No. 10 ― Through the Eyes of the Consul General

Kumamoto Governor onwards to Montana!

Governor Ikuo Kabashima of Kumamoto Prefecture and his delegation visited Montana from November 12 to 16. Kumamoto and Montana established sister-state relations in 1982 and celebrated 35 years this year.

Out of the 50 states, Montana is the fourth largest in land, but the seventh least in terms of population (population: approx. 1,000,000). Known as “Big Sky Country,” it is well-known for its abundance of nature. Its main industries are tourism and agriculture. Of special note, 30% of its flour exports are to Japan, this strong business relationship starting with Nippon Flour Mills.

Governor Kabashima has a deep connection to agriculture. He is the seventh son out of nine children, and grew up in a very impoverished family. He and his siblings would therefore deliver newspapers every morning and evening to help the household. After high school, he sought further learning opportunities and applied to the Japan Agricultural Trainee Program (JATP), which gave him the chance to come to the United States. After finishing a period of hard work at the farmhouse where he was training, he was encouraged by a professor to continue his studies while studying agriculture at the University of Nebraska. He studied hard and attained a scholarship and eventually a Master’s degree in Agriculture. He continued his studies at Harvard where he obtained a Ph.D. in political science. He returned to Japan and taught political science at University of Tsukuba and University of Tokyo. In 2008, he was elected governor of his home prefecture, Kumamoto, and is now serving in his third term. His story truly embodies the “American Dream.”

Due to his accumulated experiences, he is incredibly fluent in English. When he visited Montana this past November, he did not use a script and spoke in his own words about himself, his prefecture’s policies, and recovery efforts from the April 2016 Kumamoto earthquake. After he related the story of when he proposed large cuts to the governor’s salary and asked the citizens of the prefecture to join him and cooperate in the efforts to cut expenditure, the American sitting next to me remarked, “This is the leadership that politicians should show.” I also noticed that many Montana officials were keenly taking notes, impressed by the fact that Kumamon (Kumamoto Prefecture’s mascot) produced $3.7 billion in business revenue over the seven years since its birth.

At the welcome ceremony for the Governor and his delegation in Montana’s state capital, Helena, Governor Steve Bullock of Montana mentioned that in addition to the active everyday grassroots exchange between the state and prefecture, the relationship between Kumamoto and Montana, is that of “true friends,” exemplified by how citizens sent donations at the time of Kumamoto’s earthquake as well as in response to Montana’s forest fires.

During the Governor’s visit, I was impressed by how passionately those from Montana State spoke about Kumamoto and their experiences visiting the prefecture. They find much in common, including the vitality of the dairy farming industry, tourism, the splendor of the landscape, and the easy-going nature of the people. On the other hand, there are scenes in Montana that never can be seen in Japan. For example, when visiting an outdoor recreation shop at a brief bus rest stop, we found that anyone could easily purchase a gun from behind the display counter. I was also surprised because what I thought was an unusually shaped battery was actually a plastic case holding bullets. A quick calculation told me that the price of one such bullet was slightly more than a dollar.

Among my first assignments when I entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was welcoming a guest from Montana State. I was in the International Press Division in 1984. A newspaper reporter from Montana was invited to Japan, Montana having just begun its sister-state relationship with Kumamoto Prefecture two years prior. I accompanied him to Nagasaki and Kumamoto. At a welcome dinner in Kumamoto Prefecture, he was asked, “The famous local cuisine is horse sashimi and puffer fish. Which will you eat?” The reporter responded, “In Montana, horses are man’s best friend. I will eat the poisonous fish,” and, ready to face death, ate the puffer fish. Once eating the fish, however, he unexpectedly said, “This is delicious… Even if you can die from it, it is still worth eating,” and was incredibly satisfied. When I told this story to the Governor Bullock, he laughed, saying, “I have a feeling that this person is one of my acquaintances; I’ll try and find him.” I look forward to reuniting with him.