Cultural Crossings: Japanese finding their hula self

It was back in April when I accidentally walked into a Hawaiian hula dance class at Echizen Cultural Centre. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d have found an ikebana class, or a calligraphy class but instead, I came across about twenty women in long colourful skirts with flowers in their hair, dancing to Hawaiian music. How strange, I thought, to find hula dancing in my small Japanese town! 

From then on I’ve realised how much Japanese people love Hawaii, and its exotic Polynesian heritage and American culture. Speak to any Japanese person about Hawaii and they’ll probably tell you about their visit to the ‘tropical paradise’, or how much they want to go. It is of course the closest place to actual America, and Japanese people, at least my students, love America. I wanted to find out where this fascination began, and why there is a hula class in Echizen. 

The first outreach of friendship

In the January of 1806, a Japanese cargo ship named Inawaka-maru left a port near Tokyo to head back to her homeport near Hiroshima. During the journey she was battered by a horrific storm. The eight-man crew had to cut down the mast due to the strong winds, and their fate was at the mercy of the elements. As their ship drifted across the Pacific Ocean, their water and rice stores ran dry, but the men survived by fishing and collecting rain water. It was an American captain near Hawaii that found the men in a state of near starvation and nursed them back to health. The captain left the eight men in Oahu under the care of the Hawaiian King Kamehameha, who openly welcomed these foreigners to his country. Due to illness on their return journey, only one of the men made it back to Japan to document their tales of the Hawaiian kindness, but this account began an amicable relationship between the two countries.

The first wave of migration

Scared of the affects of most foreign contact, between 1869 and 1885, Japan banned emigration to Hawaii, in fear that Japanese labourers would degrade the reputation of the Japanese race. Yet the Hawaiian-Japanese relations were softened when the king of Hawaii visited Japan in 1881 and met with Emperor Meiji Mutsuhito. The similarities between the countries were apparent: both were island nations of the Pacific, both were monarchies and both were under pressure of Western powers. To join the countries even more, King Kalakaua even proposed a marriage between his daughter and a Japanese prince. This alliance never happened, but the ban on emigration to Hawaii was lifted, and in 1885 the first Japanese immigrants arrived in Hawaii to work on sugar-cane and pineapple plantations. Most of them never left, and became the Issei – first generation – of the Japanese diaspora in Hawaii.

Settling and choosing ‘picture brides’

A monument to the Japanese sugar cane workers in the early 20th century

A monument to the Japanese sugar cane workers in the early 20th century

The Japanese community in Hawaii grew and grew. Like other immigrants they revolted against the hard working labour conditions of the plantations and set up their own businesses. The number of Japanese migrants arriving in Hawaii made it possible to maintain strong cultural ties with Japan. They brought their religious traditions of Shinto and Buddhism with them, as well as many other customs, festivals and foods.

It appears that the Japanese community kept themselves quite separate from the native Hawaiians, well at least in who they would marry. A ‘bride trade’ emerged, where Japanese men in Hawaii would choose a Japanese bride from looking at a set of postcards with Japanese women on them. And so the chosen women crossed the ocean to meet a man they had never met to start a family in Hawaii, probably the first mail-order type bride.

Picture brides brought from Japan

Picture brides brought from Japan

WWII – what to do with Japanese Americans?

Obviously WWII, and the bombing of Pearl Harbour by the Japanese, was a slight hiccup in this harmonious relationship. At the time 157,000 Japanese were living in Hawaii – that’s about a third of the population, but only about 2000 Japanese Americans were put in internment camps. These camps were to control people who were a threat to American security, and in other parts of America, such as California, many more Japanese were put in these camps. This disparity between American policies was to sustain the economy of Hawaii, as if a third of its population were to be put in an internment camp, its economy would implode on itself. Yet it must have been an extremely hard time to be a Japanese American in Hawaii when the two countries were at war.

Hawaii today

Now Japanese Americans make up about a fifth of the whole population in Hawaii. Japanese is a major language spoken and due to the large number of Japanese tourists whom visit, Japanese is often added to signs. For a long time, the identities of the Nisei and Sansei, second and third generation Japanese born in Hawaii, find their identities crossing both countries.

Hawaiian culture in Japan

My friend's hat - bought in Japan - Hawaiian inspired fashion.

My friend’s hat – bought in Japan – Hawaiian inspired fashion.

Over the last 10 years the popularity of Hawaiian culture has rocketed. Not just Aloha shirts, but learning Hawaiian language, or taking up the ukulele. A craze is sweeping the nation – that of hula dancing. It is estimated about 400,000 Japanese are involved with learning Hawaiian dance, most of whom are middle-aged women who enjoy the light exercise and the excitement of learning a new dance form These Japanese are drawn to the rhythm and sway of the dance, something exotically freeing from traditional Japanese dances. Many of these followers make a trip to Hawaii to take hula lessons or attend competitions. To cater for the needs of these hula dances, Hawaiian jewellery and Hawaiian-style dress shops are springing up. People are interested in the music, the culture and learning the moves of the dance. A student of the dance, Chieko Kobayashi, 50, says that the dance captures her emotionally. “Dancing makes me feel I can be just my soul, nothing else,” Kobayashi said.


A Japanese hula group competing in a dancing competition in Hawaii

This fascination in Hawaiian culture no doubt comes from the thousands of Japanese people who choose to visit Hawaii on their vacation. For those who can afford it, instead of going to their own tropical islands in Okinawa, they go to Hawaii. Hawaii continues to be the most popular honeymoon location for Japanese people, with 40% of newly wed couples choosing to spend their vacation there. Why? Because it’s ‘a home away from home’. There is the excitement of travelling abroad, but they also know they can speak Japanese, eat at Japanese restaurants and stay in Japanese hotels. On top of this, they are in ‘America’ and can watch baseball matches, eat the biggest hamburgers and splurge in American shops, where the shop attendant probably speaks Japanese.

So from my research, I can now understand why there are a group of middle-aged women in my town who are learning to sway together to the gentle sounds of Hawaiian music. I wonder what other surprising cultural crossings there still are in Japan…


Hiroko Hara dancing in the annual Hula Ho’olauna Aloha festival

1 thought on “Cultural Crossings: Japanese finding their hula self

  1. Gosh, I had no idea the love of Hawai’i or fascination. I vacationed twice in Hawai’i –in terms of the people, if it weren’t for the presence of Hawai’an people, culture and history, it felt vaguely like being in Vancouver BC but amongst palm trees…because Vancouver has a ton of Canadians of Asian descent.

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