Akita visitors see Alaska from unique point of view

Posted: Sunday, August 11, 2002

Sometimes it takes a different perspective to see what's right in front of you.

That may not be the official purpose of three Japanese citizens' trip to the Kenai Peninsula this week, but it certainly is part of the outcome.

Hinanko Sagawa, Chihiro Fujii and Yaushi Shinde have spent the last week on the peninsula as part of the Kenai Peninsula Borough's sister-city program with Akita City in northern Japan.

As the two educators and city planner toured the area, they not only gathered information to take back to their own community, but also pointed out the gifts in this one.

"I am so impressed by the lifestyle," 36-year-old Sagawa, a teacher at a school for the deaf, said during a trip to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Thursday.

"They can enjoy their lives and work," she said of the American families she has encountered. "Japanese think first, 'I must.' (Alaskans) think first, 'I want.' They think first of their family, not company, not job."

That lifestyle is something Sagawa said she would like to take back to her country and introduce to the children she teaches.

"I'd like to bring back the system of lifestyle in the north country," she said.

Fujii, a 24-year-old English teacher, said the family relationships are what have most impressed her about the United States.

"You have much more time for conversation (between parents and children)," she said. "In Akita, we have time, but it's quite different. The father especially doesn't have a lot of time to interact with the family."

She also showed special interest in community programs for children.

"Society takes care of children here, too, such as at the refuge where volunteers have programs for children," she said.

And, of course, Alaska's natural resources strike a special chord with the group.

"You have very much connection with the forest or nature," said Akita city planner Shinde, speaking in Japanese as Fujii translated. "You really live in nature and can use it for business or play. That's what we learn."

The three travelers each have their own goals in visiting the peninsula -- Sagawa wants to learn about environmental education and eco-tourism; Fujii is interested in how American children learn independence and assertiveness; and Shinde is looking for ways to broaden the exchange between the borough and Akita.

But they are all here primarily to foster relationships between the sister cities.

The trip, part of an off and on cultural and economic exchange program between Akita and the borough, has four primary purposes: to build friendships, help Akita citizens understand Alaska culture, teach peninsula residents about Akita and foster further exchange between the communities, Shinde said.

To do so, the three Japanese visitors have been busy seeing as much of the peninsula as possible in a week. They have met with Borough Mayor Dale Bagley, visited summer school programs and Kenai Peninsula College, toured fish processing plants and oil refineries and visited all the tourist sites from Nikiski to Kenai to Homer to Seward.

The trip will conclude with a farewell reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.

"Everything is perfect," Sagawa said, joking that of all the things she has seen, she would most like to take a moose home to Japan.

"It's wonderful, beautiful," added Shinde. "Wonderful people here."

The cultural and economic exchange program began several years ago because Alaska -- and specifically the Kenai Peninsula -- does millions of dollars worth of business with Japan, selling fertilizer, fish and natural gas to the small Asian nation, explained Soldotna dentist Dan Pitts, chair of the Akita City-Kenai Peninsula Borough Exchange Committee.

The sister-city program was designed to enhance that trade relationship, build personal ties between communities in the two regions and exchange cultural information.

Two years ago, a group of peninsula residents, including Pitts and his wife Reean, made the trip to Akita to get a taste of Japanese culture.

"We went over there and they just showed us a terrific time," Pitts said. "Now we're trying to show off the Kenai Peninsula to these folks."

The participants also would like to continue the program in the future.

"We have to go back and tell the mayor there are people here who want to have more community with us," Shinde said. "Not tell just the mayor, but also the people."

Reean Pitts and Fujii also suggested the possibility of setting up student exchange programs between the communities.

In the meantime, though, the Akita delegation will continue its trip through the peninsula, visiting Homer and Tustumena Lake today and Monday and meeting community members during a borough-hosted farewell reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.

"We came here continue our relationship for the future," Sagawa said. "We have to know each other."

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