Montana-Kumamoto Sister State Relationship

A new dialogue on environmental issues launched in 2007 with generous support from the Japan Foundation’s Center for Global Partnership to add an academic component to a long-standing relationship between Montana and its Japanese sister state, Kumamoto.

Mike Mansfield, the former U.S. Ambassador to Japan, visited Kumamoto in August of 1979. Kumamoto Prefecture asked Ambassador Mansfield for his suggestion concerning a candidate state in the U.S. with which the prefecture could start a sister state relationship. He recommended his home state, the state of Montana, as a good candidate.

Following preliminary discussions about the possibility of starting a sister state relationship, an agreement on a sister state relationship was finally signed between Kumamoto Prefecture and the State of Montana in Helena, the capital city of Montana, on July 22, 1982.

Mutual visits by official delegates have been a staple of the relationship between Kumamoto Prefecture and the state of Montana since its inception and fostered a move to create permanent representation. The state of Montana opened a trade office in Kumamoto in 1990 and Kumamoto Prefecture followed by opening a representative office, called Kumamoto Plaza, in Helena in 1992.  Officials are stationed at respective offices in both regions to this day. In 1993, the trade office of Montana in Kumamoto became the Japan Representative Office of Montana. The representative office aims not only to promote close relations between Kumamoto and Montana, but also to serve as a liaison between Montana and the rest of Japan. Kumamoto Plaza promotes and supports grassroots exchange programs between Kumamoto and Montana and seeks to educate the people of both sides about the other.

Significantly, grassroots activities have accompanied the more formal government visits since the early stages of the relationship.  These have been spurred by formal programming organized by the "Montana Club" formed by people of Kumamoto interested in Montana and by the "Japan Friendship Club" formed by people of Montana interested in Japan and Kumamoto.  High school student exchange programs have been going on for many years, and high school instructors from Kumamoto have also visited Montana for language and instructional training.  In recent years, two way traffic has been stimulated by involvement from private nonprofit and community service entities in Montana, including Rotary International District 5390, the Missoula Children's Theatre, the Helena Youth Choir, the Dillon Fiddlers, and the Helena Babe Ruth Baseball program, all of which have sent delegations to Kumamoto and, in return, have welcomed Kumamoto delegations to Montana.

A feature of this exchange has been the growth of a healthy competition between Missoula and Helena since the Kumamoto Japan Friendship Club was established in Missoula in 1994. Missoula local high schools have sent regular delegations of "Aso Wings"-Missoula students flying to Kumamoto's landmark Mount Aso volcano-and received groups of "Rocky Wings" in return every other year. Each year, about 25 to 30 high school students come to Missoula for a week, where they stay with host families and establish long-lasting relationships and cultural understanding. For other exchanges, citizens in Montana and Kumamoto have opened their homes to visitors, housed students, and otherwise demonstrated their friendship and generosity to people from their sister state.

The citizens of Kumamoto, especially the members of the Montana Club, have also made extraordinary contributions to the sister state relationship by raising money for Montana forest fire relief, by helping commission a statue of Mike Mansfield for the Capitol in Helena, and by facilitating the decoration of Kumamoto city buses with images by Montana artist Monte Dolack.

On the official level, the Missoula Chamber of Commerce traveled to Japan in April of 2004 on a trade delegation headed by then-Governor Judy Martz to promote trade between the two countries. The group, consisting of fifteen individuals, first traveled to Kumamoto, where they were greeted with a very positive reception. The Montanans sponsored a reception for Montana travel, complete with rope tricks, fly-fishing demonstrations, and cowboy hats, while they received a briefing from the Montana-Japan Trade Office about the relationship of the two areas and operations of the respective organizations. Others had live radio interviews on tourism promotion. The group also met with Governor Shiotani to discuss the sister relationship. The main event was the Montana Club reception. The Montana Club is a group of Montana supporters (Japanese and American) that meets periodically. This time, it was a full-blown affair, with 130+ in attendance, including Governor Shiotani and the Mayor of Kumamoto. It was a great presentation, including cultural offerings and awards for the best Kumamoto-Montana relationship supporters.