Visitors frequent Fukuoka's famous yatai, or food stalls. These riverside eateries serve some of the city's signature cuisine, including tonkotsu (pork) ramen, yakitori and oden hot pot.

This story is part of GlobalAtlanta’s exclusive Japan special issue. Click here to read more.

In the early 1990s, Fukuoka, Japan, had already had a U.S. sister city for three decades, but there was something missing.

The southwestern Japanese city, the commercial center of the island of Kyushu, wanted to add to its American family, but it didn’t want to drop its longstanding partnership with Oakland, Calif.

Japan’s then-Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu made a goodwill visit to the U.S. in 1990. He stopped in Atlanta, where he spoke about strengthening relationships to stem fears about Japan’s increasingly active role in the global economy. Then-Mayor Maynard Jackson decided that Atlanta should have a Japanese sister city and asked local organizations to help pick one. 

It was a natural move, considering that many other cities across the state had already forged similar alliances. The state was brimming with Japanese companies, already having attracted more than 300 during Japan’s overseas investment boom in the 1980s.

Local Japanese groups weighed a variety of cities, finally choosing Fukuoka. After consultation with Fukuoka’s government officials and industry leaders, the cities signed agreement to become partnership cities in 1994. The relationship was seen as less official than those validated by the governing body Sister Cities International, but it was all that could be done at the time, Sue Renfroe, a Fukuoka native, told GlobalAtlanta by telephone from her home in Senoia, Ga.

Sister Cities International didn’t allow cities to have two partnerships in the same country, said Ms. Renfroe, a retired employee of Panasonic‘s Peachtree City operation and the current chair of Fukuoka sister-city committee in Atlanta. It wasn’t until nearly a decade later that the rules were changed, allowing the addition of a second sister as long as the first approved.

“The process to upgrade to sister city was long and complicated, but it was well worth the efforts of all those who worked hard from both cities. Now Fukuoka enjoys more support and participation from both the city officials and citizens,” said Ms. Renfroe, who came to Georgia in 1978 with her husband, a retired U.S. military officer.

In 2005, the cities formally became family, with then-Mayor Shirley Franklin signing a proclamation with Fukuoka Mayor Hirotaro Yamazaki at the Atlanta City Hall. Ms. Franklin later traveled to the Japanese city to take part in a similar ceremony.

But beyond the will of politicians, what characteristics made their pairing logical?

Some of the reasons are obvious: Fukuoka and Atlanta are the capitals of their respective states and the economic drivers for their regions. They have high-tech, service-oriented industries and little heavy manufacturing within the city limits. Further back in their histories, they endured the scourge of war but have emerged as strong symbols of the regions they represent.

There were also more practical reasons, Shinji Nakagawa, executive director for international affairs, said during an interview at his office in Fukuoka.

Coca-Cola West Japan, which has its headquarters and an important bottling operation in Fukuoka, played a major role in kick-starting the partnership and helps sustain it by partially funding exchange programs, Mr. Nakagawa said.

Mr. Nakagawa also shared a fact that is well-known on the Japanese side but might surprise Americans who view Japan as a cold, northern country. Atlanta and Fukuoka share the same latitude: 33 degrees north.

Perhaps that’s why both are also having unseasonably cold winters this year. Atlanta just dug out from a historic snow storm, and the surfers who normally ply the winter waves off Fukuoka’s coastline are having to stay on shore. On Jan. 29, the last day of GlobalAtlanta’s visit, biting cold and snow flurries made it challenging to walk long distances around the city.

Possibly the cities’ largest area of common ground has to do with how both see themselves as crossroads for understanding among diverse groups. Fukuoka city business cards feature a map of Asia turned upside-down, placing the city squarely in the center of the region. As the crow flies, Fukuoka is just as close to Shanghai as it is to Tokyo.

For more than a millenium, Fukuoka has claimed to be Japan’s gateway to Asia. Though Japan’s history over the past 200 years has included self-imposed isolation and later, brutal colonization of its neighbors in Korea in China, Fukuoka touts archaeological proof that the city had positive relationships with neighboring countries as early as the eighth century.

One claim to fame is a golden seal found near Fukuoka bearing the inscription of a Chinese emperor. The city also had a guest house for Chinese diplomats.

In recent years, Fukuoka hasn’t launched specific programs to help Japan reconcile with its neighbors, but the city, just across the Sea of Japan from Busan, South Korea, is slowly helping mend resentment through people-to-people contact, Mr. Nakagawa said. Busan, just a three-hour ferry ride away, is Fukuoka’s most active sister-city relationship.

“These issues are impossible to solve within a short time, and they cannot be solved by politics,” he said. “By continuing exchanges, we can gradually improve the relationships with other countries. It is not, easy, not instant; it is the accumulation of daily interactions.”

Twenty years ago, the city launched the Fukuoka Prize, which is awarded in the grand prize, academic and arts and culture categories each year to individuals who foster understanding among Asian cultures. Micro-lending pioneer Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, received the honor from Fukuoka long before he became a Nobel laureate.

With Atlanta, student exchanges have taken center stage in the relationship, said Mr. Nakagawa.

“I want more young people to have exchanges between Fukuoka and Atlanta. I think it’s very important because the next generation of young people will play an important role in the future, so they will become a bridge between the two countries,” he said.

Seven Fukuoka students and two city officials will visit North Atlanta High School in March. In June, three Atlanta students will head to Fukuoka, and in July, four more elementary students will spend two weeks learning about the city while attending the Asian-Pacific Children’s Convention.

More than business, Mr. Nakagawa sees these exchanges as heart of the relationship, even after Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed makes good on his promise to launch a new international relations department this year.

That said, cultural links often eventually create business ties, he added.

“If people can understand the other countries, they will have more opportunities to create business,” Mr. Nakagawa said.

Allen Judd, one of four founders of the Japan-America Society of Georgia, said it’s hard to quantify the effect of friendships on business but that they have definitely played a role in Japan’s rise in Georgia.

He remembers in the 1970s, when then-Gov. George Busbee struck up a friendship with the president of the Bank of Tokyo, who was considering putting an office in Atlanta. Because of their strong relationship, Mr. Busbee was able to listen to his needs and push through new legislation to accommodate the bank, which maintains an office in Atlanta today.

That’s an example of how many relocation decisions become social decisions, all things being equal from an business standpoint, said Mr. Judd, managing director at Centric Capital Group

“When you get through the numbers and the economics of it, it really comes down to whether they like you or not,” he said. More than 400 Japanese companies now have operations in Georgia.

Fukuoka, a city of 1.4 million, and the surrounding Kyushu area, are home to many companies that also have Georgia presence, including TOTO, Murata Electronics, YKK Group, Kubota Corp. and many more.

For the full list of companies, relevant contacts and to learn more about Atlanta’s relationship with Fukuoka, visit


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