By Mike Novitizki It started with bells. Lots of them. Large ones forged in the 17th century with the precious metal valuables of the citizens from the Japanese villages where they were to reside. Each village had a temple, and each temple had a bell; and there they sat for centuries as prized possessions and sacred symbols of Japanese spirituality. >> The year is 1941. The Japanese Emperor has ordered the military to round up the temple bells from all cities, towns and municipalities to be melted down and scrapped into ammunition for the war. In modern day context, the citizens of these towns giving up their temple bells would be roughly equivalent to the citizens of Texas gladly forfeiting their hard earned tax dollars to back a healthcare program they didn’t want, out of love for a president they didn’t vote for (and you can imagine the sizeable dose of rock salt added to that proverbial wound when they didn’t even win), but one thing that must be noted about pre-WWII Japan is that it was a culture of reverence, the Emperor was god, and he wanted to win; so off the bells went to serve a new purpose as instruments of destruction, never to be seen again. >> The year is 1946. The war is over. Nagasaki and Hiroshima are gone—not in ruins—gone. The U.S.S Duluth sits in Yokosuka shipyard where the crew members are in high spirits; ready to get home and usher in the baby boomer generation. But not before they take a souvenir for their trouble. They could have taken anything, armfuls of whatever they could carry, but somehow collectively decided on the oddly shaped, thousand pound hunk of oxidized bronze sitting in the junkyard whose transportation required a crane. America: go big or go home. Or in this case…both. The oddly shaped hunk of oxidized bronze arrives in San Francisco shortly thereafter, and is transported by rail to the ship’s namesake Duluth, Minn., where it sits on the floor of city hall and becomes an oddly shaped hunk of oxidized bronze…that some Navy guys brought back from Japan. >> The year is 1951. A small group of Japanese educators from Chiba University in Tokyo are visiting Duluth. Upon their arrival at City Hall, one of the men by the name of Seki recognizes the oddly shaped hunk of oxidized bronze as being the sacred bell that was taken from his hometown of Ohara at the onset of WWII. The group asks Duluth Mayor George D. Johnson if they can have their bell back. He obliges. So some form of man power was called upon in some way to move the thousand pound bell back across the planet. That was that. >> It’s 1989. WWII has become a boring chapter in history textbooks across the nation. The two cities have made no contact for nearly 40 years; but the Sister Cities International program is in full swing and Duluth Mayor John Fedo receives a letter from Ohara requesting the formation of a sister city relationship. Sister Cities International is a nonprofit organization that takes a non-political approach to fostering understanding between cultures by doing it one small community at a time. A sister city is something that almost every community has, and almost no one knows about. A relationship can be based on just about any common ground one can fish for, like similar geography or a similar economy. Hell, some municipal leaders even go out in search of a sister cities just because they don’t have one yet; so most of the relationships are hardly more formal than that of two acquaintances who decided to become Facebook friends. John Fedo was less than excited about this and apparently had no intention of pursuing the idea. “This letter had been sitting on the mayor’s desk for quite some time,” says Frank Jewel, a Duluth City Councilor at the time, “I think more what would have happened is we just wouldn’t have replied.” But oddly, yet in some ways not so oddly, it just so happened that right around the same time, Frank Jewel had been planning a trip to visit his mother…in Japan. Since he was going there anyway, he was asked by the mayor to scope out the town and see if a sister city relationship would be a good idea. “I knew Ohara was small rural community with almost no similarities to Duluth,” says Jewel. “They’re really not connected to foreigners at all. No one goes there, so I didn’t know if it was going to work out.“ Much to Frank’s surprise, he arrives in Ohara to wine, women, and song. Apparently it was full out bash that had been thrown specifically for his arrival. He was merely a delegate visiting his mother. “We get there, and these people are excited,” he says, “The return of the bell was a huge deal to them, and we hadn’t felt any of that. I mean the bell sat on the floor for six years.” It’s like on TV or in the movies. Some guy goes to break up with his girlfriend and he gets to her house to learn that she just found out her mom has cancer, so he decides it would be a bad time. Frank is nothing short of blown away by the hospitality. “When I got back, I was really excited about this,” said Jewel, “about the story, about the people, about the relationship.” Upon his arrival back in the states, Frank met with the Duluth sister city commission. By the fall of 1990, the relationship had officially been formed. The city of Ohara forged an exact replica of the original bell and presented it to the city of Duluth in 1993. It was named the Peace Bell. It sits in a shoro in Enger Park and is positioned so whoever rings it is facing Japan. Enough talk about world peace already. Why can’t we all just get along? Because we can’t…there is no other reason. Olympics or no Olympics—liberal black president or conservative white president—it makes no difference. Human beings cannot be forced into healthy relationships. The G20 Summit was a flop; the United Nations: a bickering joke with an atmosphere probably similar to that of a kindergarten classroom. In the discussion of international relations, the media love to talk about the withering U.S./China relationship, or the volatile U.S./Russia relationship. If I may ask, who is this Mr. U.S. and why doesn’t he get along with anyone? I am not the U.S. I just reside here. I am not at odds with citizens of other cultures just because a few headstrong statesmen would rather stare each other down than swallow their pride and agree on something, nor do I all of the sudden become more accepting of other cultures when a bunch of diplomats I’ve never met decide to form a peace treaty. In other words, the rivalry ain’t over just because the referee forced you to shake hands after the game. So how do we reconcile differences? This story provides an ideal and totally unique look into the evolving bonds between human beings. Paul Creager is a man whose research into this story makes my efforts seem rather insignificant…pathetic even. He is the creator of a documentary called Resonance, which tells the story of not only the Peace Bell, but all other known Japanese temple bells that survived the meltdown and made their way to the U.S. and back. He spoke with roughly 100 of the original members of the U.S.S.Duluth. “Only about four or five of them even knew what I was talking about,” said Creager, “plus there was a lot of animosity toward the Japanese, and you have to remember they were eighteen years old. Nobody really wanted to…you know.” Creager went on to explain that when he investigated the Japanese side of things, he found that they were “extremely moved” by this peace gesture that most Americans didn’t even know they had made and had seen it as an attempt resurrect a relationship that had been split along with the atom. “We have a pretty good relationship with Japan right now,” said Creager, “You know, a lot of Americans have an interest in Japanese culture, and that might not happen with Iraq or Afghanistan, because there is no special connection. Sometimes you have to throw out the politics and sit down for a beer. Not governments…people.”
Below is a picture slideshow of the Peace Bell that sits at Enger Park in Duluth.
Map of where Ohara, Japan is located
View O'Hara in a larger map