The Friendship Continues to Bloom Under Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino
Kevin Y. Kawamoto
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Every year in mid-May, the Japanese city of Fukuyama in Hiroshima Prefecture explodes in vibrant colors with rose blooms for as far as the eye can see — and just in time for the celebrated Fukuyama Rose Festival. Interestingly, this stunning display of color and floral variety has its roots in a darker period in Japan’s history.
Near the end of World War II, an air raid burned much of the city, which is located east of Hiroshima City, to the ground. As the city rebuilt itself in the ensuing years, the residents began planting rose seedlings to lift their spirits as they embarked on a new era of peace and reconstruction.
The residents started with about a thousand seedlings in the mid-1950s. As the rose plants took root and began to grow, and as gardens began spreading to other parts of the city, so did something else in Fukuyama and in the nation as a whole — hope and resilience. Literally rising from the ashes, Japan emerged as one of the world’s most prosperous economies, its people overcoming the devastation of war and working together for a brighter future.
That future has arrived, and the roses in Fukuyama, Hiroshima Prefecture’s second largest city, are so plentiful — estimates put it in the hundreds of thousands, with the goal to eventually reach a million — that Fukuyama is today known as the “Rose City.” Its Rose Festival is the largest festival of the year.
This past May, Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino and his wife Joycelyn led a delegation of Maui officials participating in the festival parade. They were joined by his chief of staff, Deidre Tegarden; state Rep. Troy Hashimoto (D-District 8: Kahakuloa, Waihe‘e, Waiehu, Pu‘uohala, Wailuku, Waikapü); UH Maui College vice chancellor of student affairs Debra Nakama; international program coordinator Stephanie Ohigashi, also of Maui College; and others. The visit to Fukuyama, a Maui County sister-city since 2008, was scheduled as part of the mayor’s 11-day goodwill and economic development tour to Japan and South Korea.
“We had a number of Maui students march with us with a banner,” Victorino said in a phone interview with The Hawai‘i Herald. “We really were well-represented [in the parade], and I was very pleased overall,” he said. In addition to the impressive rose gardens throughout the city, Victorino praised how well-maintained and clean the city was, noting the lack of trash within the city limits and the pride Fukuyama residents take in caring for their surroundings.
Fukuyama was founded as a castle town in the early 1600s and has grown into a modern city with a population estimated at just under half a million. It is the second most populated city in Hiroshima Prefecture. Sites of interest include the Ashida River, Fukuyama Castle, Fukuyama University (known for its pharmacology program), Fukuyama Junior College for Women, the Holocaust Education Center and the scenic beauty of the Seto Inland Sea.
This was the second time Victorino had participated in the Rose Festival parade. Four years ago, as a Maui County councilmember, he marched in the parade alongside then-Mayor Alan Arakawa, who was driven in a car. Now, as Maui County’s mayor (Victorino was elected in November 2018), it was his honor to ride in the parade with his wife, who was visiting Japan for the first time. He said the parade crowd gave the Maui delegation an enthusiastic reception. He also noticed the crowd’s appreciation for Hawaiian culture, which he experienced during his previous visit. Fukuyama, like many cities in Japan, has its own hula hälau (hula school). The hälau members’ participation in the parade punctuated the close ties between Hawai‘i and Japan, which extend back to 1868 with Japanese immigration to the Hawaiian Kingdom and continue today with tourism, trade and educational exchanges, among other relationships.
As anyone who has lived in Japan knows, the country is known for its compact appliances and vehicles, a necessity given its general lack of space and narrow roadways. Victorino said the mayor of Fukuyama joked that they got the biggest vehicle they could find for him to ride in — a shiny blue MINI Cooper convertible, which, in America, is considered among the smallest cars on the road. The 6-foot-2 Victorino is a big man by Japanese standards, but he and Joycelyn took their places in the MINI Cooper and warmly shared Hawai‘i’s aloha spirit with parade onlookers.
Victorino described Fukuyama government officials as “gracious” and “welcoming” throughout his three days in the city. He met with various politicians and civil servants, including Mayor Naoki Edahiro; deputy mayors Tomoharu Nakashima and Shohei Sugino;
Assembly chair and deputy chair, respectively, Yoshiyuki Hayakawa and Hisato Kumagai; and civil affairs director Osamu Kohatake. They discussed issues and common concerns to both cities, including the need to strike a balance between visitor impacts, conservation and residents’ concerns in popular tourist destinations.
