While the cities of Franklin and Kuji, Japan were officially affirmed as sister cities in 1961, the ties between the two municipalities goes back to one Franklin College grad who dedicated her life to service.
Thomasine Allen was born in Franklin in 1890. She later become a student at Franklin College and graduated with a degree in English literature in 1911. From there, she attended New York Theological Seminary. She ventured to Japan for missionary work but ended up spending the majority of her life there. After serving various communities around Japan, she eventually moved to Kuji in 1938 and started the Kuji Christian Center.
She was detained during World War II and was sent home by force. She returned to the island nation several years later as an English teacher at Kuji High School. She was named an honorary citizen of Kuji in 1959, and she founded the Allen Junior College there in 1970. She died in 1976.
One Johnson County History Museum exhibit, which opened to the public on April 29, provides an explanation of how the two cities are linked. It will also feature a section dedicated to Thomasine Allen and discuss the impact of the decades-long relationship. Artifacts will include donations from the family of Euriko Ling, a Japanese immigrant who worked to convince Japanese businesses to settle in Franklin. Other donations include those from former Franklin mayors.
Emily Spuhler, the exhibit’s curator, said the idea for the exhibit sprang from the fact that 2021 marks the 60-year anniversary of when the two municipalities were officially designated as sister cities. She said the upcoming Kuji exhibit is unlike their typical work.
“It’s telling a different kind of story. Whenever we do an exhibit, it’s either a topic or some event that is seen through Johnson County eyes,” Spuhler said. “In this case, we’re not only talking about Johnson County—we’re also talking about another country that’s halfway around the world.”
Spuhler dug through old newspaper articles and historical accounts to build the narrative for the exhibit. She was intrigued by the fact that the inter-city relationship was spurred by one woman—Thomasine Allen.
“She’s really the glue that brought Kuji and Franklin together,” Spuhler said.
Dakota DeBaets is the current Franklin College Assistant Language Teacher, or ALT, in Kuji. She is the 30th individual to serve in the role since the tradition started in 1988. She teaches English to elementary school students as an extension of the cultural exchange than Allen started in the 1930s.
In her experience Japanese people are excessively polite, but they abide by strict social codes. She has been scolded several times for wearing outside shoes into buildings, temporarily forgetting her surrounding environment that is vastly different than the farm she grew up on where shoes and boots were worn on any and all surfaces.
“Culture shock is a thing no matter where you go. When I first came, there were obviously things that were very difficult for me, but it’s gotten a lot better,” DeBaets said.
The structure of DeBaets’s days is the same, but the experiences they contain vary widely. Because school children in Kuji bike and walk to school, there are a lot of schools in the relatively small city. She and two other foreign-born language educators cover 21 schools, leaving her responsible for seven. Most of her students don’t know any other foreigners, so she is a cultural oddity.
“We’re really there to have more of a cultural exchange,” DeBaets said. “For a lot of them, the only interaction they’ve had with a native English speaker are going to be Assistant Language Teachers.”
From her teaching experience, DeBaets has learned resiliency. She has found her way in Japan, even though she spoke little Japanese upon arrival. Her expectation of the country was bashed early on, as she said it doesn’t fit the image that American pop culture portrays. Japan isn’t all Tokyo and anime: the rural areas are quite different, she explained.
By taking an effort to learn the language, DeBaets said she has been able to engage in meaningful opportunities. She is currently taking a calligraphy class from a woman who speaks no English.
Franklin Mayor Steve Barnett said the city’s relationship with Kuji is strong. Franklin is home to nine Japanese manufacturing companies, he explained, and they are all welcome here. The city also designed an alleyway in downtown Franklin with Japanese styles and called it Kuji Alley. The main goal was to excite the Japanese students who are frequently received by host families, he said. Plans are currently being crafted for a Japanese garden in Province Park, he continued.
Typically, the Franklin mayor and other city officials visit Kuji in the fall but COVID-19 negated that possibility. Barnett and others wanted to visit for a two-day parade there, but he knew that was off the table when Japan’s 2020 Summer Olympic Games were cancelled.
“We were really looking forward to going to Kuji last year before COVID started,” Barnett said. “We were very disappointed that we didn’t get to visit our sister city.”
Across the Pacific, a Kuji public official echoed Barnett’s thoughts. Yuko Gamano, who works as an international relations coordinator for the city of Kuji, said that the city sees its relationship with Franklin as a chance to mingle cultures.
“Youth in both cities, who will bear the responsibility of shaping the world’s future, will have the opportunity to actually see it with their own eyes and experience different cultures in real life. There is no doubt that being able to actually experience rather than seeing it through the small screen of a mobile phone or computer is an irreplaceable experience,” Gamano said.
Thomas Maxwell, a former ALT and Franklin College alumnus said he enjoyed his time in Japan although he encountered some difficulties along the way. Five months after arriving in Japan, he fell off a cliff while taking pictures and broke his leg in 17 different places. This experience, he said, taught him more about the Japanese medical system than he ever wanted to know. He remembers being administered baby aspirin for his severe pain.
Maxwell said that Japan was too bureaucratic and rigid for his liking. Anything that opposed the status quo was considered unacceptable, he explained. The teaching position he held in Japan was also not ideal, he continued. He did not spend very much time instructing. Rather, he was asked to simply stand by and recite phrases and words in his native English dialect. He said he was treated like a tape recorder all too often.
Despite difficulties, Maxwell did come away with some meaningful experiences. He made lifelong friends and learned to think on the fly.
“I think it taught me to approach things in a more flexible manner, even though I still am and will remain outspoken when something is not working correctly,’ Maxwell said.
Greg Moore is a member of a Franklin committee that plans the logistics of the sister city relationship. He is also a member of the Franklin Rotary Club, which has a strong relationship with Kuji’s Rotary Club. Given his ties to the Japanese city, he has come to own various gifts from Kuji over the years, many of them given to him by former Franklin mayors. He has loaned many of them to the museum for the exhibit.
Moore’s wife Tamayo Fukumoto is from Japan, and she has agreed to help translate passages from Japanese to English for Franklin residents. Moore said that she has been very selfless throughout the process. Much of the work done to strengthen the relationship between the two cities could not have been done without her facilitation.
Moore said one of the principal impacts of the inter-city relationship is diplomacy. International cooperation and solidarity has made both cities better.
“It is a great relationship to think something as small as Franklin, Indiana is connected to something as small as Kuji, Japan,” Moore said. “The best way to make the world better is just to forge these relations one person at a time.”