Japan and Hawaii

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by Philbert Ono

While living in Hawaii and then Japan, I have seen Japan and Hawaii develop such a close relationship and affinity that has evolved quite dramatically, beyond anyone's expectations. It is a very unique relationship and connection found nowhere else.

Relations between Japan and Hawaii mainly started with King David Kalakaua of Hawaii visiting Japan in 1881 where His Majesty received extraordinary hospitality from Emperor Meiji. In 1885, the first Japanese immigrants started to arrive in Hawaii. Over 200,000 Japanese immigrated by 1924. They soon became Hawaii's largest ethnic group and their descendants reached the highest echelons in government, business, and education. Japanese culture and food also became a permanent part of Hawaii.

From the 1970s when overseas travel became affordable, Hawaii became Japan's No. 1 overseas tourist destination. This second invasion of Japanese was a great boon to the islands' economy. Big business in Japan also started buying up major hotels up the point where 25% of all hotel rooms in Waikiki was Japanese-owned.

During the bubble era of the 1980s, the Japanese bought up much prime real estate in Hawaii as elsewhere in the U.S. In the 1990s, an interesting and unexpected thing happened: Hula dancing came to be popular among older Japanese women. Not just watching hula, but actually dancing the hula for exercise. Today, hula and Hawaiian music are popular among both the young and older generations in Japan. Before the 1990s, pretty much the only popular Hawaiian thing in Japan was the sumo wrestlers from Hawaii. Cultural exchange between Japan and Hawaii finally became a two-way street.

To those of us with roots in both Japan and Hawaii, these developments have been nothing short but astounding. Japan and Hawaii really seem to have been made for each other. "A match made in Heaven."

To celebrate and explore this amazing "forever friends" relationship, I am compelled to write about it. This is the first of a series of articles about Japan and Hawaii.

This first article outlines the history and impact of this relationship interspersed with my own experiences and opinions.


For this article, Japanese-Americans are defined as people who were born and raised in Hawaii as U.S. citizens to parents of Japanese (or Okinawan) descent. They are normally classified as nisei (second generation), sansei (third generation), yonsei, etc. The original immigrants from Japan who came to Hawaii during the late 19th century and early 20th century are called issei (first generation). The terms issei, nisei, sansei, etc., are normal Japanese words and are not used exclusively for Japanese-Americans or Japanese immigrants. These terms are also used for Koreans and their descendants in Japan as well.

Today, the pure Japanese-American is a dying breed due to intermarriage with other ethnic groups. The children of such unions might have less interest in their Japanese heritage. There are quite a few native Hawaiians who are part-Japanese. Some of them may look more Hawaiian than Japanese, and others more Japanese than Hawaiian. In either case, I have noticed that most of them tend to identify themselves with their Hawaiian ancestry than their Japanese one. And so they are more inclined to learn the native Hawaiian language and the hula rather than the Japanese language or Japanese arts. Of course, there's nothing wrong with this, and I can fully understand it.

The issei generation came to Hawaii during the late 19th century to the early 20th century until 1924. In the beginning, they were mostly men. But later from 1907, families were desired and matchmakers brought "picture brides" to Hawaii who married men they only saw in a photograph and met for the first time when they got married. The issei worked the hardest of all, toiling in the cane fields for a pittance. The issei are held in the highest regard for their "shikata-ga-nai" (can't be helped) patience. Their Japanese virtues rubbed off on succeeding generations. They laid a solid foundation upon which the next generation could build on. Some issei went back to Japan, while many stayed in Hawaii permanently, especially after having children. They also started businesses.

The nisei generation, born mainly in the 1920s and '30s, got torn between their country of birth and the country of their parents. But even so, most were inclined to identify with America. The Pearl Harbor attack and World War II changed their lives and their parents' lives forever.

The nisei generation came to be a most historic generation among Japanese-Americans in Hawaii. They served in World War II with the highest distinction (and casualties) and later occupied the top echelons of government, business, and education in Hawaii. In the 1970s, we had a Japanese-American Governor of Hawaii (George Ariyoshi), State Senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga, Congresswoman Patsy Takemoto Mink, University of Hawaii President Fujio Matsuda, Dept. of Education Deputy Superintendent Albert Miyasato, and countless Japanese-American school teachers. Since the 1960s, Hawaii State Supreme Court Justices included Japanese-Americans such as Wilfred Tsukiyama and Masaji Marumoto. Major businesses in Hawaii such as Times Supermarket, Zippy's Restaurants, Central Pacific Bank, and Hawaiian Host Inc. were founded by nisei.

Compared to the first two generations, the sansei has not done much historically. They grew up in a relatively peaceful period, did not experience hardship nor war (except those who went to Vietnam), and grew up with most modern conveniences. They were in the upper or middle-class segment of the population. Life was pretty easy for most who were born in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s.

