Lessons in Culture from Twenty-Four Japanese Hula Dancers


kiwala'o

It was going to be a fun gig. Twenty-four hula instructors from Japan were to visit the Island of Hawaii to study traditional Hawaiian Kahiko-style hula from a local kumu hula. Our job was to facilitate communication and cooperation between the local hosts and our Japanese guests.

Upon arrival we placed a lei around the necks of our guests, then broke the Japanese “no-hug rule” with each and every one of them. (Freaked them out a little but made everyone smile.) Next stop was the local hotel where they rested and freshened up for our opening ceremony that evening.

The next four days our guests underwent intensive instruction from the local kumu hula, learning Kahiko basics and the proper chants, culminating in a sacred gathering at the edge of Hawaii’s smoking Halema’uma’u crater where they danced and chanted for Madame Pele.

I wasn’t there to witness the event myself but my better half was. Keep in mind my wife isn’t prone to hyperbole nor is she particularly spiritual. But if you believe her, it was an uplifting, awe-inspiring, emotional experience that ended with lots of hugging and crying.

If this is not a profoundly awesome way to connect cultures, I don’t know what is.

And while the ladies were crying and dancing and hugging and bonding up at the crater, I was busy at home setting up for our final celebration party, the last night before our guests would return to Japan.

We wanted the celebration to be authentic, with a human touch. So we decked out our car port, scrubbed the floor for our barefoot dancers, hired a local band to play traditional Hawaiian music, and brought in local-style food—or “grinds” as they call it here in the islands. We also invited lots of friends so our guests would get the chance to interact with living, breathing human beings outside their own culture.

And the party rocked! Our guests, most of whom weren’t shy about consuming beer and wine, spent most of the evening dancing hula in my carport, a lovely and memorable evening.

When the party was over, the charter bus pulled up to my front gate, our guests danced their way onto the bus, blew us kisses, and headed to Hilo where they’d spend their last evening on our lovely island. (Okay, I blew them kisses.)

The Danger of Gloating

The next day, shortly after our guests departed, we would glimpse our evaluations. Imagine our delight when we found nothing but glowing reviews.  An authentic experience! Exceeded our expectations! A life-changing event! It was perfect!

As you might imagine we were now pretty full of ourselves, and quietly gloated well into the afterglow of the project. Truth is the gig did go well. So well that we continued nurturing relationships within the Japanese halau. Forget that my gut was telling me we weren’t getting the whole story. Hey, when false information says you’re perfect who wants to argue?

Well, on our next visit to Japan we made it a point to visit our new friends in Tokyo and Osaka. As one might expect, our hosts graciously extended their exquisite brand of Japanese hospitality, in both instances taking us out for dinner and drinks. And once again we bonded, thanks to liberal amounts of beer and saké, although sadly no dancing this time. It was yet another step forward in nurturing our relationship. The after-dinner conversation with our Osaka friends in particular turned out to be a breakthrough.

Japan’s East-West Rivalry

For folks unfamiliar with Japan, it’s worth taking a cultural detour here to point out that the Tokyo and Kansai areas—Osaka in particular for this story—represent two distinct subcultures within Japan, a kind of “East-West” rivalry with historical roots that run deep.

I’ll preface my comments by saying that even though I spent all my ten years in Japan in the Tokyo area and have many dear friends who are from there, I absolutely love Western Japan’s Kansai culture.

As a native of Chicago I feel a particular kinship with Osaka folks. Just as Chicago is cast as “second city” to New York, so it goes for Osaka, always lurking in the shadow of Tokyo.

And even our sports teams have parallels. New York has the Yankees, Tokyo the Giants, both winning franchises with a long, proud history. In contrast, Chicago and Osaka have the hapless Cubs and Tigers with just two measly championships between them in the last thousand years or so.

But what I love most about Osakans is our mutual love of breaking rules, an endearing quality that resonates, probably because I come from a long line of rule-breakers myself. This also explains why I enjoy watching Osakans jaywalk with a purpose, ignore “Don’t Walk” signs, and shamelessly haggle at the department store then brag about their cheap score, behavior that describes many of my American friends to a T.

And just to show Tokyo folks that they don’t “play according to Hoyle,” Osakans even have their own escalator etiquette: while Tokyoites stand uniformly on the left, Osakans keep to the right, a brilliant passive-aggressive practice that just radiates defiance.

And last but not least, Americans generally find Osakans refreshing because they are more apt to tell you what they’re really thinking. And if we Americans like anything, it’s knowing where we stand with others.

