The Japanese city of Asahikawa recently bestowed an honor on Illinois State University’s Harriett Steinbach that officials usually reserve for visiting mayors and other dignitaries. In a formal ceremony, the city named Steinbach an International Goodwill Honorary Citizen.
Steinbach volunteered for more than eight years with the Bloomington-Normal Sister Cities program, which forges friendships with those living in Asahikawa. Though her duties included public relations and several board positions, it was an anniversary in 2012 that required the most of Steinbach’s expertise.
“The relationship between Bloomington and Asahikawa is one of the longest, continuous, sister cities relationships in the country,” said Steinbach. “Continuous is a key word there because there are some communities that have some stops and starts, but we have, since 1962, had this relationship.”
Though Bloomington and Normal—which also joined Sister Cities in 1980—mainly connect with Asahikawa through high school and junior ambassador exchange programs, every five years, a contingent of dignitaries and citizens visits its sister city. “Anniversaries that end in five, we go there. Anniversaries that end in 0, they come here,” said Steinbach, “That means every 10 years, we send a group to Japan for this big celebration. And every 10 years, they send a group here.” In 2012, the 50th anniversary celebration fell on Steinbach’s watch.
“Honestly, I feel like everything I’ve done in my positions at ISU trained me to take on the 50th anniversary, and welcome the Asahikawa delegation,” said Steinbach, who joined Illinois State in 2006 with the Dean of Students Office and recently transferred to the newly opened Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning. The week of the Japanese delegation’s visit in 2012 was a success, so when it came time in 2017 for Bloomington-Normal residents to visit Asahikawa, organizers encouraged Steinbach to make the journey. “I’d never had the chance to take the trip because the last one was 10 years ago.”
Initially, Steinbach dismissed the idea of going. She had concluded her term as chair of the program in October 2016, and also has a young son. “I wasn’t sure I could be away from home for an extended period of time,” said Steinbach. In April, organizers pulled her aside and let her in on the secret: She was going to be named an honorary citizen of Asahikawa. “I was shocked and truly honored,” she said.
During her time in Asahikawa, Steinbach caught pieces of home everywhere she went. “They have a giant forest, and one section of it is called Bloomington-Normal Forest,” she said. “They proudly display the Abe Lincoln bench that matches the one we have here at the McLean County Museum of History. There are trails and signs, all marked with Bloomington-Normal.”
More than symbols, Steinbach said the connection between the sister cities is tangible. “You can feel the relationship. It is very real,” she said. “A lot of it is through the people, both in the city and on the Sister Cities committee. It’s difficult not to fall in love with Asahikawa.”
Steinbach’s term with the program finished this last year. A joint commission of the City of Bloomington and the Town of Normal, commission members can serve a maximum of nine years on Sister Cities. Yet Steinbach said she will continue to support the program. “I was able to study abroad in Japan when I was at college, and it is true that the experience is life-changing,” she said. “I believe everyone should have that amazing opportunity.”