It's easy to name many names from Hawaii's nisei generation who were historic or famous figures. However, for the sansei generation, the list is much shorter. Two sansei worth mentioning is astronaut Ellison Onizuka and General Eric Shinseki.

The sansei generation, they have varying degrees of interest in their Japanese heritage and Japan. They are very Americanized and identify themselves as being American more than anything else. Most are not conversant in Japanese, although they do know some Japanese words and phrases picked up from their grandparents. Their interest in Japan can vary from one extreme to another. There are those who do not have much interest in Japan nor any desire to visit Japan. Sadly, quite a few sansei (and nisei) have never visited Japan. Often, they still have traceable relatives in Japan, but due to the language barrier and distance, they do not pursue or they stop pursuing familial ties.

But there are people who are very interested in Japan and who live in Japan for one reason or another. But still, most of them cannot read or write Japanese fluently, even though they might be able to converse in Japanese.

There are the sansei (and later generations) who come to Japan and receive a cultural shock. All this time in Hawaii, they thought they were Japanese. But in Japan, they realize how American they are. (This can also happen to nisei.) And they are annoyed by the strange looks they receive when they try to speak broken Japanese or when they blurt out English. They look Japanese, but talk different. It's a laughable situation when they say baby or crude Japanese words or Hawaiian-Japanese words like "benjo" (toilet), shishi (urine), and bakatare.

Many sansei in Hawaii attended Japanese language school after regular school during childhood, up to intermediate school. However, the Japanese school was more of a babysitting place where students could stay until their parents could come and take them home. Certainly, the nisei parents wanted their children to learn Japanese, but to the children, the Japanese language was totally useless in daily life. And so most of them did not study it seriously and never mastered Japanese even after attending Japanese school for 8 years. I was one of them. However, I did pass the high school credit test for Japanese, and so did not take any Japanese classes offered by my high school in Honolulu. Later when I started studying Japanese in college, I really appreciated those childhood years spent at the Japanese school. At least I knew hiragana, katakana, and basic kanji and had a basic ear for Japanese. At the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the Japanese-American students in the Japanese classes had very good Japanese pronounciation. We impressed the instructors.

Japan in Hawaii

Thanks to the large Japanese population since the early 20th century, Hawaii has been embedded with numerous Japanese customs and things. The custom of taking off your footwear before entering someone's home came from the Japanese. (Japanese-Americans in the U.S. mainland may wear their shoes inside their homes.) Teriyaki chicken, sashimi, musubi, tofu, and sushi of course have been a Hawaii staple since we can remember. Many words in the local dialect are Japanese as well.

When I first started living in Japan, one of the fascinating aspects was discovering the origins of many Japanese things and customs in Hawaii. "So that's where it came from!!" I would say to myself in Japan. And sometimes, there were things in Hawaii which I had thought were Japanese, but were not to be found in Japan.

Kyoiku mama, Bon dances, sumo, sake, New Year's prayers, Japanese school, Byodo-in at the Valley of the Temples, groupism of the Japanese, enryo (hesitate), shyness in public, etc.

When I was in college at the University of Hawaii where there were many Japanese-American students, most of them were totally silent in class. They didn't talk, discuss, nor ask questions in class. The larger the class, the more silent they were. Some professors got very frustrated by this, especially those who had taught on the mainland where there was a lot more classroom feedback. I felt sorry for them. It was the same thing when I visited school classrooms in Japan.


Long before sushi, sashimi (raw fish), and tofu became popular on the mainland U.S., they were already famous and popular in Hawaii. Musubi rice balls with a salty ume plum in the middle was a staple picnic food among Japanese-Americans in Hawaii. Japanese food also melded with local favorites creating unique combinations such as spam musubi.

While rice is one Japanese staple, and shoyu (soy sauce) and sugar is another favorite among locals in Hawaii. Shoyu and sugar are the key ingredients for many dishes especially grilled teriyaki meats. Almost all meats could be teriyaki, including beef (also hamburger), chicken, and pork.

Mochi, manju, and mochi crunch (arare rice crackers) are favorite snacks. And of course, sake (sahke) is a well-known alcoholic beverage especially during New Year's.


Hawaii has a unique dialect called pidgin English. While based on English, it uses many words from different languages brought to Hawaii by the immigrants from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. The dialect developed as the immigrants from the different countries tried to speak to each other. They hashed together English, Hawaiian, and words from their own native language. This broken English, broken Hawaiian, and broken native language developed into a local lingua franca. Pidgin English has words from all these immigrant nations, but Hawaiian words are the most abundant. Since the Japanese were the largest immigrant group, quite a few Japanese words have seeped into the local language.

Today, many Japanese words are still used among the local people. The Japanese-Americans, especially the older generations, use more ethnic-Japanese words like "obaachan" (grandma) and "no enryo" (don't hesitate).

Many Japanese words used in Hawaii are related to food. Examples include bento, sake, miso soup, shoyu (soy sauce), mochi, teriyaki, sashimi, sukiyaki, and tofu.

