Exchange coordinator plans to bring volleyball team to Japanese sister city

When Yasko Lehtinen first established a sister city exchange program between Kenai and Akita, Japan, more than 20 years ago, she took students, hoping to inspire them to experience other cultures.


Since then Japanese-born Lehtinen has traveled with politicians, educators, business people and other students to Akita. This coming summer she wants to add a new group to the list — a high school volleyball team.

The idea to fly a six to seven player volleyball team to Akita started when Lehtinen and her family traveled to Akita last July, where Lehtinen was honored for her efforts in the exchange program. While in Akita, Lehtinen’s granddaughter, Kyla Whannell, Kenai Central High School junior, played volleyball with a girls team in the city.

Kyla and the team communicated using broken Japanese and English as well as hand gestures to play the sport, Pako Whannell, Lehtinen’s daughter and local volleyball coach and physical trainer, said. When the rules of the sport are the same, it makes for a good, common starting point when there’s a language barrier, she said. Pako Whannell will likely coach the Kenai team in Akita next summer.

“It was really amazing — the level of skill that they have at the high school level over there,” Pako Whannell said. “I think that I would probably have a great time coaching six or possibly seven girls.”

She said the Akita team practices two hours or more a day, six days a week every week unless there’s a holiday. The coaching style is different from the typical American way of coaching, Pako Whannell said.

“(The team made) a couple mistakes … and they looked at (the coach) and she didn’t even yell or anything she just kind of tilted her head and gave this facial gesture,” she said. “And they knew, ‘oh jeez, we need to do better,’ and then they corrected the mistake.”

Kyla said the girls she’s talked to about being a part of the traveling team are excited about the idea.

“I told (the girls) about the level of play and they’re like, ‘alright no one’s that good here in Alaska. Let’s go play them,’” Kyla said.

She said the girls are also excited about bonding on the trip and experiencing Japanese culture.

But Lehtinen said some of girls on the volleyball team, as with students in the past, don’t have the money to afford the round-trip plane tickets that can cost more than $2,000 per person.

Lehtinen and her daughter and granddaughter agreed the girls interested in being a part of the team need to start seeking and raising funds soon.

If it can raise the money, the team will stay in Japan for about a week with host families, which will not only cut lodging costs, but also help to immerse the girls in the Japanese culture.

“It would be just a great I think experience … for the kids to experience something outside of Alaska, something outside of our country, and see how other youth are just like we are over here just a little different level,” Pako Whannell said. “And maybe that would spark some interest in the kids in international business or learning the language or culture.”

Pako Whannell said some of the girls are taking Japanese language classes with Lehtinen, who teaches the language as well as Japanese cooking at the Kenai Peninsula College. She said the girls that also commit to going should learn some basics about the culture and etiquette as well as language before leaving.

It’s been about 15 years since Lehtinen last took high school students to Akita, but Pako Whannell said she thinks high school students, as they are preparing to leave for college, are more open to learning about different cultures and meeting new people.

Kaylee Osowski can be reached at