The sister cities program was created in the United States in 1956 in order to foster international understanding, and Visalia, California, has been involved with the initiative for nearly that entire time. Since 1966, Visalia has been sister cities with Miki, Japan. In the last few decades, however, neither city was doing as much as they once had to strengthen that tie.
“The idea is to have ongoing cultural exchanges, and that wasn’t happening,” Mayor E. Warren Gubler of Visalia explained. “One of my goals when I became mayor was to kind of rejuvenate that sister city relationship.”
A member of the Visalia 6th Ward, Mayor Gubler is singularly suited to the job of strengthening his city’s ties with Miki, Japan, in a way that no mayor of Visalia before him was: he speaks Japanese.
“I served an LDS mission to Japan and Okinawa,” Mayor Gubler said, explaining that he’d had an easier time refreshing his language skills than he expected. “It was much more fun to relearn Japanese than it was learning it the first time around!”
But just as important as knowing the language was knowing the people of Japan.
“As a missionary you get to not only learn the language and teach the gospel but you also get to learn about their social mores,” Mayor Gubler said. “You get to know their sense of humor, you get to know what they like to eat, you learn how to not offend them and you learn how to live in their society.”
Not coincidentally, this kind of understanding and compassion is what the sister city program is all about.
“The idea is just to promote better understanding between the two countries,” Mayor Gubler explained. “We have more in common than we have differences.”
Learning to empathize with people from another nation is crucial, he continued, in a world environment where distrust is so prevalent. “If we had more of these types of interchanges with our local communities and communities in other countries, I think there’d be a lot more trust and love to go around.”
In various public offices, including mayor and vice mayor, Mayor Gubler has tried to use his history with Japan to reach out more frequently to Visalia’s sister city. The people of Miki seem to share this desire for improved unity and understanding. In a blog post describing Visalian delegates’ visit to Miki last November, Mayor Gubler described the enthusiasm that the residents of their sister city showed: “We felt like celebrities,” Mayor Gubler said, recounting how the city staff and employees of Miki had “lined up and applauded” as the Visalia delegation arrived at Miki’s city hall.
Visalia wasn’t only on the receiving end of this hospitality. Mayor Gubler and his fellow delegates repaid the favor in April of this year, when a delegation from Miki came to California to celebrate the dedication of Visalia’s new “Miki Park.” A symbol of the renewed connection between the two cities, the new park incorporates many traditional Japanese elements in its design and landscaping, including a sakura (cherry blossom) tree, planted there to symbolize the growing friendship between the cities. “Through exchanges of ideas and visits between our people, we are doing our small part to promote friendship, peace and understanding,” Mayor Gubler said. “It’s all about developing friendships.”
And with friendships come chances for missionary work, as well. Mayor Gubler said one of the highlights of this whole experience of reconnecting was going to the Latter-day Saint branch in Miki during his visit there. He and other Latter-day Saint delegates from Visalia went to the local branch for church meetings on Sunday — and they brought some of their new friends. “Our Japanese host families were kind enough to take us to the branch meeting, and a few of them came to church! So we had a chance to do a little bit of missionary work and give the missionaries some referrals too.”
During the branch’s testimony meeting, Mayor Gubler was also able to bear his testimony in the Japanese language for the first time since returning from his mission.
“It was like going back 40 years,” he said. “I was a little bit slow, but I think the members really appreciated that I was trying. [There was] just a sweet spirit in that meeting.”
The experience inspired Mayor Gubler. Though he wasn’t expecting it, he said he came out of the trip to Miki with an increased desire to serve as a senior missionary with his wife. “Sometimes when you’re a senior, you want to serve,” he said, “but it can be a daunting task.” Mayor Gubler’s positive experience relearning Japanese and revisiting the Church there helped him feel much more positive about serving another mission someday: “After we went to that branch meeting I got pretty excited,” he recalled. “I was ready to turn my papers in!”
For the meantime, though, Mayor Gubler hopes to use his position as mayor to strengthen his city’s connection with their other sister city: Putignano, Italy. “However, I don’t speak Italian — yet,” he quipped.
Mayor Gubler hopes the example of the people from these cities will inspire others to reach out and be more charitable towards their own neighbors, whether they’re next door or across an entire ocean.