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Montana Celebrates 35th Anniversary With Japanese Sister State

Dolce Canto performs at 35th anniversary sister state celebration
Maxine Speier
Dolce Canto performs at 35th anniversary sister state celebration

Montana is celebrating the 35th anniversary of a sister state relationship with Kumamoto, Japan this week. On Monday a delegation from Kumamoto that included Kumamoto’s Governor Ikuo Kabashima visited Missoula to celebrate and kick off a tour of the treasure state.

It was raining outside when the delegation arrived at the Missoula Community Theatre on Monday night. The theater was nearly full, and Japanese and English chatter mixed together.

Earlier on Monday the delegation of over a dozen distinguished political and community leaders from Kumamoto visited the University of Montana’s campus, but now it was time to have some fun.

In honor of the 35th anniversary MCT had put together a series of performances from local groups including the Missoula Children’s Theatre, Dolce Canto, the Missoula Symphony Orchestra, and the Rocky Mountain Ballet. The event showcased the cultural exchange that has formed so much of the bond between Montana and its Japanese sister state of Kumamoto.

In-between remarks and speeches that looked back on the 35-year relationship between the two states, dancers and singers took to the stage. Small kids with big smiles started off the show with two songs from the latest Montana Children’s Theatre musical, Willy Wonka.

For more than two decades, the Missoula Children’s Theatre has shared an exchange with Kumamoto, sending its directors into the cities, schools and homes of the prefecture. Children there have taken part in productions and been welcomed to Montana to attend summer theater workshops.

Tim Kluesner, the former Japan Trade Representative for Montana, first introduced the children’s theater group to Kumamoto back in 1994. He says children’s groups and educational opportunities are the glue that holds the sister state relationship together.

“I mean Missoula Children’s Theatre has become an integral part of the relationship of Kumamoto and Montana. It encompasses what kids are about too," said Kluesner, "it pulls the kids in.”

Kluesner is now married to a woman from Kumamoto and lives with her and their two children in Kalispell.

Speakers and guests at the event talked about other bonds between the American and Japanese sister states. Kouji Mizoguchi, the Vice Chairman of the Kumamoto Prefectural Assembly, which is the legislative branch of Kumamoto, mentioned a similarity between the American and Japanese sister states.

“Where I was born in Kumamoto," said Mizoguchi, "in the morning there is a lot of fog like we saw in Montana, in Missoula this morning.”

Montana’s sister state relationship was first proposed in 1979 by former U.S. senator and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Mike Mansfield after he visited Kumamoto. In 1982 Mansfield’s vision became a reality and the two states began an official relationship.

That relationship has been both an economic and a cultural one. Montana exports more than $50 million worth of goods to Japan annually, and Montana opened a Kumamoto trade office in 1990. Hundreds of high school and college students from the two countries have done exchanges and stayed with host families. And visitors from Japan are among Montana’s top 10 international tourist countries.

Abraham Kim is the executive director for the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center. He said the event "is really marking 35 years of the relationship that started from just a meeting but is now a full people-to-people community relationship.”

One of the night’s performers, Isaiah Kim, who is not related to Abraham, shook the stage with a spirited dance solo. He said it was an honor to be a part of the celebration.

“It’s truly amazing," said Kim "to see different cultures from different countries coming to Missoula of all places.”

At the end of the night the lobby of the theater filled up again as Missoula’s residents met and greeted the delegates to talk about the performances. Translators had been working hard all day, but smiles and thumbs up didn't need any translating.

The delegation will spend the rest of their visit this week meeting with Governor Bullock and touring the capital, as well as having lunch with Montana State University’s president and taking a tour of the Museum of the Rockies.

Maxine is the All Things Considered host and reporter for MTPR. She got her start at MTPR as a Montana News intern. She has also worked at KUNC in Northern Colorado and for Pacific Standard magazine as an editorial fellow covering wildfire and the environment.
Maxine graduated from the University of Montana with a master's degree in natural resource journalism and has a degree in creative writing from Vassar College. When she’s not behind the microphone you can find Maxine skiing, hiking with her not-so-well-behaved dogs, or lost in a book.
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