Story last updated at 12:44 p.m. Thursday, May 2, 2002

Homer officials impressed with Japan sister city
by Joel Gay
Staff Writer

photo: news
  Photo by Joel Gay, Homer News
Boats line up along the Teshio River during a 1989 visit to Homer's sister city.  
City officials who visited Homer's sister city in northern Japan late last month came back with glowing reports about the value of such cultural exchanges.

Homer City Councilmen Ray Kranich, Kurt Marquardt and Mike Yourkowski and Mayor Jack Cushing, along with half a dozen area residents, spent about a week in Teshio, living with host families, touring the region and learning about life near the northernmost tip of the country.

"I was never really a super-strong supporter" of the city's sister-city budget, Kranich said, which this year is $4,000. "I guess I was more neutral than anything. It was more a matter of not understanding what happens when a cultural exchange takes place."

After Teshio, however, Kranich said he is a convert.

"In a lot of ways, I think our minds change more about them and their culture than their minds changed about ours," he said. "After having been there, I think we need to strengthen our program, and definitely get the exchange student program activated again."

The Homer contingent flew to Tokyo on April 16 and spent the night. The next day the group flew north to Hokkaido, one of Japan's four main islands, and overnighted in the capital city of Sapporo. They then took the bus several hours further north to Teshio.

Each councilman picked up his own tab for flights, hotel rooms, meals and the like, but the city will reimburse them for gifts to give out and for a portion of their airfare.

A coastal city, Teshio is about the size of Homer. The two became sister cities in the 1980s, and over the years have hosted numerous exchanges between business owners, municipal officials and high

school students.

The town takes its sister city role seriously, said Yourkowski. "They roll out the red carpet," welcoming groups with great fanfare, he said.

Marquardt said he noticed it when they toured the local schools.

"Enthusiastic was the best word to describe it," he said. "You could see their faces light up when we would walk by their classrooms. Even junior high and high school students <> they would come out and say, 'How do you do, nice to meet you.' It was really kind of refreshing to see that."

The councilmen had been warned they were "entering the land of manners," and it was true <> and pleasant compared with the United States, Kranich said.

"There's a huge cultural difference," which he noticed particularly in the families he met. "The family units are strong and tight, while ours have decayed over the years. Divorce over there is on the upswing, but it's still not widely done," so most households have two parents.

And while they have the same daily grind as Americans, with cars to fix and mortgages to pay, "They just have a whole different outlook on life," said Kranich.

Part of it stems from the size of their country and its huge population, he said. "You have to have respect for each other just because of the proximity."

That respect showed in everything from the warm welcome extended to the Homer visitors to the cleanliness of the Hokkaido region.

The schools, for example, have no janitors <> the students spend about 20 minutes every day cleaning up after themselves. In the United States that would seem like capital punishment, but in Teshio, Marquardt said, "They're running around with smiles on their faces, laughing and giggling but doing what they're supposed to be doing. And the place was spotless."

The three councilmen said they were also surprised to see the level of services provided by the city of Teshio. Apparently it gets substantial federal revenues, they said, but the city runs the schools, the senior center, hospital, bus line, even the welfare department and low-income housing.

A new addition to the Teshio waterfront is a 50-room hotel and spa, which the city built and operates. The complex includes an RV court and rental cabins, as well, but the attraction is a geothermal spring. The city got involved because private companies weren't interested in drilling the well necessary to tap into the hot spring, Yourkowski said.

"It took the city's resources to do it," he said.

The upshot is a surprisingly large city bureaucracy, given the size of the city, the three councilmen agreed.

"They sure had a lot of offices full of employees," Kranich said.

The city is 120 years old, but has had just six mayors, Kranich said, suggesting lengthy tenure in office. The council members are paid, according to Yourkowski, "but they have to go to something like 100 meetings a year. They definitely earn their money."

The economy of Teshio is sagging after local dairy farms were slugged by hoof-and-mouth disease and the seafood industry suffered setbacks in its salmon and clam fisheries. The population has declined, the Homer visitors were told.

Nevertheless, Yourkowski, Kranich and Marquardt said they appreciated the attitudes of the people they met and the enthusiasm for cultural exchanges such as theirs.

While he was never a strong supporter of the sister city budget before, Kranich said he now sees the value of Homer maintaining its participation, and Yourkowski said he would favor doubling the current budget.

The city's $4,000 sister city budget "is money well spent," he added, and has even contributed to Homer's economy <> more than 300 Teshio residents have visited Homer.

Though the program has its detractors, Yourkowski said, "If you went on one of these trips, it would open your eyes. I think it's very worthwhile."