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Despite thousands of miles of distance, a tragic accident involving a U.S. nuclear submarine and a Japanese fishing-training boat almost three years ago has bonded two communities in friendship.

Hawaii and Ehime, a prefecture on the western coast of Japan, made a sister state-prefecture affiliation agreement Friday. On hand for the ceremony in Hawaii were officials from Ehime Prefecture, including Gov. Moriyuki Kato.

During the ceremony, Kato and Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle signed the goodwill pact, which fosters economic, educational, cultural and social exchanges.

“The Ehime Maru incident of February 9, 2001, has joined the people of Hawaii and Ehime in a special bond of friendship like no other,” the agreement said.

The Ehime Maru, a training boat from the Uwajima Fisheries High School in Ehime, sank off Honolulu after it collided with the USS Greenville as the submarine surfaced rapidly. Nine Japanese students and school teachers aboard the fishing boat died.

The Ehime Maru went down in 2,000 feet of water. About nine months later, the U.S. Navy salvaged it; Navy divers and sailors from the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force recovered the bodies of eight of the nine victims and about 2,000 of the victims’ and survivors’ personal items.

Hawaiian residents offered “unsparing” support and help to the victims’ families and Ehime school and government officials who visited Hawaii after the incident, Kato said.

“The Ehime Maru accident was a very tragic event,” he said. “However, the sincere response of the U.S. Navy and heartfelt warm support we received from the people of Hawaii are the foundation of the bond built between the two communities.”

Also welcoming the affiliation were the victims’ families and Uwajima, home of the fisheries high school.

“I feel very grateful for such an affiliation,” said Tatsuyoshi Mizuguchi, father of then 17-year-old Takeshi Mizuguchi, the only victim whose body never was recovered.

“Since the accident, Hawaii has become a very special place to our family,” he said. “It is the bond that we have built with the people of Hawaii that continues to spiritually support us to this day.”

The affiliation will foster a people-to-people exchange, he said. “I believe this is the best way to preserve the tragedy in peoples’ minds. ... Without a future-oriented arrangement such as this, the accident would soon fade away from peoples’ memories.”

Shuzo Seike, Uwajima city official who acted as coordinator for the families of the victims and survivors, said, “The kindness that the people of Hawaii offered us deeply touched our hearts. No matter where we went in Hawaii, people would come forward, asking us if there was anything they could do.

“Through them, I learned the true meaning of the Aloha spirit.”

Hawaiians also received the pact favorably.

“The sister state-prefecture agreement is a great step forward,” said Earl Okawa, president of Hawaii’s Japan-America Society.

“We hope to have many other ties with various organizations between Hawaii and Ehime, such as education and tourism.”

Among the Ehime delegation were 30 children, members of two baseball teams formed by elementary and middle school students in Ehime. They played a few games with their counterparts in Hawaii last week.

“The children are all aware of the significance of the event and that the games were played in remembrance of those who died in the Ehime Maru accident,” said Junnosuke Kaino, Ehime prefectural assembly member and an organizer of the baseball games.

He said Hawaii and Ehime Prefecture plan to have such exchange games every year, alternating the location between Hawaii and Ehime.

Said Okawa, “It is so heartwarming to see the young generation developing relations.”

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