Some words are considered to be Japanese in Hawaii, but not really used in Japan anymore like benjo (toilet), musubi (onigiri rice ball), and shishi (urine).

Other words have morphed into something that is not even Japanese, like mochi crunch (arare), hanabata (hanabuddah) which the product of a runny nose, teri burger (teriyaki hamburger), and jan ken po (rock-stone-scissors).

The phrase "Chotto matte kudasai" (Please wait a moment) might also be understood in Hawaii because a local singer named Sam Kapu scored a local hit in 1971 with a song called "Chotto-Matte-Kudasai." The song was in English, except for the title.

At Wikipedia, I created this page which has a longer list of Japanese words used in Hawaii: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_loanwords_in_Hawaii

The first-generation issei Japanese spoke mainly Japanese. They might have also mixed in a few Hawaiian words as well. Their language was old, and modern Japanese people talking to them might be amused or amazed by their archaic language from the Meiji Era.

The niseis were usually bilingual, but for most, English was their native or better language since they were born and raised in Hawaii. While speaking Japanese, some niseis mix in English or local words for things they do not know how to say in Japanese. They do this unconsciously and still think that they are speaking pure Japanese.

The sansei and following generations are almost 100% American, and very few can speak Japanese fluently. They do know some Japanese words and phrases picked up from their grandparents or a Japanese school (if they attended one), but in Japan, they would be helpless trying to communicate. Many do not know how to write their Japanese family names or middle names in kanji either. They might give a Japanese middle name to their children, but do not know what kanji characters should be.

Some of the sansei attended a Japanese school after regular school. But for most students, it was an almost hopeless endeavor. Even after going to Japanese school from 1st grade to 9th grade, most could hardly carry on a Japanese conversation. The reality was that they were in America, where English is spoken. The need to speak Japanese was near zero except for those planning to visit Japan. There was little motivation and need to learn Japanese. But their nisei parents forced them to go because they wanted their kids to be connected to their ethnic heritage, and it was a good place to send (or babysit) the kids after school. It was also possible to take a high school credit test for Japanese. Depending on your test score, you could receive up to 3 high school credits for Japanese.


Hawaii's history of Japanese language schools spans well over a century. The Japanese immigrants naturally wanted their children to learn Japanese. The demand was there, so numerous Japanese language schools started up since the late 19th century. Many of them were started by Buddhist temples. The schools offered classes after regular school. There were many students up until World War II when the schools were forced to close.

After the war, the enrollment never recovered to its previous high numbers. The sansei generation also was more American than their parents, and their interest in Japanese language and culture waned. Today, Japanese language schools are barely surviving with much fewer students. The Moiliili Language School, founded in 1902, had over 1,000 students by 1938. In 2002, enrollment was 85 from kindergarten to 6th grade. Read about their centennial here.

Another well-known Japanese language school called the Makiki Japanese Language School closed in summer 2000 due to declining enrollment. (The final enrollment had a total of about 15 students from 1st to 8th grades.) It opened in 1906 to teach Japanese language and culture to children of Japanese immigrant laborers. Thousands of students graduated from the school, including nisei who went on to serve as interpreters and translators on the war front.

Meanwhile, the Fort Gakuen Japanese School on Pali Highway is still open, teaching some 80 after-school students as of 2002. The school is affiliated with the private Hongwanji Mission School operated by Honpa Hongwanji Betsuin, Hawaii's headquarters for the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist sect. Japanese is taught as a foreign language at Hongwanji Mission School. Fort Gakuen is close to Kawananakoa Middle School whose students can easily walk over after school to learn Japanese. The temple is also a largely Japanese-American enclave so children of the congregation might be encouraged to attend Japanese school, which is getting rarer in Hawaii.

The Hawaii Japanese School or Rainbow Gakuen is geared for children of native Japanese working as businessmen or diplomats in Hawaii. The curriculum is based on one used in schools in Japan so the children will have an easier time adjusting back to the school system in Japan when they move back. It is a Saturday-only school, which means students must do a lot of studying at home. They use the facilities of the Kaimuki Middle School in Honolulu.

At the high school level, Japanese language classes are offered at most public high schools. High school Japanese clubs also exist.

At the college level, the University of Hawaii at Manoa has the largest Japanese studies department in the U.S. Enrollment for Japanese classes is also large compared to other American universities. UH also has the Center for Japanese Studies which says that "the University of Hawai'i pioneered the study of Japan in the U.S. starting with the appointment of Dr. Tasuku Harada as the first professor of Japanese Studies in 1920." The university's Hamilton Library also has a large Japan Collection.


Besides Japanese language schools, another institution the Japanese immigrants needed was religion. They needed a place to hold funerals and weddings. Missionaries from Japan arrived and various Japanese religions established a foothold in the islands. Today, most of the major Japanese religions are represented in Hawaii. However, the largest Japanese religion in Hawaii turned out to be the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist sect from the Nishi Hongwanji in Kyoto, Japan. Although Shinto is Japan's dominant religion, it has a small presence in Hawaii. The new Japanese religions such as Tenrikyo, Konkokyo, and Seicho no Ie also have a presence in Hawaii.



