It’s been twenty years since Borough Mayor Don Gilman envisioning the Kenai Peninsula’s economic future launched a Sister City relationship with Akita, Japan. To celebrate the 20th Anniversary of that friendship a delegation from Akita visited the Peninsula this summer to renew and energize future partnerships. It all began in 1989 when Japanese born Yasuko Lehtinen began teaching Japanese language at Soldotna High School, “I was homesick for my culture and many students became very interested in learning about our neighbors in Japan,” Lehtinen, acting as translator for the Akita delegation recalled. She took the initiative to visit the Japanese embassy in Anchorage at the time and met with Consular Ushida and over the course of two years collaborating with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Anchorage established a sister city program for Alaska.
The Peninsula initially considered the city of Hokkaido, Japan but they deemed the Peninsula an inappropriate match due the difference in population. Then in 1991, Akita became interested specifically in a sister city relationship in Alaska and contacted the Anchorage embassy. The Peninsula not being a city per se filled the image for the relationship and the sister city friendship was officially established in 1992 according to Borough records. The first exchange happened in that year and Lehtinen accompanied a Peninsula delegation to Akita for the first time in an official sister city capacity. Since then every two years student and professional exchanges of one type or another have occurred involving local residents such as Dr. Dan Pitts and four different Borough Mayors.
“We thank you for the assistance you sent following the recent tsunami, while Akita didn’t suffer much damage, we sent the donations from Kenai to where it was most needed and we thank you for deepening our friendship through this gesture it was very encouraging to the people of Japan,” said Mayor of Akita Motomu Hozumi at a welcoming reception at the Challenger Learning Center. “It was an honor to have them as our guests on this 20th Anniversary. This has been a long term and very productive cultural exchange and economic relationship which was Mayor Gilman’s original vision and we plan to continue the friendship in the future,” said Mayor Navarre.
After a very busy week of site seeing, gift exchanges and touring many different businesses from Seward to Homer the Akita delegation returned to Japan and according to Lehtinen this trip may have been the most promising for future local business development. “The Japanese people are very fond of beer and the delegation visited our local breweries like Kassik’s in Kenai and spoke very highly of our local beers and we hope in the future there may be opportunity to export Alaskan beers there. Also the Japanese people live on seafood and found our oyster farms, crab and other seafood’s very much to their liking. We had a great time in Seward where they saw whales breeching for the first time and were very excited to return and promote tourism to here from Japan, they like very much winter sports and I think we will see much more winter tourism from Japan as well as a result. They are also very interested in energy trade. Japan was the first customer to buy LNG from Nikiski and continues to do so today and hopefully as Alaska develops our energy resources they will be an interested market, so I think this was probably the most economically promising exchange we have had in the twenty years of our sister city relationship. Culturally, they liked very much our American hip hop dance and we are looking to have a youth dance exchange in the future,” added Lehtinen.