Kenai Peninsula College adjunct professor Yasuko Lehtinen was honored with the Japanese Foreign Minister Commendation in a ceremony Friday. Representatives of Japan from the Consular Office of Japan in Anchorage came to the Kenai River Campus to deliver the award, at a ceremony attended by members of the community, two mayors, the borough assembly vice president and KPC leadership.
According to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Foreign Minister Commendation is “awarded to individuals and groups with outstanding achievements in international fields, in order to acknowledge their contributions to the promotion of friendship between Japan and other countries and areas.”
At the ceremony, representatives of Japan, Kenai Peninsula College and the Kenai Peninsula Borough spoke about Lehtinen’s work, character and accomplishments.
Borough Mayor Mike Navarre read a proclamation announcing Oct. 28, 2022, as Yasuko Lehtinen Appreciation Day in the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
Lehtinen has taught Japanese language and culture on the Kenai Peninsula since 1989, and in 1992 established the Kenai Peninsula Borough as a sister city to Akita, Japan.
“I’ve been teaching at Kenai Peninsula College for 34 years,” she said. “That’s a long time.”
Ahead of the ceremony, Lehtinen spoke about her work. Alongside teaching language and culture, she’s also taken groups of students to Japan annually — until COVID-19. Those trips are planned to resume in 2023, she said.
She also discussed the effort to establish the borough as Akita’s sister city; overcoming prejudices based on her gender and building a bridge between two “very different cultures.”
At the start of the ceremony, a blessing was performed by a priest from Lehtinen’s church, Reverend Patrick Brosamer.
Representing Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs were Consular Masaru Aniya and Darrick Howard, from Anchorage’s Consular Office of Japan.
“We’re here to award Sensei Yasuko Lehtinen with one of the highest achievements: Japan’s Foreign Minister Commendation,” Howard said. “Sensei Lehtinen’s instrumental work in teaching Japanese to students here at Kenai Peninsula College did not go unnoticed.”
Aniya, who is the head of the consulate office in Anchorage, said this was the first business trip his office had undertaken since the start of the pandemic.
Aniya spoke of the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s contribution to the relief effort following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, when then Borough Mayor Dave Carey announced that the borough would provide funds to Akita’s relief effort.
He said he was in Tokyo when it happened. And he saw on the news that the borough was contributing funds.
“It really meant a lot to us,” he said.
In addition to the establishment of the sister city relationship and decades of language and culture instruction, Aniya credited Lehtinen with the continuous effort of maintaining that cultural exchange.
“Continuing sister city exchange activities requires a great deal of effort,” he said. “It’s like holding a heavy door that’s about to close. It’s much harder to hold it open than just to open it.”
He presented Lehtinen with a framed certificate — written in Japanese. He read it, then he translated it into English.
“Your effort to promote Japanese education in the United States of America has contributed to the friendship and goodwill between Japan and other countries. I hereby express my deepest respect and commendation.”
“Yasuko, you are a gift to Kenai Peninsula College, and we recognize that,” Director Cheryl Siemers said during the ceremony. “It takes all of us engaged together to raise this community, and Yasuko is a leader in this. In emphasizing culture and community.”
Siemers said Lehtinen is known for her engaging classes, her passion, and her kindness.
“She is a trusted colleague, a mentor to students, and an active and engaged community member in this area,” she said. “Kenai Peninsula College is proud to be part of the efforts to strengthen relationships with our sister city.”
Dr. Christina Stuive, the chair of KPC’s language department — where Lehtinen teaches Japanese — said of Lehtinen, “she’s just an amazing, caring faculty member who demonstrates a lot of love for her culture and a gift for teaching it to others.”
Stuive poked fun at Lehtinen’s shift to online teaching during the pandemic.
“If you’ve known her in her 38 years of teaching, most of them have not been online,” she said. “She wasn’t sure but she didn’t miss a beat. She didn’t change her engagement or her ability to connect with students.”
Stuive said Lehtinen’s motto was “if you’re not having fun, you can’t learn.”
“And her teaching isn’t limited to classroom hours,” Stuive said. “She tells students they can call her anytime … She always says ‘just remember I go to bed at 10.’ And that’s true, I called her at 9:45.”
“Anyone who’s been in a class or worked with Yasuko walks away a better person,” Stuive closed her speech. “So she is my sensei in life.”
Navarre spoke of a trip to Akita he went on with Lehtinen as part of a delegation.
“We were there in Akita City for the Kanto Festival, the first time, I think, certainly from Alaska but I think from any country who had been able to participate. We marched in the Kanto parade.”
He spoke of getting separated from Lehtinen in customs at a Japanese airport, struggling to explain a box of gifts for Akita’s mayor, and his misunderstanding of the importance of mayors in Japanese culture.
“I learned that mayors are way up the food chain in Japan, much more so than here.”
Navarre closed then read the proclamation from the borough announcing Yasuko Lehtinen Appreciation Day.
“Wheras the Kenai Peninsula recognizes the service of Yasuko Lehtinen for efforts to bring the Japanese culture and community partnership between the Kenai Peninsula Borough and our sister city, Akita, Japan,” he read. The borough recognized her decades of service, her commendation by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and her work as a delegate, an interpreter and a coordinator, “promoting formal communications and fostering friendship between both citizen and government leaders.”
A congratulatory message was read from Akita’s mayor, Motomu Hozumi, and a toast was made for the continued health, well-being, and efforts of Lehtinen to foster the relationship between the KPB and Japan.
Reach reporter Jake Dye at email@example.com.