Leaders from Madison County and Berea welcomed 15 visitors from Hokuto City, Japan, Tuesday evening, continuing a tradition that’s been observed for three decades. The Japanese delegation kicked off their four-day cultural exchange visit to Madison County with a dinner sponsored by the City of Berea and hosted by the Madison County International Committee (MCIC).

Berea Mayor Bruce Fraley and Madison County Judge/Executive Reagan Taylor were on hand to welcome the delegation on behalf of local leaders, along with Berea City Council members Jim Davis, John Payne, Cora Jane Wilson and David Rowlette.

“While I have only served in public office for a short time, I know that our sister city program is very unique because it has become a 'sister region' program, which fosters a mutually beneficial relationship between Hokuto City and Madison County, and includes both the City of Berea and the City of Richmond, with support from Berea College and Eastern Kentucky University,” Fraley said Tuesday.

Each spring, Hokuto City sends a delegation of community members to Madison County, while a delegation from Madison County travels to Japan in the fall. In addition to strong international ties between the two countries, Fraley noted the positive impact Japan has had on the local economy.

“In Berea, we have Japanese ownership of three manufacturing plants. Hitachi is our largest employer with approximately 1,500 employees, KIUSA has 115 employees and Kentucky Steel Center with approximately 65 employees,” Fraley said. “These three employers have provided good paying jobs and have improved the quality of life for the citizens of Berea and surrounding counties.”

In at least one case, the cultural exchange actually helped create manufacturing jobs in Richmond.

While the Japan-based automotive parts company Asahi Bluegrass Forge has been part of Richmond’s manufacturing economy since 2003, in 2011, the company chose Richmond to build a second manufacturing plant, with some help from then-Richmond Mayor Connie Lawson. Lawson had traveled to Japan as a member of the MCIC delegation, and her experience in Hokuto City led to a friendship with the president of Asahi Bluegrass, and the company subsequently created 50 new jobs with the 2014 opening of its second plant. In 2017, the company purchased an additional 30 acres to build a third facility that will house office space, machining and forging operations.

Among the attendees at Tuesday’s reception was former Berea City Councilwoman Vi Farmer, who championed the creation of the cultural exchange program. What began in 1988 as a sister-city relationship between Berea and Takane City, Japan, has since blossomed to become a sister-region relationship that includes Berea, Richmond and Madison County, as well as Hokuto City, a municipality of eight mountain communities in Yamanashi Prefecture.

“It’s the only one of it’s kind,” Farmer said. “Really something to be proud of.”

The annual cultural exchange between the two communities was launched in honor of Kentucky resident Paul Rusch, who founded the Kiyosato Educational Experiment Project (KEEP) in the Japanese highlands. Rusch initially went to Japan in 1925, working as a college professor, Y.M.C.A. official, Episcopal missionary, and was a military intelligence officer under General Douglas MacArthur during the Allied Occupation of Japan. He founded KEEP with the idea of aiding Japan’s impoverished mountain residents build an agricultural economy to help them recover from the devastation of the Pacific War. Rusch is also credited with introducing American football to Japan, establishing the first Japanese collegiate football league.

Paul Rusch died in 1979, though he is still fondly remembered for helping the people who lived in what is now Hokuto City, Japan. Every autumn, Rusch’s memory is honored with a Western style harvest festival, where the Madison County delegates are honored guests at the event.

This week, the Japanese visitors will spend the day in Richmond on Wednesday, capped by a dinner at Asahi Bluegrass Forge, and will also take a day trip to see the sights of Louisville. Weather permitting, the delegation will be in Artisan Village Thursday evening to experience a Jammin’ on the Porch concert sponsored by the city’s Tourism Department. The concert is free and the public is welcome.

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