Heartfelt memories escaped from each envelope that was reopened by Upper Iowa University senior Saki Kawabata and her mother, Yumi, on the Fayette campus. The small bundle of letters and postcards spread across UIU’s International House conference table contained a link to a global friendship that has not only spanned four decades, but also over 4,400 miles.
The mother and daughter from Osaka, Japan, were cherishing the moment to reexamine a few of the family photographs, birthday and holiday greetings, and hand-written lifetime experiences Yumi had exchanged over 44 years with her pen pal, Anita Kobza, of Meridian, Idaho.
A UIU international student and All-Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference tennis player, Saki was delighted that her mom and other family members were able to travel from their native Japan to watch her receive a bachelor’s degree during UIU’s May 7 Commencement ceremony. However, she was especially happy that the two long-distance pen pals would meet for the first time during the week of the event.
“I am honored to have played a part in uniting Anita and my mom together. I feel if I hadn’t chosen to study abroad at Upper Iowa they would have never met,” explained Saki, an exercise and sports studies major, who spent a portion of one winter break at the Kobza family home.
Yumi and Anita were matched after the Japanese woman replied to a pen pal club magazine article at the age of 13. Due to the slow delivery process, Yumi estimated she and Anita initially exchanged letters every couple months.
“I actually grew to like the ‘snail mail.’ It gave me time to think about what I was going to write about next. At first I thought writing the letters would help me with English and grammar because I always liked Snoopy and Sesame Street programs,” Yumi grinned, while pointing out the Snoopy T-shirt she had worn stateside. “I am also a romantic and it always made me happy to think I have a good friend overseas.”
Yumi explained technology later allowed the now 57-year-olds to keep in touch via emails, Facebook, and even Skype. Despite the new technology the two friends nearly lost contact with each other about 15 years ago.
Yumi noted that in the early 2000s both families had moved and in the process each of their email and mailing addresses changed. Fortunately, the individual who purchased the Kobza home forwarded a letter to Anita that had arrived from Yumi. The act of kindness allowed the pen pals to exchange their new addresses and resume their correspondence. Still, it wasn’t until about a year ago when Yumi and Anita started communicating about Saki’s college graduation that they seriously thought about meeting in person.
The special day occurred the week of UIU’s Commencement ceremonies. Standing near Peacock Plaza, Saki and her mother waved a sign bearing Anita’s name as she and her husband, Bob, arrived on campus. Despite initial concerns regarding the language barrier, Saki helped with communication between the friends and family members.
After exchanging gifts, the Kobzas hosted Yumi for an American dinner including BBQ pork chops and of course, Idaho potatoes. In addition to attending Saki’s graduation and touring the Fayette campus during their stay, the two families also visited Pike’s Peak State Park near McGregor, Iowa, and the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa.
In the few days that Yumi and Anita were able to spend together, Saki witnessed countless smiles and discussions shared between the two friends about family, life’s experiences, geographical and cultural differences, and a planned visit to Japan by the Kobzas. And while Saki will always cherish the education and life experiences she obtained as a UIU student and Peacock tennis player, knowing she played a major role in uniting the lifetime friends is certainly hard to put into words.