Kenai hosts Japanese guests, marks 20-year partnership

Kenai mayor Pat Porter smiled as she danced Thursday with three delegates from Akita, Japan. 


Bull Don and The Moose Nuggets, a local band, finished performing a purely American tune, then Yasuko Lehtinen welcomed and encouraged the guests to drink sake. 

The welcoming reception held at Challenger Learning Center of Alaska marked a 20-year relationship between Kenai and Akita. The Japanese delegation, along with Kenai Peninsula Borough officials, listened to speeches, watched dances, and drank sake and beer. 

Akita is Kenai’s sister city. Lehtinen, a Japanese language and Japanese cooking instructor at Kenai Peninsula College, began establishing ties between the two cities in 1989, when she moved to the Peninsula. At that time, Lehtinen taught Japanese at Skyview High School, and her students expressed an interest in visiting the language’s country of origin. 

For two years, the students went on weeklong trips, but Lehtinen wanted to broaden the cultural exchange between Japan and Alaska by starting an exchange program.

“I wanted to,” she said. “I’m so stubborn. I wanted to show my country to my students. That was my big idea.”

With the help of the American Embassy in Japan and the Consular Office of Japan in Anchorage, Lehtinen searched for Eastern cities eager to create ties. 

She wanted Hokkaido, she said, but its city officials thought Kenai was too small. That larger city opted for a relationship with Anchorage. Akita, at the same time, sought an Alaska sister city, and the relationship officially began in 1992. 

Akita is the capital city of the Akita Prefecture in the Tohoku region of Japan. As of June 2005, Akita merged with two nearby cities, increasing its population to about 330,000. Oil refining, woodworking, metalworking and the production of silk textiles are the city’s main industries.

Akita is also known for its Kanto Festival, which is held from Aug. 3 to 6 each year, according to Akita’s website. 

Before the officials spoke, a former high school student of Lehtinen’s sang “Hiru No Tsuki,” which translates to daytime moon, to the guests at the Challenger Center. 

Borough mayor Mike Navarre briefly addressed the delegation, which included Akita’s mayor, Motomu Hozumi, and thanked them for visiting the Peninsula. 

“We cherish our relationship with your city,” Navarre said. 

He also gave Lehtinen flowers for keeping the relationship strong for two decades. Porter gave Akita’s mayor a wrapped gift, too. 

Mayor Hozumi spoke in English from a prepared speech. After thanking the exchange’s organizers, Hozumi expressed his appreciation of the locally collected donations the borough sent to Akita last year following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March 2011. 

A total of $3,010 was wired to Akita following the 9.0 magnitude earthquake. 

“The donations encouraged us to give a helping hand to the areas most affected by the disaster,” Hozumi said, as the earthquake affected his city but did not destroy Akita like it did others. 

Dan Pitts, a local dentist, spoke last to the guests. Pitts enrolled in Lehtinen’s language course at the college some years ago. His family and Lehtinen started a lasting relationship, and Pitts has served as a host family for exchange students and visited Akita four times. 

The cities’ relationship “started as an educational exchange but grew into a more cultural exchange, and we’re trying desperately to establish a business exchange,” he said.

Former Borough mayor Dave Carey said in June 2010 that the partnership began, in part, because both regions depend on fishing and oil. 

Kenai’s small size has stifled the sought-after business ties with the Japanese city, Lehtinen said. 

After the speeches, the delegates, including Akita’s mayor, performed a traditional Japanese dance. They also sang some songs, including “Puff the Magic Dragon.” The song is popular in Akita, Lehtinen told the guests. 

Kyla Whannell, Lehtinen’s granddaughter and a Kenai Central High School student, followed the delegates’ performances by dancing to an American pop song. Whannell energetically moved around the dance floor to Kesha’s “Blow” while the Japanese visitors clapped in response. 

She said she chose the song because it was upbeat. 

The delegation will spend about a week traveling the Peninsula. 

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at