Background of St. Louis Ishinomaki Friendship Program

What are the St. Louis-Ishinomaki Friendship Program and the  TOMODACHI Initiative?

In the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, the US-Japan Council ( and the US Embassy in Tokyo partnered to create the TOMODACHI Initiative  ( to support Japan’s recovery. The U.S.-Japan Council is an educational non-profit organization dedicated to promoting people-to-people connections as crucial to a strong U.S.-Japan relationship. The Council brings together diverse leadership, engages stakeholders in the bilateral relationship and explores issues that benefit communities, businesses and government entities on both sides of the Pacific.

Among their efforts, TOMODACHI and the National Association of Japan America Societies (NAJAS) established the NAJAS/TOMODACHI Grassroots Exchange Program in order to invest in the next generation of Japanese and American people and deepen relations between the two countries through grassroots level, people-to-people exchanges. The St. Louis-Ishinomaki Friendship Program is the name of this NAJAS/TOMODACHI Grassroots Exchange Program as conducted by the JAS-St. Louis.

How did the Japan America Society of St. Louis receive this grant?

Immediately after the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, the American people generously donated funds toward relief and recovery. Japan America Societies in the U.S. alone raised and donated more than $24 million. Thanks to the generosity of its members, the Japan-America Society of St. Louis itself contributed $13,217.01. But, more than money, we undertook several further initiatives:

  • In February 2012, JAS-St. Louis held a lecture with Mr. Edson Kodama, Secretary General of the Junior Chamber International (JCI), which has helped coordinate disaster recovery through JCI Operation Hope in different parts of the world, including the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku. He presented slides and photos from his visits to Tohoku.
  • In August 2012, two members of the Japan America Society of St. Louis (Chikako Usui and Richard Colignon) visited Ishinomaki, Japan – one of the areas hardest-hit by the earthquake and tsunami. They arranged the tour of Ishinomaki with their friends from Tokyo and coordinated it with Lion’s Club Ishinomaki. Upon their return, JAS-St. Louis published a special edition of JAPAN NOTES, Tohoku after 500+ Days. It featured three articles written by three individuals/groups from St. Louis who traveled to see the affected areas in summer 2012. JAS-St. Louis also prepared a Japanese version of the publication and circulated it among the friends of JAS-St. Louis in Japan.
  • Immediately following the publication of JAPAN NOTES, NAJAS announced the NAJAS/TOMODACHI Grassroots Exchange program involving youths from the Tohoku region. In October 2012, having toured the Tohoku area, made contacts there, and published Tohoku after 500+ Days, Chikako Usui submitted a grant proposal to NAJAS/TOMODACHI. JAS-St. Louis was awarded a $30,000 grant for 2013 to welcome Japanese students from Ishinomkai to St. Louis, and an additional grant for 2014 to take 7 American students from St. Louis to Ishinomaki on a reciprocal trip.

The 2013 and 2014 exchange programs were such resounding successes that JAS-St. Louis has again received a grant to welcome 6 more students from Ishinomaki to St. Louis in 2015, and hopes to make another reciprocal trip to Ishinomaki in 2016.

What do students do in the program? What actually happens on the exchange?

In 2013 – the first year of the grant, JAS-St. Louis welcomed 5 students and 3 adults from Ishinomaki, Japan to St. Louis during the Missouri Botanical Garden’s annual Japanese Festival. These visitors participated daily in various activities and events of the festival, including a kimono fashion show, a Bon Odori dance, a dashi procession, Japanese cooking demonstrations, panel discussions, and much more. Outside of the festival, the Japanese visitors were able to take in many of St. Louis’s popular attractions, including the highly acclaimed St. Louis Zoo, The Gateway Arch, and a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game. The students were even able to throw out an opening pitch. In addition, the visitors each stayed with host families, strengthening relationships between the US and Japan at a grassroots level.

In 2014, JAS-St. Louis completed the reciprocal visit of 7 American students (plus chaperones) to Japan. These remarkable young people traveled first to Tokyo, where they stayed in the old Olympic village athletic complex. Then, they traveled to Ishinomaki to learn about the devastation faced by residents there from the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. Staying in temporary housing provided by the Lion’s Club, the students experienced both the spare accommodations and the overwhelming generosity of volunteers. Daily, they made excursions to specific locations impacted by the disaster: destroyed schools, a temple that offered sanctuary, a young volunteer working to rebuild her community, a fishing family rebounding from the destruction of their livelihood, a fish market working to ensure the safety of the food supply, the mayor of Ishinomaki responsible for guiding the way forward, and much  more. The Japanese students who had visited St. Louis the year before joined the American visitors daily, and together they participated in a Japanese street festival, complete with Bon Odori dancing. These students were truly able to appreciate both the challenge facing the people of Ishinomaki and their perseverance, determination, and friendship. Toward the end of their visit, the students traveled to Sendai, where they stayed with a host family for two nights and experienced daily Japanese life and culture, and forged still more friendships.

In 2015, JAS-St. Louis will again bring 8 Japanese to St. Louis for one week from September 1 to September 9, 2015.  The Japanese visitors include six (6) students ages 13-18 and two (2) adults who have assisted the recovery efforts of Ishinomaki as volunteers.  During their one week visit to St. Louis, the Japanese visitors will stay with American host families and participate in the Japanese Festival at the Missouri Botanical Gardens (MBG) over the Labor Day weekend holiday. This annual festival attracts 35,000-45,000 visitors and is one of the oldest and largest Japanese festivals in the U.S.  The Japanese Garden opened to the public in 1976 and it is the largest Japanese garden in North America.

In 2016, we hope to repeat the trip we made in 2014 by taking a group of young Americans from St. Louis to Ishinomaki.