Japan visit

Hokuto City, Japan, Mayor Eiko Watanabe (right) addresses a Tuesday reception in Berea aided by interpreter Jennifer Trautvetter of the American Committee for KEEP. Watanabe led a delegation of 17 to explore Madison County and to renew a sister-region cultural exchange agreement involving her city, Berea, Richmond and Madison County. The reception was co-sponsored by the Madison County International Committee and the City of Berea.

Seventeen delegates from Hokuto City, Japan, arrived in Berea Tuesday to kick off a four-day tour of Madison County. The annual visit is the continuation of a sister-region cultural exchange program that dates back to 1988. A delegation of Madison County residents visits Hokuto City every October.

Hokuto City Mayor Eiko Watanabe and her delegation were greeted Tuesday with a reception at the Boone Tavern Inn. The event was co-sponsored by the Madison County International Committee and the City of Berea.

Berea Mayor Steve Connelly noted officials from Berea, Richmond, Madison County and Hokuto City were slated to formally renew their sister-region agreement on Wednesday in a reception hosted by EKU at Blanton House.

“This is an opportunity to reaffirm our continuing commitment to the goals of peace and international cooperation demonstrated so many years ago by Paul Rusch,” Connelly said.

Louisville resident Paul Rusch was the inspiration for the exchange program between Madison County and Hokuto City.

From the time Rusch arrived in Japan in 1925, he was a college professor, worked with the Episcopal mission, and was a military intelligence officer. To Japanese, Rusch is known as the founder of the Kiyosato Educational Experiment Project, an organization founded to help Japan’s impoverished mountain residents following the Pacific War.

Rusch died in 1979, but because he is still revered for his work to secure food, faith, help and hope for the rural poor of highland Japan, KEEP celebrates Rusch’s life every October with a western style harvest festival.

Connelly recalled the Kentucky connection to Hokuto City when he welcomed the Japanese visitors to the Bluegrass.

“We welcome you not only to Berea tonight, but to the home of Paul Rusch. We are so pleased to have you,” Connelly said.

Speaking on behalf of the Japanese delegation, Mayor Watanabe noted her father, Kumio Sakamoto, was mayor of Kabuchizawa [a city since consolidated into Hokuto] and the leader of the very first delegation to Berea. Watanabe, who said she first visited Berea in 2014 while she was on city council, also bears the distinction of being the first female mayor of Hokuto City.

“I think it’s with special pride that I get to come back in the mayor’s role, linking the legacy of our exchange,” Watanabe said.

While most of the delegation will be returning to Japan on Saturday, one artist will remain for an extra six days to teach in local schools. Additionally, the Madison County International Committee continues to sponsor a home-stay program in which middle-school students from Japan and Madison County exchange visits between their respective countries.

In closing her remarks, Watanabe expressed hope that the emerging generations of both communities will continue the tradition of cultural exchange between Hokuto City and Madison County.

“I think it’s very important for our exchange to continue,” Watanabe said. “If we involve the young people in our cities, they’ll grow up and this exchange and continue to become stronger and stronger.”

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