A Letter From a Long-Lost Sister City

A Letter From a Long-Lost Sister City : Pasadena Woman Is Reconnected With a Japanese Friend From 37 Years Ago

October 18, 1997 | BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Not that Rosa Johnson needed a reminder. But there it was, stuffed into her Altadena mailbox. Proof positive that it really is a small world after all.

Nearly four decades after Johnson traveled to Japan to help introduce Pasadena as the sister city to the town of Mishima, there was a letter from the family she stayed with on that trip.

“I have very fond memories of 37 years ago,” wrote 52-year-old Terumoto Watanabe of Mishima.

Johnson had all but given up hope of ever hearing from the Watanabes again. When she returned home, her letters to the family went unanswered.

Johnson is the last original member of Pasadena’s 40-year-old Mishima sister city committee. During that time she has become her community’s most active surrogate mother, welcoming more than 300 foreign exchange students.

Her journey began in 1960 when she was a one-woman delegation, traveling to Mishima, 120 miles southwest of Tokyo, to initiate the cultural exchange program.

Her gift from Pasadena to Mishima was a film of the 1960 Tournament of Roses parade. She carried a few personal mementos for her host family.

But soon after Johnson’s visit, the Watanabe family moved. Johnson’s letters to them were not forwarded.

Two months ago, when the Pasadena committee held a reception at Caltech for visiting Mishima residents, Johnson recounted her dismay at losing contact with the family. A small group from Mishima had come to help plan a 40th-anniversary commemoration of the sister city relationship.

“I told them that the only regret I had from my trip was that I’d lost my Mishima family and I was sad over what might have happened to them,” she said.

Back in Mishima, a Japanese newspaper printed a story about the Pasadena meeting and mentioned Johnson’s comment. A photograph of Johnson illustrated the story.

“I was very surprised when I saw your picture in the local newspaper,” Terumoto Watanabe said in his letter, handwritten in English.

Watanabe was 15 when Johnson stayed with his family. Today he is a 52-year-old government architectural technician who is married, has two adult children and commutes to work on a high-speed train. His parents are dead.

“The article said you were searching for me,” said Watanabe, who tucked several snapshots of his family in the envelope. “I hope to be able to meet you again.”

Johnson, who steadfastly guards her age, will not be part of a Pasadena delegation that is leaving for Mishima on Thursday to mark the two cities’ 40-year association. Pasadena now has four sister cities: Ludwigshafen, Germany; Jarvenpaa, Finland; Vanatzor, Armenia; and Mishima, according to June Takenuchi, who has organized the Mishima trip.

Johnson can’t go because she is tending to her ailing husband of 64 years, Kim Johnson, 88.

She is also watching over an 18-year-old Turkish student who is living with the couple as part of a yearlong student exchange program. Nearly 350 foreign youths have stayed with the couple during the past four decades.

“They all call me ‘Mama Rosa,’ ” Johnson said as she sat in her family room–whose walls are covered with framed photographs of teenagers who have stayed at her Rubio Street home.

“They are always calling or writing. Last Saturday somebody came to the door and said, ‘I’m your Finnish girl.’ I hadn’t seen her in 10 years. Three weeks ago a boy from Italy came by–I hadn’t seen him for 18 years. Two months ago a girl from Peru brought her husband over for lunch. Last year a girl from Switzerland I hadn’t seen for 26 years came and stayed a week.”

Johnson writes more than a dozen letters a week to former house guests. Her Christmas card list numbers in the hundreds. Sometimes, she doesn’t get the last of them in the mail until March, according to her daughter, Rose Marie Wallach of Newport Beach.

“I’ve had more than one who came to be almost like one of my own children,” Johnson said of her nonstop series of guests.

Which is why Johnson says that the Mishima sister city effort is still needed, even after 40 years.

“We still do not have a complete understanding of our foreign friends. We still have a lot of learning to do,” Johnson said.

“I’ve got six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. I don’t want them to see any more wars.”

Los Angeles Times