EVERETT — Students in this Japanese course learn more than a new language.
They are also learning a lost art.
What’s up with that?
Mariner High School students are correspondents from Itoshima High School in Japan, about 5,200 miles from Everett.
Unlike electronic communications with instant results, it takes weeks or even months to receive snail mail.
“I never wrote a letter until I came to Japanese class,” said junior Mariner Ethan Kwon.
“It’s very digital outside of this class, so I really appreciate having the physical copy of the letter. It’s really nice,” senior Nancy Le said.
The correspondence program between the Mariner’s Japanese class and Itoshima’s English class started about 15 years ago, but last year was limited due to COVID.
Students write three letters a year, in English and Japanese. They talk about family, food, sports, hobbies and school. Some also connect on social networks.
Teacher Alicia Ceban said the students put sincere effort into the letters, which were decorated with stickers, drawings, photos and coins.
“Even my students who may not turn in every assignment, they all make sure they get that pen pal letter written,” Ceban said. “He’s the most motivated student I’ve seen complete an assignment. There’s that purpose in there, to connect with that person.
Letters are keepsakes for students.
“I tell them, ‘Keep this so that when your grandma comes and asks you what you’re doing at school, you can take her out and show her this letter you got from someone in Japan,'” Ceban said.
Ceban, 29, lived in Japan from 5 to 13 years old. His mother, who is Japanese, met his father when he was first stationed there with the US Navy. She graduated from Marysville Pilchuck High School. This is her second year at Mariner, after four years teaching Japanese at Roosevelt High School in Seattle.
In a recent lesson, Ceban opened the last batch of letters with a surprise box of goodies from their Itoshima friends. Students read the labels of brightly colored candies and chocolates.
Toshishige Yamasaki, an English teacher in Itoshima, said that among the nine corresponding partner schools in nine states, Mariner has the highest number of participants.
“In 2022, social distancing is a norm of life: many gatherings are canceled,” he wrote. “…Our bilingual exchange of letters is…. a shattering breakthrough in this oppressive, suffocating and confined school environment. A teacher from another partner school said the letters filled with lots of cute pictures, origami and stickers cheered up the students in the school’s gloomy environment. I hope the same goes for the students at Mariner High School.
Yamasaki shared some of the reactions from his Itoshima students.
Student Nina Tasuki said, “I found in the letter the phrases we learned in English class and some colloquialisms we never learned in school.”
Yuuki Date: “A snack was attached to the letter, and I could taste an American snack.”
Miyu Nakamaru: “I’m so glad I exchanged the letters because I didn’t have any friends overseas before.”
Itoshima is in Fukuoka Prefecture, about 900 km south of Tokyo. The beach town has a population of around 100,000, just like Everett, but with great beaches and small businesses. Students take the train or bicycle to get to school. The legal driving age is 18.
For students in Japan, English is a basic requirement. Mariner students choose their foreign language option. Approximately 130 Mariner students are enrolled in Japanese classes.
Nancy Le started learning Japanese in her second year at Mariner and it sparked an interest in other languages.
“I originally wanted to be a flight attendant, so I thought learning a lot of languages might help me,” she said. “Now I plan to go to medical school.”
This summer, she is traveling to Taiwan for a study abroad program in Mandarin Chinese.
The anime was junior Christopher Araiza’s motive for taking on Japanese.
“It became the experience of getting to know the culture more than just being able to watch anime without subtitles,” he said.
He found common interests with his correspondent.
“We share the same Pokémon hobby,” Christopher said. “It’s cool to get to know him. He talks about his city. It’s different from what I’m used to — the reserved culture they have there. They keep to themselves. Everyone cares of his business.”
His counterpart in Japan stays in the same classroom all day. The teachers change rooms, not the students.
“I like to move,” Christopher said.