Late last week, as the horror of Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe was just beginning to unfold, Gov. Paul LePage issued a statement of condolence and prayer for the victims of that country’s worst calamity since the end of World War II.

LePage also noted that Maine “has a sister-state relationship with the Prefecture of Aomori,” about 150 miles north of the all-but-obliterated city of Sendai.

Sister state? When, some Mainers undoubtedly wondered, did that happen?

Well, it depends on how you look at it.

The formal relationship was struck by Gov. John McKernan in 1994.

But the story, as told in a 1997 speech in Aomori by a local resident, Kou Ootaka, goes back more than a century.


It was late October of 1889. The Chesebrough, a three-masted ship built by Arthur Sewall and Co. in Bath, had sailed from Maine to Japan with a shipment of case oil, refilled its hold with 2,300 tons of sulfur and was just getting under way on its long voyage back to the United States.

It had been a rough trip. A typhoon the previous month had heavily damaged the Chesebrough, forcing its 23-member crew to lay over in the port of Hokkaido for 34 days while the vessel was repaired.

Their luck would be no better as they finally set sail on Oct. 28. Another ferocious storm hit the Japan Sea the next day, toppling the ship’s main mast and leaving Capt. Peter Erickson and his men helpless as the Chesebrough broke up and sank within sight of the Japanese village of Shariki.

Villagers came running to the shore and built bonfires. Fishermen boarded a rescue vessel and headed out to search for survivors.

They found only four.

“Are you Napoleon? Are you Bismarck? Are you Washington?” asked a policeman, trying to determine the sailors’ nationality. At the mention of “Washington,” they replied, “Yes! Yes!”


“They are Americans!” the policeman announced.

One of those pulled from the water, a man named Wilson, was unconscious and appeared to be near death. But something remarkable happened.

“At this time, one of the women who had brought food from the village, Mrs. Han Kudo, 45 years old and the wife of Mr. Yoshiemon Kudo, did not hesitate in public,” Ootaka recalled. “She took off her clothes and hugged Mr. Wilson in the sleet to warm him up. People still say she looked like a heavenly maiden. Miraculously, Mr. Wilson was revived.”

For days, even after the survivors recovered from their ordeal and departed for their long trip home, Japanese villagers found the bodies of other crew members washing up on their shore. All of them, including 40-year-old Capt. Erikson, received solemn burials.

And the Japanese never forgot.

At the top of a hill overlooking the village is a religious shrine. And near that is a stone commemorating the wreck of the ship from faraway Maine.


“Every year since the disaster, the people of Shariki hold a service for the sailors who lost their lives on that night in 1889,” Ootaka said. And for 100 of those years, few if any Mainers even knew about it.

That changed in 1990, when the mayor of Shariki sent a letter to Bath City Hall to tell officials of the annual memorial service, and to lament the fact that in 100 years, no representative from Bath had visited the village.

That simple communication, and the visits between dignitaries from both communities that soon followed, led to the establishment of a vibrant sister-city relationship between Bath and Shariki in 1996. (The connection was expanded in 2006 to include the city of Tsugaru, which encompasses Shariki.)

It also spawned the sister-state connection between Maine and Aomori Prefecture, which in the past 17 years has included a variety of trade missions, cultural exchanges and business deals.

And now this.

Tuesday morning, representatives from four Maine organizations that have strong tethers to Japan – the Japan-America Society of Maine, the Maine-Aomori Sister State Advisory Council, Friends of Shinegawa (Portland’s sister city) and the Maine International Trade Center – met in Portland to compare notes about the still-unfolding disaster and explore what might be done to help.


The news from Aomori could be much worse – the port of Hachinohe on the east coast sustained considerable damage from the post-earthquake tsunami, but nowhere near the widespread death and destruction that occurred to the south. (Shinegawa, near Tokyo, also escaped the brunt of the disaster.)

Still, Steve MacDougall, chairman of the Maine-Aomori Sister State Advisory Council, said the various groups feel a need to do something – starting with contacting their counterparts in Japan to ask how Maine can help.

They’ve also created a Facebook page – Maine Japan Earthquake Relief Effort – where they hope to provide firsthand reports and images from Japan and, just as important, links to various relief organizations that are collecting donations.

“We are so saddened by the tragic images coming out of Japan,” MacDougall said. “We have no doubt that Mainers will want to come to the aid of one of our country’s and Maine’s closest friends.”

One last thing about the wreck of the Chesebrough, as recalled in that speech by Kou Ootaka:

Not long after the Maine ship went down, a villager named Nakamura found a pear that had washed ashore from the Chesebrough’s food stores. It was much better tasting than the smaller ones grown locally, so he planted one of the seeds in his backyard.


The tree – still there in 1997 – grew to 24 feet, Ootaka said. And every year as it bore its delicious fruit, Nakamura would pick 19 pears and lay one as an offering at each Maine sailor’s grave.

Concluded Ootaka, “We have such wonderful history. We won’t forget this.”

Nor, in Japan’s hour of need, should Maine.


Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:


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