Japanese officials honor Kenai woman for exchange efforts

It’s been 21 years since Yasuko Lehtinen took the first group of exchange program participants to Kenai’s sister city, Akita, Japan.


She was honored for her years spent organizing Kenai’s part in the exchange July 12. The Akita organizers of the program invited Lehtinen and her family to come to the city for a ceremony where Lehtinen delivered three speeches to a large audience of friends and officials that represent and have participated in the exchange.

Pako Whannell, Lehtinen’s daughter, who, along with her husband and two kids, accompanied Lehtinen to Japan, said it is not traditional in Japanese culture to honor a woman and the work she has done.

“The Japanese culture is lead mostly by men so the mayor (of Akita) is actually nontraditional. … So he really appreciated and wanted to show my mom 21 years is just great to have that good connection,” Whannell said.

Lehtinen said she started the program when she was teaching at Skyview and Soldotna High Schools. The students didn’t have any dreams, so she decided to try to create some type of program to help the students experience other cultures. For a few years she went back and forth between Tokyo and the U.S. embassy in Anchorage to try to create an exchange. Lehtinen said embassy officials finally called one day saying Akita was looking for a sister city. In 1992, she brought six students, first group of delegates, to Japan.

Now Lehtinen usually takes a group of 10 – 12 people to Japan every other year, and a group of political officials from Akita comes to Kenai the opposite years. She has taken students, teachers, politicians and business people. Next summer she hopes to take a six-player volleyball team made up of players from area high schools.

Whannell said her daughter, Kyla Whannell, 16, played volleyball with the No. 1 girls team in Akita while they were in Japan in July.

“All the girls speak Japanese and Kyla only knows a few words in Japanese, but they were able to communicate and play volleyball, which I thought was amazing,” Whannell said.

Lehtinen said she hopes to get more high school students interested in the exchange by bringing a volleyball team to Akita.

Both Whannell and Kyla have been to Japan with Lehtinen before, but it was Whannell’s husband, Jeff Whannell, and her 11-year-old son, Jordyn Whannell’s, first times in Japan. She said they were open to new experiences and different food, and, by the end of the trip, they were “using chopsticks and eating sushi like it was no big deal.”

Whannell said she wishes she would’ve travelled more when she was younger, but is glad her kids have this experience that has opened up their minds.

She said every time she returns to Akita her friends and acquaintances that she has met through the exchange say, “welcome home.”

Lehtinen has lived in the U.S. for 43 years, more than 30 of which have been spent in Alaska. She teaches Japanese language and Japanese cooking classes at KPC. Even though she has been to Japan multiple times in the 21 years of the exchange, she has never been back to her hometown in southern Japan. She has only been to Akita.

Lehtinen encourages her students at Kenai Peninsula College to travel and explore and wants to bring more young people to Japan.

“I always tell my students your hometown will never change, but you have to go out to look, hear, taste and then if you want to come back to your hometown, you can,” Lehtinen said.

Kaylee Osowski can be reached at kaylee.osowski@peninsulaclarion.com.