• May 2015
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'Churm in Asia'  

Monday, November 16, 2009
First impressions
This is the tale of two cities, Irvine and Tsukuba, Japan.
Who knew 20 years ago, when the officials of these two municipalities half a world away signed a friendship accord and became sister cities, that they would ultimately share such a common DNA. From their growth and core values to their present-day mayors, the two cities have a striking resemblance, as if carved from the same cloth and driven by twin desires to set the standard in their respective worlds for governance and quality of life.

Agreeing to exchange ideas and cultural artifacts every few years makes for good public relations and affords photo opportunities. It’s what elected officials and bureaucrats do from time to time. But the relationship between Irvine and Tsukuba is more than a lesson in civic obligation, because the two are eerily similar.

Sitting through a series of Power Point presentations in Tsukuba City Hall, the parallels between these municipalities are clear. Both Irvine and Tsukuba have about 200,000 residents. Both are growing, filled with young families and centers for research and development. Both place a high priority on education, public safety and planning when it comes to land use such as open space and parks. And both are located about an hour by car or train from a world-class metropolis – Los Angeles and Tokyo. Working professionals have flocked to Irvine and Tsukuba for the same reasons – a quality of life free from the numbing din and grind of an urban hub.

Touring Tsukuba by bus and foot, listening to local officials and interpreters explain the blueprint behind this increasingly modern suburb north of Tokyo, it’s evident that the Japanese government sees it as the future of this island nation. Little more than 20 years old, Tsukuba is grounded by a commitment to be “green and clean,” as it races to build on its reputation as a model city and R&D hotbed for modern Japan.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s Irvine, only a younger version on the opposite side of the Pacific.

Whether by design or sheer luck, or a little of both, when these two cities first shook hands in 1989 to form a cultural and economic partnership, no one could have envisioned they would grow to share so many qualities. Nearly one-third of Japan’s national research institutes and more than 120 private R&D companies with more than 19,000 employees have set up shop in Tsukuba. Japan’s space program, JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), is here, along with Cyberdyne Inc., one of the world’s leaders in human robotic innovation. It’s a scientific and technology destination with a worldwide reputation. Once favored by the Japanese emperor for its rice, the highly fertile Tsukuba Inashiki Plateau is now sprouting business development similar to Irvine, including home-building and retail, with the largest shopping mall north of Tokyo.

It’s no wonder this delegation of Irvine officials and business leaders – including The Irvine Co.’s Dan Young and Mike LeBlanc, as well as former Lennar Homes CEO Emile Haddad and Chris Lynch, the vice president of economic development for the Irvine Chamber of Commerce – is here learning the lessons of Tsukuba. It’s a test tube for enterprise, and in a world economy where everyone has suffered, no one has the corner on constructing the perfect business model going forward. Tsukuba has its own challenges. Retail spending is way off. A tour of the gleaming, four-story iias Tsukuba shopping center across the street from the new Express train station revealed the same sharp decline in sales that storeowners are grappling with in Orange County.

But at the end of a 12-hour day of bus stops and presentations, tucked in a back room of the Big Echo karaoke club, the kinship between Tsukuba and Irvine entrepreneurs and officials was in full bloom. With the music pumping, the ties loosening and the Asahi flowing, the camaraderie underscored that the brotherhood between these two cities for the past two decades was secure for another 20 more.

A tale of two cities – Tsukuba and Irvine
officials and business leaders in Japan.

Irvine Mayor Kang inspects merchandise in
iias Tsukuba, the largest indoor mall north of Tokyo.

Vending machines only sell beverages, no food.
The selection is heavy on tea and caffeine.

Tsukuba City Hall briefing – two countries,
two cities, one mission: economic development.

Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang and Tsukuba Mayor Ken-ichi Ichihara
pause outside Tsukuba City Hall.

Irvine officials pause outside the Japan Aerospace
Exploration Agency, Japan's version of NASA.

Electronics are big in Japan. Irvine Chamber
Vice President Chris Lynch price shops in a
Tsukuba super store.

Just for fun: Hawaiian coffee chain, Bad Ass Coffee, has a store
in Tsukuba shopping center.

Photos by Steve Churm