

"Economic development's a tough thing. You put a lot of money into it and there may be indicators that you're doing well, but sometimes you can't actually point and say 'because I went on this trip this is what we got'.

"But because they made the trip, the exposure to Whanganui products might have increased. It's because these links can and do make it easier to do business."