New religions

Customs & Events

  • Bon dance
  • Cherry Blossom Festival
  • Decorations from the Japanese government - In spring and fall, Japanese in Japan as well as outstanding Japanese and Japanese-Americans in Hawaii receive the Japanese government's highest decorations such as the Order of the Rising Sun and Order of the Sacred Treasure.

Gardens and Monuments

  • Byodoin
  • Moiliili torii

Cultural Arts

Honolulu Academy of Arts Internationally recognized for the excellence and diversity of its holdings, the Honolulu Academy of Arts is best known for its collection of Asian art, which includes the James A. Michener collection of Japanese ukiyo-e prints. The museum presents over fifty temporary exhibits every year, many related to Japan. The Honolulu Academy of Arts; 900 S. Beretania St.; Honolulu, HI 96814; tel: (808) 532-8700; fax: (808) 532-8787; web: http://www.honoluluacademy.org

Urasenke Foundation The Urasenke Foundation promotes interest in Japanese culture and the Way of Tea through the History of Tea Ceremony class (HIST 323/ASAN 323) at UHM, public exhibitions and demonstrations, and publications. A tea practicum course (ASAN 324) is offered at the UH Tea House Jaku’an under the direction of the resident Urasenke tea instructor, Mr. Yoshibumi Ogawa. Urasenke Foundation offers scholarships to students who wish to pursue their knowledge of the tea ceremony in Japan (see section on scholarships). Urasenke Foundation; 245 Saratoga Rd.; Honolulu, HI 96815; tel: (808) 923-3059/1057; fax: (808) 923-3784; web (international headquarters): www.urasenke.or.jp/texte/index.html.

University of Hawai‘i Kimono Culture Program The University Laboratory School Kimono Project USA, which belongs to the Curriculum Research & Development Group, College of Education, UHM, provides services such as workshops, demonstrations, lectures, school visitations for formal kimono dressing. Their annual Children's Kimono Dressing Festival called shichi-go-san (girls of 3 and 7 years old; boys of 5 years old) held on the 2nd and 3rd Saturday in November is very popular every year. They also hold New Year Kimono Dressing Festival for girls of any age and the Seijin-shiki or Coming of Age (men and women who are 20 years old are celebrated on the 2nd Monday of January in Japan) dressing for 20 year old men and women on the 3rd Saturday of January. Aside from the above, Bridal Kimono Dressing for photo taking will also be offered throughout the year, when the bridal specialist is available. Donations for the above are appreciated. Saturday mornings are open to people of the community to learn how to wear kimono and how to tie obi-sash. Kimono and obi are available for student use. These lessons are free of charge


Martial Arts

Sumo is perhaps the first Japanese martial art or sport which was introduced to Hawaii. In Feb. 1885, it was demonstrated by the first boatload of immigrants who arrived in Hawaii. The Japanese plantation villages held sumo matches regularly.

Amateur sumo clubs eventually formed and one person (Jesse Kuhaulua) from Maui even went to Japan in 1964 and made it big in 1968 when he reached the top division.

Other martial arts such as karate and judo are well-represented in Hawaii.

Happenings in Hawaii

Honolulu Marathon

Challenger disaster

King David Kalakaua statue

Honolulu has a number of larger-than-life, distinguished statues of its persons of history. A statue of Queen Liliokalanai in front between Iolani Palace and the State Capitol, a statue of beloved surfer Duke Kahanamoku in Waikiki Beach, and a statue of Princess Kaiulani (with peacocks) in Waikiki near where her Ainahau residence was. Then at the entrance of Waikiki on Kalakaua Ave., a triangular park has a statue of King David Kalakaua. I was surprised to read that it was funded and put up by a local Japanese group to commemorate the Japanese immigration to Hawaii. It wasn't by a Hawaiian or hula group. This king is deeply revered by both the Hawaiians and the Japanese in Hawaii.

The plaque at the bottom of the statue reads:



This statue of King David Kalakaua (1836-1891) was commissioned by the Oahu Kanyaku Imin Centennial Committee on behalf of the Japanese-American community in 1985 in observance of th the arrival of the first ship carrying 944 Kanyaku Imin, or governmental contract immigrants from Japan to Hawaii on February 8, 1885 to work on the sugar plantations.

King Kalakaua visited Japan in May, 1881, on his trip around the world and Appealed to Emperor Meiji to send immigrants to Hawaii to relieve the shortage of laborers on the sugar plantations. This resulted in the signing of the Japan-Hawaii Labor Convention. Japanese numbering 220,000 immigrated to Hawaii from 1885 to 1924 when the Oriental Exclusion Act was enacted by the Congress of the United States.