Victorino said one of his trip goals was to assure Fukuyama City officials that his administration would continue to support the strong sister city relationship that Fukuyama enjoyed with previous Maui County administrations. Whenever there is a change in administration, it isn’t always clear whether the new administration will carry on the priorities of the preceding administration. Mayor Victorino’s visit left no doubt that he values the sister city relationship with Fukuyama and intends to further strengthen it during his time in office.
Sister City Program
In 2008, Maui County became Fukuyama’s first American sister city. The bonds between them have grown stronger over the years. Victorino and his chief of staff Deidre Tegarden described the ongoing and friendly ties between Fukuyama and Maui County, which have included reciprocal visits to discuss issues of mutual concern (e.g., tourism, high cost of living and climate change), cooperative educational and research programs, various business opportunities and the planting of rose bushes in each other’s city as a symbol of a blossoming relationship. The rose garden outside the Maui County building in Wailuku has been the site of numerous ceremonial plantings.
For example, in 2008 — the year the Fukuyama sister city agreement was formalized — a 45-member delegation, led by its mayor and vice mayor, visited Maui. They toured local farms, met with residents, hosted a tea ceremony and participated in a rose bush-planting event on the grounds of the Maui County government building. On his most recent visit to Fukuyama, Victorino recalled the roses that had been planted there by a previous delegation visiting Maui.
The sister city relationship between Maui County and Fukuyama was not the result of speed dating, so to speak. The relationship took many years to develop and actually began as a sister chamber agreement between their respective chambers of commerce. The formal sister city agreement came about a decade later. Stephanie Ohigashi, a longtime Maui community leader, helped to cement that relationship from the beginning and continues to devote much of her time to developing positive Maui-Japan programs that bring people together to learn from each other.
The sister city movement in the United States gained momentum after World War II under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who promoted the idea of citizen diplomacy, especially among cities whose countries were previously wartime enemies. It was a way of developing friendly ties during peacetime and was especially important in the Cold War era after World War II, when the potential for international conflict was strong.
In 1956, Eisenhower convened a White House Summit on Citizen Diplomacy that resulted in the people-to-people program. Eisenhower and supporters of citizen diplomacy believed there was a greater chance of achieving positive international relations between nations if ordinary people from different countries and cultures could get to know each other on a personal level. Today, this grassroots movement is facilitated by an organization called Sister Cities International.
Hawai‘i’s four counties all have a number of sister cities. Not all are active partnerships, however.
“We have a strong working relationship with Fukuyama,” Victorino said, as evidenced by his support of the county’s relationship with Fukuyama as a council member and now as mayor, as well as during his nine-year tenure as Maui County Fair director. He said he remembers in the past when Fukuyama businesses would sell and give out products at the fair. In recent years, however, their visits have been more to enjoying the fair and the Maui lifestyle.
Maui County has sister city relationships with 24 cities, three of which are in Japan. In addition to Fukuyama City, the county also enjoys sister ties with Hachijö Island in Tökyö and Hirara City on Miyako Island in Okinawa.
By comparison, Honolulu has 33 sister cities, five of them in Japan (Chigasaki City in Kanagawa Prefecture, Hiroshima City, Nagaoka City in Niigata, Naha City in Okinawa and Uwajima City in Ehime Prefecture). It established its first sister city relationship with Hiroshima City in 1959.
Maui-Japan Educational Exchanges
An advocate for educational exchanges between Maui and Japan, Victorino praised the work that UH Maui College is doing to promote study abroad opportunities in Japan for Maui County students and, in turn, to develop programs for Japanese students to come to Maui for academic, athletic and cultural experiences.
While in Japan in May, UH Maui College’s Debra Nakama and Stephanie Ohigashi worked on strengthening and initiating new educational exchanges with various institutions of higher learning in Fukuyama and elsewhere. In an interview with the Herald, Ohigashi described a variety of mutually beneficial programs already in existence and others in the development stage. For example, Japanese students have come to Maui to learn agricultural and agribusiness practices. In turn, Maui farmers can learn how Japan is developing drone technology to benefit farmers in various ways.
Educational exchanges have even benefited students at the high school level: Students from Fukuyama High School and Maui’s King Kekaulike High School have visited each other’s cities on educational trips. Victorino said he wants these types of exchanges to continue at all levels.
