BATH — This year’s Tsugaru exchange program, a decades-long student exchange program between Bath and Tsugaru, Japan, has been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

William Laliberte, president of Bath’s Chesborough program, said both the American and Japanese administrative groups decided on Tuesday to cancel the trip “to keep things safe for both parties.”

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 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 in the tragedy. The services have continued every year since the tragedy, including during World War II when the two countries were at war.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the wreck of the Cheseborough the student exchange program was created 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.

This year would’ve marked the program’s 31st year in operation. The only other time the program was canceled was in 2009 when the H1N1 virus, better known as swine flu, was spreading across the United States.

As of Thursday, more than 500 Mainers have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, and 14 have died. The U.S. has seen nearly 400,000 cases with nearly 13,000 deaths, according to the CDC. Japan’s cases of coronavirus doubled to nearly 4,000 from a week earlier as that country declared a state of emergency, according to the New York Times.

Laliberte said program leaders are exploring the option of doing a virtual exchange. Participating students could make a video about their communities to exchange with the other, but that will depend on whether Gov. Janet Mills’ statewide restrictions are lifted by summer.

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