The Japanese-Americans, who are descendants of these immigrants, have been successful in numerous fields and prospered here in Hawaii. The King is honored as the "Father of Japanese Immigration to Hawaii." This statue is a symbol of appreciation and Aloha to King Kalakaua, a visionary monarch, for inviting their forebears to Hawaii.

Oahu Kanyaku Imin Centennial Committee
February 8, 1991
Presented to the City & County of Honolulu
Frank F. Fasi, Mayor
Artist Sean Browne

Ehime Maru

Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii saved

Established in the early 1990s, the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii is a large building in Honolulu in an area known as Moiliili. The center sits on land acquired from Kamehameha Schools at 2454 S. Beretania St. It has an exhibition gallery showing historic artifacts from Japanese immigrants, a tea ceremony room, a martial arts dojo, a 10,000-square-foot banquet hall and commercial office space.

In mid-Oct. 2002, the center's board of directors announced that it was going to sell the center for $11 million to pay off $9 million in debt. This shocked many people, even those close to the center. No one really knew about the center's debts. The original plan was for the center to pay off the mortgage with income from banquet hall rentals. However, the 1990s saw a depressed economy and the center's income was not enough. The debt kept growing.

By mid-Nov. 2002, many members of the center and people in the Japanese-American community got into gear to save the center and a fund-raising "Committee to Save the Center" was launched. The fundraising was headed by people like the center's Chairman of the Board Colbert Matsumoto, former Board Chairman Fujio Matsuda, and Albert Miyasato. In less than 2 months, they raised over $6 million. There were over 7,000 donors, including the Makiki Japanese Language School donating $500,000. The $6 mil was enough for the lending banks which forgave $1.5 million in outstanding interest on the debt. Foreclosure was avoided.

But the center still needed $1.5 million to pay off non-bank creditors. In June 2003, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation gave $1.8 million which almost wiped out the center's total debt. One of the center's buildings has been renamed after the Weinbergs. By Aug. 2003, the center was debt-free. It is amazing how Hawaii's Japanese community were able to pull together and save something that represented their precious heritage. However, reforms are needed to ensure a stable income and community interest.


  • Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii - Non-profit organization striving to share the history, heritage and culture of the evolving Japanese American experience in Hawai‘i. Located at 2454 South Beretania Street in Mō‘ili‘ili, the JCCH features a Community and Historical Gallery, Resource Center, Kenshikan martial arts dōjō, Seikōan Japanese teahouse and Gift Shop. The JCCH presents various programs, festivals and exhibitions throughout the year. The building's total construction cost was $15 million. The two-building complex, containing over 47,000 square feet, consists of a four-floor office building (Phase I, completed in 1992) that houses the main offices of the JCCH and leased office space, the Resource Center and the Seikōan Teahouse and garden where chadō (the way of tea) classes are held. The adjacent five-floor structure (Phase II, completed in 1994) includes the Historical Gallery exhibit, community Gallery, Gift Shop, banquet hall, meeting rooms, a martial arts dōjō, and a 270-stall parking garage. A courtyard and sky bridge connect the two buildings. JCCH is currently home to the Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce, Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce, United Japanese Society, Hawai‘i Karate Association, Pacific Telecommunications Council, Hawai‘i Japanese School (Rainbow Gakuen), Diagnostic Laboratory Services, Hawai‘i Multi-Media Co., Urasenke Foundation, and Manoa Grand Ballroom.
  • Japan-America Society of Hawaii - A nonprofit organization established on September 28, 1976, with a mission of "promoting understanding and friendships between the peoples of Japan and the United States through the special and unique perspective of Hawaii." Membership is open to anyone interested in learning more about Japan, the United States and the U.S.-Japan relationship. The Society sponsors a wide range of business, cultural, and educational programs to fulfill its mission. They also take care of the Ehime Maru Monument through the affiliate Ehime Maru Memorial Association.
  • [ United Japanese Society of Hawaii] -
  • [ Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce] -
  • Hawaii United Okinawa Association - Established in 1951 as the Hawaii Okinawa Rengo Kai, or United Okinawan Association of Hawaii, and renamed the Hawaii United Okinawa Association (HUOA) in 1995. It serves as the umbrella organization for 50 Okinawa-related clubs statewide. It is also a charter member of the United Japanese Society of Hawaii.
  • Kenjin Kai: Okinawa, Kumamoto, Nagasaki, Fukuoka, Yamaguchi, Hiroshima, Ehime, Kanagawa
  • Consulate General of Japan in Honolulu -

Hawaii in Japan

It starts with people. Hawaii has or had numerous people of Japanese ancestry who gained fame and wide respect. However, very few Hawaiians living in Japan have gained national recognition. Those who did attain national prominence, did well to represent, promote, and symbolize Hawaii in Japan. It started with sumo wrestlers from Hawaii.