The most recent issue of the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center’s newsletter featured an article about a Maui-Japan preschool relationship. Maui’s Kansha Preschool welcomed “friends” from Hokkaidö’s Kikkyo Gakuen as part of an inaugural program. Kansha Preschool is housed on the NVMC campus along with the Maui Adult Day Care center, allowing for mutually beneficial intergenerational activities between younger and older Maui residents.
Both Hawai‘i and Japan have relatively large older adult populations. Hawai‘i residents have the longest life expectancy in the United States, and Japan has the highest percentage of residents age 65 and over in the world and a long tradition of honoring its elders, similar to many cultures in Hawai‘i. However, both are struggling to meet the needs of their aging residents. Intergenerational programs help young and old appreciate the positive feelings they can bring to each other’s lives.
First-Term Mayor, Long-Term Vision
Victorino’s exposure to Japanese culture began in his childhood, growing up in multicultural Hilo with friends of various ethnic backgrounds. As a mayoral candidate, he espoused “local values,” which he defined as “Family First. Work Hard. Be Responsible. Be Respectful. Be Honest. Help Community.” Those values have no color and no ethnicity, he said. Victorino isn’t Japanese, but he said he grew up with friends who were Japanese. Together, they enjoyed watching samurai movies like “Zatoichi.” In fact, on his campaign website, he credits those films, subtitled in English, with helping him learn to speed-read. “You had to read fast if you wanted to keep up with those old samurai movies!” the mayor exclaimed. Victorino said he still watches Japanese television shows when he has the chance.
As a young adult, he met a part-Japanese girl from Maui named Joycelyn Nakahashi when they were both working at a McDonald’s restaurant. They were married in 1976. Victorino calls it “the best decision of my life.” They have two sons: Michael Jr. and Shane, the now-retired professional baseball player. The mayor and his wife have been married for more than 40 years.
Years earlier, the future mayor coached and refereed youth sports. He still gets excited when he talks about opportunities for Valley Isle athletes to play with athletes from Japan. This past September, Maui’s King Kekaulike High School’s football team played Japan’s Kwansei Gakuin. Victorino hopes to encourage more such Maui County-Japan intercultural activities.
On Victorino’s election website are the words: “It takes a village to raise a Mayor.” It also takes a village to run a county.
Victorino’s chief of staff, Deidre Tegarden, has been a valuable member of his team when it comes to building Maui-Japan relations and in raising the county’s global profile. Prior to joining the mayor’s cabinet, Tegarden served as executive director of the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center in Wailuku. She was also chief of protocol for Gov. Neil Abercrombie, among other high profile positions. Tegarden speaks Japanese fluently and served as an interpreter for Victorino during his trip to Japan and Korea. She brings a wealth of experience and knowledge about Asia, having majored in East Asian Studies at the University of Maryland.
The delegation also traveled to Tökyö and Yokohama to visit with university officials and students and learned about ongoing and evolving programs that UH Maui College is developing through its international and study abroad programs. Earlier this year, officials from Toho University visited Victorino’s office to learn how the county is addressing renewable energy, sustainability and climate change issues.
After Japan, Victorino headed to Goyang City in South Korea, another of Maui County’s sister cities. The Maui contingent visited institutions of higher learning there and discussed educational exchanges, horticulture, community development goals and other topics of mutual concern. They met with business leaders in Korea to explore tourism opportunities that involve Maui, especially in ways that are environmentally friendly and culturally respectful. They also discussed a possible sister city relationship with Jeju Island, visited the Demilitarized Zone and learned about Korean history, business and culture.
In reflecting on Hawai‘i’s future, Victorino noted that local residents value the historical and cultural traditions of their past, despite the fact that so many of them are becoming multicultural due to intermarriage. His own children are Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese, and his grandchildren can claim even more ethnicities.
Mayor Victorino said he truly enjoyed his visit to Japan and Korea and was gratified to see how interested people were in Hawai‘i. He emphasized the importance of supporting youth exchanges, whether they are educational, cultural, athletic or in other areas.
“I encourage and support it tremendously,” he said, adding that those are the ways that “our young people learn about other young people” and they see that they share common interests and enjoy similar activities that they can do together.
He also returned to the topic of the Fukuyama roses. “Out of tragedy something so beautiful took root and blossomed over the decades,” Victorino said.
“There are roses on the streets. There are roses in planter boxes. There are rose gardens all over the city,” he said. “I’ve been to other cities with rose gardens and they are beautiful . . . but nothing like Fukuyama.”
Kevin Y. Kawamoto is a longtime contributor to The Hawai‘i Herald.