Lake Biwa as seen from the shores of Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, Japan

From Lake Biwa to the Great Lakes: A sisterhood for the ages

By Ari B. Adler, Director of Communications

I recently participated in a trade mission to Japan with Gov. Rick Snyder. I discovered, among other things, that our sister state in Japan truly is a sister to us and I reaffirmed that cultural interactions can play a significant role in economic development.

As part of the Governor’s team, I spent time in Shiga Prefecture, which is Michigan’s sister state in Japan. We are on the cusp of the 50th anniversary of this formal relationship and the festivities officially kicked off in Japan while we were there. The celebration will culminate at events in Michigan in 2018 when a team from Japan will be visiting the Great Lakes State.

Shiga is a Japanese prefecture to the east of Kyoto, on the island of Honshu. It is much smaller than Michigan, in terms of land and population, with fewer than 2 million people, compared to Michigan’s nearly 10 million. But what struck me time and again was just how much we have in common — from the landscape to the people to the issues.

Shiga is home to the enormous freshwater Lake Biwa, whose shoreline is home to the regional capital, Otsu, as well as the cities of Hikone, Sakamoto and Nagahama. It is essentially Japan’s “great lake,” and there’s even an old-style U.S. paddle boat that you can cruise around on named, appropriately, the Michigan.

If you head outside the city centers, you will find a vast, rural landscape filled with trees and, thanks to the mountains in the region, numerous waterfalls. While Michigan doesn’t have much to boast about in terms of mountains, the setting of waterfalls in the woods made me think of recreational opportunities in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

The people I met in Shiga spoke of outdoor recreation a lot, too, including fishing and golfing — two other things Michigan is known for. And hiking or cycling the 200-kilometer (124-mile) loop around Lake Biwa brought up conversations of camping along the way.

The author with Gov. Mikazuki

The Governor of Shiga Prefecture, Taizō Mikazuki, strikes you immediately with his boisterous personality and his desire to find a way for Michigan and Shiga to do even more together for mutual success.

The friendship that has developed over the past few years between Gov. Mikazuki and Gov. Snyder is evident and paying great dividends. People may wonder why cultural excursions as part of a trade mission are necessary, but if they were to attend one, they would quickly realize just how important they are. Talking business with people in your own state or nation, and never having an opportunity to learn about them or what makes them tick, is going to lead to a dead end. If you have no chance to learn about the people you want to work with, then you will never truly understand why you should be working with them or how best to do so. Now take that and increase it 10-fold when dealing with people from other countries and cultures.

The city of Battle Creek recently named a road for Shiga in recognition of the job providers who are investing in the city. During the trade mission, Gov. Snyder and representatives From Battle Creek Unlimited presented a replica of the street sign to Gov. Mikazuki.

But because of the friendship and partnership that Governors Mikazuki and Snyder have, there were numerous discussions around how to increase cultural exchanges, trade activity and economic development between the prefecture and the state to the mutual benefit of all our residents.

Thanks to places like the Japanese Center for Michigan Universities, the residents of Shiga are learning more about our state and nation more every day while Michigan students can immerse themselves in the Japanese language and culture. One U.S. instructor told me that when college students are out and about, they are often asked not if they are from the U.S., but if they are from Michigan. (I’m sure the Texas Tech student attending JCMU this year will appreciate that.)

We also quickly found out that one of the greatest simple gifts we could give folks we met were the Detroit Tigers hats we were carrying, modeled here by the mayor of Koka-City, Hiroki Iwanaga.

In addition to the need for more economic growth and job creation — which like Michigan’s is going well but could always be better — the Shiga Prefecture also is facing several environmental concerns that resonated with the team from Michigan. Key among these is the threat of invasive species in their waterways. Yes, just as Michigan is worried about the invasion of Asian Carp to the Great Lakes, Shiga has an ongoing battle in Lake Biwa against bluegills from North America.

One of the discussions the two governors had was about invasive species, and Gov. Snyder plans to have staff from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources start working with their counterparts in Japan to see how we could help each other to combat our native species who are unwelcome pests in the sister state.

I had never been to Japan before and despite my research into the trip, I wasn’t exactly sure what I would experience. What I found was that, especially in Shiga Prefecture, Michigan has a “little sister” who is older and, in some ways wiser. But the folks throughout the trade mission — from cultural events to business meetings talking about economic development — spoke again and again about how much they treasure their relationship with Michigan.

The job providers we met with were very complimentary of Michigan workers and spoke confidently of their investments already made here and, quite possibly, of more to come.

It is mutual economic respect and cultural understanding that will continue to strengthen Michigan’s ties with Japan, its people and its job providers. And that’s a win for us, whether you’re at home in Michigan, or visiting Michigan’s extended family more than 6,000 miles away.

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