What Japan lacks in famous Hawaiians in Japan is made up by the more intangible element of Hawaiian culture. Hula, by far the biggest cultural import from Hawaii, has swept the country since 1990. Ukulele and Hawaiian quilt-making are also well-known and practiced in Japan.

Among other Hawaiian things in Japan include immigration museums, Hawaiian-oriented leisure spots, and restaurants from Hawaii.

Hawaiian Sumo Wrestlers

Sumo was actually one of the first Japanese things introduced to Hawaii. In Feb. 1885, when the first group of government-contracted Japanese immigrants arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii, they were lavishly welcomed, directed by the King himself. In return, a few days later, the immigrants demonstrated sumo in front of an audience which included King Kalakaua. Who could have imagined then that someday people from Hawaii would be wrestling in Japan and reaching the highest ranks of Japan's national sport?

That's exactly what Jesse Kuhaulua (Takamiyama), Saleva'a Fuauli Atisano'e (Konishiki), Chad Rowen (Akebono), and Fiamalu Penitani (Musashimaru) did. Hawaii's presence in Japanese sumo spanned 40 contnuous years from 1964 to 2004. They did Hawaii very proud.

Due to the large population of Japanese, Hawaii always had a substantial interest in sumo even before Takamiyama reached the top Makunouchi Division in 1968. Amateur sumo clubs had these shy men looking silly wearing swim shorts under their mawashi belt. And you didn't have to be fat to join a sumo club. There were many skinny members.

The Japan Sumo Association brought their wrestlers to Hawaii for exhibition tournaments several times during the 1960s and '70s. Luminaries such as Yokozuna Taiho and Kashiwado came over. Hawaii was their most popular overseas destination for exhibition tournaments. They came in June 1962, Feb. 1964, 1966, June 1970, Feb. 1972, June 1974, June 1976, June 1993, and June 2007. Needless to say, these exhibitions were a real treat when a Hawaiian wrestler or two were included. Takamiyama always received the loudest cheers from the crowd. Sumo matches were also broadcast on TV in Hawaii with local English commentary.


Born in 1944 to Hawaiian parents and native of Happy Valley, Maui. Jesse Kuhaulua was scouted in Hawaii during an exhibition sumo tournament in Hawaii. He was in an amateur sumo club on Maui to strengthen his weak legs upon the recommendation of his high school football coach. He graduated from Baldwin High School in 1963 and ventured to Japan in Feb. 1964 and joined the Takasago-beya sumo stable.

He reached the top Makunouchi Division in Jan. 1968. The happiest moment was when he won a sumo tournament in July 1972. The highest rank he reached was Sekiwake. In his later years, it was heartbreaking to see him lose so often in the same way. He was top heavy and his knees couldn't support his upper body very well. He was very prone to tip over. He retired in 1984, a few weeks shy of his 40th birthday.

Takamiyama was a boyhood hero and inspiration to many of us. After reading his autobiography, it was difficult to fathom how he did it. He had to go through incredible hardship in a foreign land. Yet, he preservered and succeeded, even later as a stablemaster who produced sumo's first foreign yokozuna. He paved the way for other foreign and especially Hawaiian sumo aspirants.

I would call him one of the most popular and beloved sumo wrestlers in history of the sport. Both on and off the dohyo (sumo ring), he was lovable. When he lost a match, he would show a sad face, or just sit on the ring and mope for a few moments before getting up. We all felt for him. Outside sumo, he was a very popular TV commercial spokesman. His cute, smiling face and big body dancing along with a small portable radio in his hand. (The Hawaiian sumo wrestlers after him never attained the same level of TV commercial success.) And so for many years, he was pretty much Hawaii's one and only Goodwill Ambassador to Japan. Until the mid-1970s (when model Agnes Lum became famous), there wasn't anybody else in Japan from Hawaii who symbolized Hawaii in the minds of the Japanese.


Recruited by the same stable where Takamiyama was, Konishiki came to Japan in 1982 and got promoted to the top Makunouchi Division just in time before Takamiyama retired in 1984. It was the Hawaiian "changing of the guard" in sumo. He was from Hawaii, but he was quite different from Takamiyama. He was Samoan instead of Hawaiian, and he soon got a lot bigger. Of course, he also reached the second-highest rank of ozeki in 1987, the first foreigner to occupy that rank.

In Sept. 1984 as a Maegashira in his second tournament in the top Makunouchi Division, he beat two yokozuna and almost won the tournament (ended up as runner-up). It was a sensational performance where he just pushed and shoved and boom, the opponent flew out of the ring. His sensational performance drew some racist slurs from some nationalistic people in Japan. His size was so big that many people thought he looked gross or laughable. However, the other wrestlers soon learned how to handle him and take advantage of his weaknesses.

He left the sumo world and carved a pretty good career in the entertainment world and the restaurant business. Konishiki is quite outgoing and he has continued to flaunt both his sumo and Hawaii connections.


Akebono was promoted to Yokozuna in 1993. He had an awesome physical appearance, and matched the rank very well. Before Takanohana was promoted to yokozuna, Akebono was sumo's sole yokozuna for almost 2 years.


