Bringing Japan to the Great Lakes: Celebrating the Semicentennial of the Michigan-Shiga Sister State Agreement

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The year 1968 saw the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., waves of student protests rocking the nation and the continuation of the Vietnam War. Despite it all, plans were being laid that would connect two governments in a commitment to both exchange and understanding for years to come. 

On Nov. 14, 1968, the state of Michigan and Shiga prefecture, Japan, signed the Michigan-Shiga Sister State Agreement. Now, 50 years later, the relationship is stronger than ever and has brought hundreds of people together from around the world.

Shiga is a prefecture in central Japan known for its historic sites and home to Japan’s largest lake, Lake Biwa. Its long relationship with Michigan has led to numerous exchange programs for students of all ages. Even adults are encouraged to be ambassadors for their state by joining the Goodwill Mission, which sees a biannual exchange of visitors from Michigan and Shiga staying with local families. 

“The people who come from Shiga are always really impressed by the friendliness of the people here, and people from Michigan are enchanted by Shiga,” said Chad Frost, program coordinator for the Japan Center for Michigan Universities (JCMU). Frost is a perfect example of the way the sister state agreement can shape people’s lives. He studied abroad in Shiga several times and now helps other students do the same at JCMU. 

JCMU is a study abroad center located in Hikone, a small town in Shiga. The center was founded on the 20th anniversary of the sister state agreement in 1988.

Patrick Mercer, JCMU’s media specialist, also found his calling through studying abroad in Shiga. 

“I went from wanting to learn more about Japan in general to wanting to learn more about Shiga specifically and wanting to stay connected,” Mercer said. 

JCMU brings students into the local community through conversation, cultural events and internships, where they often form lifelong bonds with the people they meet. 

“I think what has made this relationship really thrive and continue for as long as it has is the fact that there’s a lot of deep personal connections that come out of this. … You’re constantly renewing the stock of people who have a relationship with Shiga.” said Frost. 

This year has been all about celebrating that relationship. In September 2017, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Shiga Gov. Taizo Mikazuki unveiled a commemorative art piece and planted a tree together in Japan. Shiga representatives visited Michigan in September 2018 and planted a tree on this side of the ocean as well.

Both sides of the partnership are optimistic about the future. 

“I think Michigan and Shiga’s future will be similar to the path I took with the relationship,” Mercer explained. “I see the relationship developing very similarly, where people get an introduction, grow together and become more and more connected.” 

The sister state agreement creates an intimacy between the residents of both states, which they perpetuate in their communities and bring with them everywhere they go.

“We have learned that caring about people from another country is a gift that never stops giving. We must celebrate our diversity, but also cherish the humanity we share, and we must continue to push the limits of understanding and the levels of our commitment,” Mikazuki told Michigan.gov. 

This November, the semicentennial of the Michigan-Shiga Sister State Agreement provides a powerful opportunity to celebrate our similarities and our differences. Just like in 1968, we must choose between being afraid of the wider world and embracing it.