(HELENA) Leaders from Montana welcomed dignitaries from Japan’s Kumamoto Prefecture to Helena Tuesday, to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the two becoming “sister states.”

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock welcomed Kumamoto Gov. Ikuo Kabashima, members of the prefectural assembly and other leaders during a ceremony at the State Capitol.

Kumamoto is located in southern Japan, on the island of Kyushu. In 1982, Montana Gov. Ted Schwinden signed an agreement to officially recognize the prefecture as Montana’s sister state.

Leaders say Montana’s longtime U.S. Senator Mike Mansfield first suggested the idea three years earlier, while he was serving as U.S. ambassador to Japan.

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“For 35 years, our two states have developed a deep understanding of the importance of trade and cultural exchange, in a way that would certainly make Sen. Mansfield proud and has also served both of our states and their peoples very well,” said Bullock.

Kabashima said during the ceremony that he considers Mansfield an inspiration in his own political career.

Leaders say Montana and Kumamoto have developed strong ties since becoming sister states. They share educational and cultural exchange programs. The Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman is a sister museum to the Mifune Dinosaur Museum in Kumamoto. Bullock said city buses in Kumamoto are decorated with works by Montana artist Monte Dolack.

Montana also operates a trade office in Kumamoto, its only such office outside the U.S. Bullock said Japan is one of the state’s largest trading partners, for everything from chemical products to wheat and pasta.

“Japanese consumers demand the highest-quality food in the world, and Montana producers have been so proud to answer that call for generations,” he said. “We certainly look forward to continuing our strong trade relationships.”

Leaders say the ties also extend to times of challenge. Bullock said people in Kumamoto have raised money for fire relief in Montana, while Montanans provided support after Kumamoto was struck by a 7.3 earthquake last year.

Kabashima said his prefecture is working hard to recover from the earthquake. He encouraged Montanans to visit Kumamoto and see the progress they have made.

On Tuesday, Bullock and Kabashima exchanged gifts to honor the anniversary of the sister-state relationship. The ceremony also included a performance by Taiko Montana, a Japanese-style drum ensemble from Bozeman.

Kabashima and 20 other dignitaries from Kumamoto are spending three days in Montana. In addition to Helena, they will visit Missoula and Bozeman.

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