Mariner High School Japanese teacher Alicia Ceban takes a photo of her students Justin Mitosis (left), Christopher Araiza and Ethan Kwon with the pen pal letters they received from Itoshima High School in Japan. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Mariner High School Japanese teacher Alicia Ceban takes a photo of her students Justin Mitosis (left), Christopher Araiza and Ethan Kwon with the pen pal letters they received from Itoshima High School in Japan. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

They’ve got (snail) mail: Mariner High students have Japanese pen pals

For many, it’s the first time writing a letter on paper — and making a friend on the other side of the globe.

EVERETT — Students in this Japanese class gain more than a new language.

They also learn a lost art.

What’s up with that?

The Mariner High School students are pen pals with Itoshima High School in Japan, about 5,200 miles from Everett.

Unlike electronic communications with instant results, it takes weeks if not months to get snail mail.

“I have never written a letter before I came to Japanese class,” Mariner junior Ethan Kwon said.

“It’s very digital outside this class, so I really appreciate having the physical copy of the letter. It feels really nice,” senior Nancy Le said.

The pen pal 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, using both English and Japanese. They talk about family, food, sports, hobbies and school. Some also connect on social media.

Teacher Alicia Ceban said students put sincere effort into the letters, decorated with stickers, drawings, photos and coins.

“Even my students who may not turn in every single assignment, they all make sure they have that pen pal letter done,” Ceban said. “It’s the most motivated I’ve seen students complete an assignment. There’s that purpose to it, to connect with that person.”

Snacks and pen pal letters sent from high school students in Japan sit on a table during class at Mariner High School. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Snacks and pen pal letters sent from high school students in Japan sit on a table during class at Mariner High School. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

The letters are keepsakes for the students.

“I tell them, ‘Keep this so when your grandmother comes over and asks what you are doing in school you can pull it out and show her this letter you got from someone in Japan,’” Ceban said.

Ceban, 29, lived in Japan from ages 5 to 13. Her mom, who is Japanese, met her dad when he was stationed there the first time with the U.S. 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 class, Ceban opened the latest batch of letters along with a surprise box of treats from their Itoshima friends. Students read the labels on the bright chews and chocolates.

Itoshima English teacher Toshishige Yamasaki said of the nine pen pal partner schools in nine states, Mariner has the largest number of participants.

Japanese teacher Alicia Ceban reads a letter with student Ethan Kwon during class at Mariner High School. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Japanese teacher Alicia Ceban reads a letter with student Ethan Kwon during class at Mariner High School. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

“In 2022, social distancing is a norm of life: Many gatherings are canceled,” he wrote. “… Our bilingual letter exchange is …. a hole cracking breakthrough in this oppressive, suffocating, locked up school environment. A teacher of another partner school said that the letters filled with a lot of cute pictures, origami and stickers brightened up the students in the dismal school environment. I hope the same is true to the students of 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 lessons and some colloquial expressions we never learned at school.”

Yuuki Date: “A snack was attached to the letter, and I could taste an American snack.”

Miyu Nakamaru: “I am so happy to have exchanged the letters because I had no friends abroad before.”

Itoshima is in Fukuoka Prefecture, about 560 miles south of Tokyo. The seaside city has about 100,000 people, just like Everett, but with big beaches and small businesses. Students take the train or bike to school. Legal driving age is 18.

For students in Japan, English is a basic requirement. Mariner students choose their foreign language option. About 130 Mariner students are enrolled in Japanese class.

Nancy Le started taking Japanese her sophomore year at Mariner and it sparked interest in other languages.

“Originally I wanted to be a flight attendant, so I was thinking learning a lot of languages could help me,” she said. “Now I plan to go to med school.”

This summer, she is going to Taiwan for a study-abroad Mandarin Chinese program.

Anime was junior Christopher Araiza’s motive to take Japanese.

“It became the experience of getting to know the culture more than it was to be able to just to watch anime without the subtitles,” he said.

He found common interests with his pen pal.

“We share the same hobby of Pokémon,” Christopher said. “It’s cool to get to know him. He talks about his city. It is different from what I’m used to — the reserved culture they have over there. They keep to themselves. Everyone minds their business.”

His counterpart in Japan stays in the same classroom all day. The teachers change rooms, not the students.

“I enjoy moving around,” Christopher said.

Andrea Brown: abrown@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3443. Twitter @reporterbrown.

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