AS the federal government looks at Australia’s role in the “Asian Century”, Warrnambool is already well placed.
Few people know this better than Annabel Cussen, who returned to the south-west two months ago after spending two years in Warrnambool’s Japanese sister city, Miura.
Ms Cussen worked as an assistant language teacher in four high schools and elementary schools, as well as in adult education classes, and said the sister city relationship was one to be proud of.
“I think there’s a limited awareness of what it is,” she explained.
“To a lot of people, Miura is just a place on a sign when you drive into town.
“It’s not widely known in Warrnambool but our relationship with Miura is considered in Japan and throughout Australia as one of the strongest sister city relationships.
“We have yearly activity, yearly exchange and yearly contact. It’s a lot more than signs.”
A yearly student exchange program, which has been running for over a decade, will hold Warrnambool in good stead, with Prime Minister Julia Gillard announcing a push for all Australian schools to link with Asian schools to increase language and cultural opportunities as part of the government’s “Asian Century” white paper.
Ms Cussen said the Miura-Warrnambool student exchange was “a strong educational experience” that opened students’ minds to a world of new experiences.
There have also been strong connections made through council staff, councillors, host families, and teachers in both Warrnambool and Miura.
“I met so many kind people in Japan who were so effusive about the impact of meeting Australian people 20 years ago,” she said.
“And the impact goes both ways. So many people in Warrnambool know someone who went to Miura or hosted visitors from Miura.”
The sister city relationship was strengthened by the celebration of its 20th anniversary this year, Ms Cussen said.
“The 20th anniversary of the sister city relationship agreement highlighted in both councils ... (that) there are fantastic opportunities for expansion and growth in the future.
“Miura is very keen to expand beyond more than education.”
The hardship and tragedy of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, which claimed over 15,000 lives, also strengthened the Miura-Warrnambool bonds.
Ms Cussen was in Miura when the initial quake struck, but said Miura was lucky.
“There was no structural damage, just a few cracks in buildings and pavements,” she explained.
“We felt the quake and were on tsunami warning for 10 hours but we weren’t inundated at all.
“Miura has strong ties with (northern Japanese city) Minamisoma and that was one of the towns that was completely destroyed. In the initial days, Miura sent firefighters and disaster relief workers and council workers.
“When the fund-raising came from the Warrnambool community, Miura asked permission to send it to Minamisoma because that was more appropriate as it was an area that truly needed it.
“The gesture of the condolence book and fund-raising activities (in Warrnambool) were incredibly touching and did a lot to strengthen ties. I heard from many people from Miura council who were overwhelmed by the generosity, and it’s not a terribly Japanese trait to be so emotional.”
In her day-to-day work in Miura, Ms Cussen taught English, as well as providing students with an insight into Australian culture and life.
This often highlighted the vast differences between the two countries, which often manifested in interesting ways, she said.
“I remember being asked before I left what I was going to do when I got back and I said I wanted to eat lasagne and meat pies.
“In the class of 45 students, only two of them had ever heard of lasagne before.”
During her time there she was also asked to MC the Miura Marathon, which attracts 90,000 visitors, some of whom run the event in bizarre costumes.
“They’ve never had a competitor in the marathon from Warrnambool,” she said.
The challenge has been made.