Students from Bath and Tsugaru pose together in Tsugaru. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Tsugaru student exchange program. (Photo courtesy of Lindsey Goudreau) 

BATH — After the Tsugaru exchange program, a decades-long student exchange program between Bath and Tsugaru, Japan nearly ended in 2018, the city upped its annual donation to the program and sent Bath City Manager Peter Owen with this summer’s group of Bath students.  

Every summer one city councilor goes on the two-week trip with the students, but this year Owen and Marketing and Communication Expert Lindsey Goudreau traveled to Tsugaru. Owen was chosen to go to Tsuagru by the Bath-Tsugaru Student Exchange board of directors after urging from City Councilor Aaron Park. Park argued the city’s topmost official should go, as this was the 30th anniversary of the program, and Owen had not previously gone.  

Owen said he was in touch with city officials through email throughout the trip, but was in Japan for the two weeks of August, during which time a fox and a skunk tested positive for rabies after attacking Bath residents on two separate occasions marking the seventh case of rabies in Bath this year. After returning from Tsugaru, Owen immediately took a week-long vacation.  

While the city official selected to go to Tsugaru changes each year varies, the city pays for the official’s flight. Bath Finance Director Juli Millett reported the city has spent between $1,500 and $2,500 in travel expenses per year per person since 2015.  

Tsugaru city officials come to Bath as well according to Park, who, like Goudreau, is on the Tsugaru program board. Park said sometimes that city official is the mayor of Tsugaru, but other times it’s the president of Tsugaru’s sister-city organization.   

“Having a city official go is customary and more formal,” said Jen Jones, coordinator of Bath’s Tsugaru program. “They’re considered the leader of the trip.”  

While in Tsugaru, Owen acted as the ambassador of Bath, presented a proclamation from Bath to the Tsugaru government, and made a speech about the longstanding relationship between the two cities.  

“If we don’t send a city official, it looks like we don’t appreciate their hospitality and potentially strain our relationship with Tsugaru,” said Goudreau. 

Tsugaru is a city on the northwestern tip of the island of Honshu about 450 miles from Tokyo, about the same distance from Bath to Philadelphia. It has a population of just over 30,000 and its economy is heavily dependent on commercial fishing. 

The connection between the two cities dates back to 1889 when the three-masted ship Chesborough — built in Bath — ran aground off the village of Shariki, Japan. When Japanese villagers saw the damaged ship, they set out in boats to save the American sailors and managed to rescue three. One sailor, barely alive, later washed ashore.  

The villagers housed them, fed them, and nursed them back to health until they were fit to travel back to America. The townspeople also held services for the crewmen who perished. The services have continued every year since the tragedy, including during World War II when the two countries were at war.  

In 1989, 100 years after the shipwreck, village officials in Shariki, which has since been absorbed by neighboring Tsugaru, traveled in Bath to propose the creation of a formal sister city relationship. 

Within the same year, Shariki established the first annual Cheseborough Festival and Cheseborough Cup. Held in early August, the highlight of the festival is the international swimming competition in a cove of the Sea of Japan near Shariki. The goal of the race is to eventually swim the 6,338-mile distance between Shariki and Bath. 

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the wreck of the Cheseborough the student exchange program was created and has continued for 30 years. The program serves as an opportunity for high schoolers from Bath and Tsugaru to travel to each other’s country for two weeks during the summer for the sole purpose of experiencing the other’s culture.  

Although the Tsugaru program provides no economic benefit to Bath, Park said he believes the exchange program is essential to Bath’s students.  

“The program is so important because it gives our students the opportunity to be exposed to another culture,” said Park. “It teaches students about Bath’s history and its connections to the global community.”  

“Traveling to Tsugaru is such a great experience for the kids to be exposed to different cultures,” added Owen. “It helps shape their view of the world and care for people of other cultures.”  

In 2014, City Councilor Sean Paulus wrote of his trip: “When one goes to Tsugaru City, one can instantly realize that this connection is an important one that they take pride in, from the citizens and members of the City Government. While visiting a local agriculture store, one will see a picture of Bath hanging on the wall. When visiting city hall, you see several gifts on display from Bath to Tsugaru and the pride the community displays at the annual event of Chesebourgh cup and several more.” 

Paulus continued: “It is important for both local governments to continue to support and promote this relationship both abroad by sending people (on the exchange) but also at home too, through education and promotion, so that this can continue for many more years to come, for we are both the richer for it.” 

While Owen and Park agreed the opportunity to participate in the exchange program benefits students from Bath and Tsugaru alike, Jones said the program can be “cost-prohibitive.” 

Although Bath students live with host families for the two weeks, effectively avoiding hotel costs, Jones estimated the cost of a round-trip flight to Japan alone is anywhere from $1,500 to $1,800.  

This past year the program conducted a fundraiser which allowed the program to give three students $500 scholarships, which helps soften the blow of a pricey plane tickets. The Tsugaru board decided which three students would be awarded a scholarship based on an essay each student submitted. 

While the city gives an annual donation to the Tsugaru program, which operates as a non-profit separate from the city, that donation serves as a stipend for Jones. To ensure the Tsugaru program continues, the city added $500 to their annual donation of $2,500 after the program nearly needed in 2018, according to Goudreau. 

Bath makes similar annual donations to other local non-municipal nonprofits including the Bath Area Food Bank ($3,000), Bath Area Seniors ($1,500), and the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust ($1,250).  

Park said he doesn’t believe the program continued because of the $500 boost, but rather because of a change in board leadership that “reinvigorated the program.”  

Bath’s Tsugaru program has long struggled with attaining the resources necessary to match Tsugaru’s efforts, which are funded by their local government.  

“The trouble has always been the lack of resources on our side,” said Goudreau. “They have the infrastructure and government funding that we don’t have.”   

Goudreau said sending Owen, Bath’s top-ranking official, was another effort to reaffirm Bath’s commitment to the Tsugaru program.  

“There’s a tradition of sending a city official, but it’s a student program and the focus is more on the relationship between the students,” said Jones. “The program would endure if city officials didn’t go.”  

While in Tsugaru, Owen and Goudreau did not act as chaperones of the students, but accompanied the students to various activities arranged by Tsugaru’s local government and stayed with a host family.  

Owen said some of the activities included watched a demonstration of various sports found in typical Japanese high schools such as judo and kendo, a form of mock sword-fighting. 

While this is the first time both Owen and Gourdreau have been to Tsugaru, Owen said he travels domestically once or twice per year to attend conferences that, “gives us information about how we should apply for grants for the city,” said Owen.  

Since becoming city manager in January of 2018, Owen has traveled to Texas, California, and Georgia on behalf of the city.  

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