When Musashimaru was promoted to yokozuna in 1999. Actually, the promotion itself wasn't that exciting since it had been done before (by Akebono). But what was really exciting was having not one, but two yokozuna from Hawaii. Now that was something. It would probably never be repeated.

Other Hawaiians in Japan

For many years, Takamiyama was the only Hawaiian person in Japan synonymous with Hawaii among the masses in Japan. He was a most apt personality and figure to both Japan and Hawaii. While there were many famous Japanese and Japanese-Americans in Hawaii, only one Hawaiian in Japan was famous.

Finally in the mid-1970s, a Chinese-Hawaiian fashion model named Agnes Lum came to Japan and made it big. So big that she was a major sensation. She was best-known as a bikini idol, gracing countless Japanese magazine covers and pictorials. TV commercials, billboards, posters, and even a record album featured Agnes. Until the early 1980s, she was everywhere. A few more bikini models from Hawaii tried to follow in her footsteps, but none really succeeded. Agnes was the first and last sensational model from Hawaii. Her pixie-cute face and tantalizing body clicked with many hot-blooded males in Japan.

Born in 1956 to a Chinese father and multi-ethnic (Hawaiian included) mother, Agnes is from Honolulu, Hawaii and she worked as a model during the mid-70s while still in high school. She was a prominent model and even won the title of Miss Hawaii but was later disqualified due to some technicality. She eventually found work in Japan and became the first Clarion Girl. Clarion is a well-known car stereo and audio equipment maker. From 1975, the company looked for an advertising campaign girl who was to appear on their publicity posters, pamphlets, etc. Agnes became the first Clarion Girl and it has since become an institution and a major stepping stone for Japanese bikini idols. She left Japan in 1984 after her popularity waned. Read more about Agnes here.

Also during the '70s, at least two Japanese-American singers from Hawaii tried their luck in Japan. One was May Yokomoto (stage name) who had won the famous Star Tanjo (Star is Born) amateur singing contest held in Hawaii in 1975. This gave her a recording contract and she went to Japan in 1976 (missing her high school graduation ceremony). She released a few single records and gained some fame, but not enough to stay in Japan longer than a few years. She returned to Honolulu and went to college. She is still remembered in Japan, judging by the number of hits on Google. She was best known for her long, straight, black hair. Her records are also often found (used) at Yahoo Japan Auctions. Another one aspiring singer was Lauren Nakano, who was from Aiea I believe, and also attained some fame, but not enough to stay in Japan. She seems to be still active singing in Hawaii.

When Japanese tourists went to Hawaii, it was common for them to listen to local radio stations. Some of them would tape record the radio programs to listen in Japan. A few Japanese radio stations took note of this and started to broadcast programs in English by native speakers sometimes from Hawaii. For example, Tokyo-based J-Wave (founded 1988) and FM Yokohama had a few DJs from Hawaii. Sometimes a Japanese radio station would hook up to a local Hawaii radio station via telephone (or whatever) and interview the Hawaii DJ or even broadcast his show live. Hit radio station KIKI in Hawaii also got famous in Japan. For some years, we often saw KIKI T-shirts worn in Japan.

The most famous DJ from Hawaii working in Japan was Robert Zix aka Kamasami Kong who was a popular DJ at KKUA radio station (the Big Six-Nine) in Honolulu during the 1970s. His gorilla intro jingle was a classic in Hawaii. Finally, we had an authentic DJ from Hawaii broadcasting in Japan. For eight and a half years until 2005, he had a radio show at Osaka FM. When the show's sponsor pulled out, he moved to Tokyo-FM. Now we have cable radio in Japan offering broadcasts from a real Hawaii radio station. Kamasami has done quite well in Japan in creating a niche for himself. He's not a national figure in Japan, but he's a pro DJ without a doubt. Last we heard, last we've heard, he's working on a Podcast project.

Kathy Nakajima (キャシー中島) is another Hawaii-born celebrity in Japan. Besides being a member of Japan's geinokai (entertainment world), she is cashing in on Japan's current Hawaiian culture boom. She operates a few Hawaiian quilt shops and studios in Japan and has written a number of books about quilt making. She's definitely a celebrity, but not super famous. Her actor husband, Katsuno Hiroshi 勝野 洋, is quite famous. Born on Maui in 1952, she made her debut in Japan in 1969 as a model for apparel maker Renown. She was hapa (half white) and a good-looking, fleshy model in her heyday. Her catch phrase was, "My body is like a Coke bottle." I could not find reliable information about her Hawaii and family background. According to rumors, her father was a U.S. serviceman, and mother obviously Oriental. Maybe Japanese. In 1979, she married Katsuno and gained quite a bit of weight. They live in Gotenba, Shizuoka, near the foot of Mt. Fuji. They have two grown daughters and a son. Her second daughter is a hula dancer. She is very fluent in Japanese and has settled very well in Japan.

Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro does not live in Japan, but since he served as the official spokesman for the Hawaii Tourism Japan (Hawaii Tourism Authority's Japan office) for three years (up to 2006) and provided the soundtrack for the 2006 award-winning movie, Hula Girls, he deserves mention as the latest Hawaiian sensation in Japan. What he can do with the humble-looking ukulele is totally spell-binding. You don't even have to be interested in Hawaii or Hawaiian music to be astounded by his playing. Born in 1976 on Molokai, he comes across as a friendly, good-guy, down-to-earth type of guy. I once saw him on TV playing with singer Inoue Yosui. Like wow. They should tour together. I thought he was outstanding as a representative of Hawaii to Japan. He's a country boy at heart. Obviously, he has Okinawan roots.

Hawaiian Culture in Japan

Hula in Japan

Hawaiian Music


  • Suo-Oshima in Yamaguchi - Town Hall workers wear aloha shirts during summer.
  • Meiji Mura
  • Ikaho Hawaiian Minister's Residence

Leisure Facilities

  • Spa Resort Hawaiians
  • Hawai-cho, Tottori
  • Birdland


  • Kua Aina
  • Sam Choy's


  • Hawaii Tourism Japan

Happenings in Japan

Hula Girl, the movie

They speak in heavy Tohoku-ben (or Fukushima-ben) dialect, so sometimes hard to understand even if you can understand Japanese. The movie is fictitious, but based on a true story.

The story is easy to follow. The coal-mining town of Iwaki, Fukushima in the 1960s was seeing its business declining due to oil replacing coal. They had to fire a lot of employees by 1965. So to survive, the mining company decided to build a tropical "Hawaiian" amusement park to take advantage of the local hot spring. They built a large dome heated by the hot spring, housing a large bathing pool, palm trees, and a stage for hula girls.

During the '60s when few Japanese could afford to travel overseas, Hawaii was the No. 1 overseas dream destination in Japan.

The mining company started to recruit local girls for the hula dancers in 1965. They didn't want to import dancers from another city and wanted to keep it local. First they got only 4 girls signing up. They were daughters of coal miners. The hula teacher came from Tokyo, and the movie focuses on her teaching the girls hula. Later, when more miners got fired, more women (the wives) signed up until had about 18 of them learning hula (and Tahitian dance).

This was the beginning of Japan's first hula class and hula school. The girls messed up at the beginning, but later became very good dancers. By Jan. 1966 when the Joban Hawaiian Center (now Spa Resort Hawaiians) opened, they were pros.

The movie mixed Tahitian dancing with hula, and they never explain the difference. So people watching the movie will likely think that Tahitian dance is also hula. I wish the dance finale at the end of the movie was hula, but it was Tahitian. No offense to the Tahitians, but the movie's title is "Hula Girl" after all.

They explained about hula little bit, like saying "hula is like sign language, this is the waves, wind, this means I love you, etc." But not much more. Wished they explained about the dance more. It seems the movie director is a Japan-born Korean.

So, gotta go visit Spa Resort Hawaiians now. Never been there. Apparently, they still doing pretty good. They've been adding more facilities in recent years. And they getting more visitors after the movie came out last year.

Hokule'a in Japan

Japan-Hawaii Sister Cities

Japan and Hawaii have a number of sister-state and sister-city ties.

Hawaii is a sister state with Fukuoka (1981), Okinawa (1985), Hiroshima (1997), and Ehime (2003) Prefectures.

  • The City & County of Honolulu is a sister city to Hiroshima city (1959) in Hiroshima Prefecture, to Naha, Okinawa Prefecture (1960), and to Uwajima, Ehime Prefecture (2004). Established in 1959 upon the proposal of Honolulu City Council. In 2001, the city of Hiroshima and its Chamber of Commerce gave a replica of the Miyajima torii gate to Honolulu. It is located on the traffic island where King and Beretania streets meet in Moiliili.
  • Kauai County is a sister city to Moriyama, Shiga Prefecture, to Ishigaki, Okinawa, and to Suo-Oshima, Yamaguchi Prefecture, (1997)
  • Maui County (includes Molokai and Lanai) is a sister city to Hachijojima island, Tokyo and to Hirara, Miyako island, Okinawa. Also, the Fukuyama Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Hiroshima Prefecture has friendship ties with the Maui Japanese Chamber of Commerce since 1997.
  • Hawaii County (Hawaii island) is a sister city to Nago, Okinawa, to Shibukawa (Ikaho), Gunma Prefecture (1997), to Sumoto, Awaji island, Hyogo Prefecture, and to Yurihama (Hawai-cho), Tottori Prefecture (1996).
  • Hilo, Hawaii is a sister city to Oshima island (Izu-Oshima), Tokyo (1962).

See a list of Hawaii's sister states/cities here.

Star-Bulletin article about Hawai-cho and Hawaii.