Why Osaka and Tokyo Clash

So why would Osaka and Tokyo be so different? The widely accepted explanation is that Osaka is a “merchant culture” as opposed to Tokyo’s stodgy “samurai culture.”

The merchant-culture theory feeds the image of Osakans as pragmatic, entrepreneurial, down-to-earth, free-spirited and fun-loving, the opposite of their cultural cousins in Tokyo. At the risk of overgeneralizing here, there is indeed some truth to this characterization of Osaka, as the cultural tendencies are obvious to anyone who has spent time in Japan’s bustling merchant city.

But if you ask  Osakans to describe  Tokyoites, you’ll probably hear words like “cold,” “shy,” “reserved,” maybe even “stuck up.”

Can you feel the resentment? It shouldn’t surprise that Osaka’s resentment toward Tokyo has been building for a long time, thanks largely to the Kansai area’s long, proud, thousand-year cultural history and political dominance—that and the fact that Tokugawa (the shogun famous for uniting feudal Japan under a single ruler) had the audacity to make the Eastern city of Edo the seat of political power from the early 1600s. To add insult to injury, old Edo was renamed “Tokyo” (literally “Eastern Capital”) when the Tokugawa shogunate officially ended in 1868, prompting the Emperor to up and move East. Ouch.

Well this naturally stuck in the craw of the entire Western Kansai district and resentment simmers today—albeit mostly in a playful, creative way. Suffice it to say that if a battle of wits ever erupted between Tokyo and Osaka, Tokyo wouldn’t have a chance.

One can only guess that it’s a lot more fun and edgy being a hustling, bustling merchant than an obedient, protocol-following Samurai, although I never tried the latter. Still, the merchant-Samurai angle seems to explain a lot.

With this backdrop, the after-hours drinking party we had with our straight-shooting Osaka hula friends will make a lot more sense. But before returning to our story, let’s examine one more cultural concept pertinent to the discussion.

Official Reality Or the Real Story?

The Japanese have a dualistic concept they call “honne/tatemae” (pronounced “hone-neh/tah-teh-mah-eh”). Think of honne as “one’s true feelings,” and tatemae as “the truth for public consumption.”

It’s a concept that manifests in all cultures, of course. The difference is that the Japanese openly acknowledge the gap between what people say and what they’re really thinking. In America we kind of sweep it under the rug, even though we know deep down it’s there.

With the honne-tatemae dichotomy out in the open, Japanese listeners are quick to discern between a speaker’s honne and tatemae in any given interaction, although it’s a bit of a guessing game even for Japanese.

Americans, on the other hand, actually practice honne-tatemae but don’t have a name for it. It’s our quirky way of “looking the other way” and pretending it doesn’t exist. The closest concept to tatemae might be the “white lie” an American tells to spare someone’s feelings. What comes to mind is the standard American response when the host of a party asks a guest how the food tastes. No matter how bloody horrible it may be, most Americans will say it’s delicious just to keep the harmony and spare the feelings of the chef. (With the caveat that when brutally honest friends are involved all bets are off!)

So the real challenge in making an authentic connection with Japanese folks in general, is getting past the tatemae façade and gently coaxing out the honne. There are only two ways that I know of to accomplish this: one is develop a relationship of trust. The other is to go out drinking together.

Drinking is the quickest path to honne.

Honne…Osaka style

So back to our story–there we were, my wife and I in an Osaka beer joint, pounding mugs of Sapporo Draft with a dozen lovely Japanese hula dancers. And the more we partook of the hoppy brew, the more and more transparent our conversation became, and the elusive “honne” gradually made itself known.

Turns out there was, after all, one teeny-tiny little problem with our event—no, with MY event! The one thing my dear wife put me in charge of, the final celebration, left our guests with the proverbial “bad taste in their mouth”: they admitted to us–under the influence mind you–that we overwhelmed them with food, and that they felt really bad leaving so much uneaten. They said it was “mottainai” or “wasteful.”

As the guy who was charged with cleaning up after the party, I can attest that most of the ladies indeed ate only about half their portions. The rest went in the garbage because our guests were leaving early the next morning, and it just wasn’t practical to wrap up their food to go. This was totally on me.

Portion size might seem like a trivial matter, but it’s a great example of stumbling over a culture gap with the best of intentions. Ironically, as many deep connecting points that the Japanese share with Hawaii—volcanic island dwellers, shamanistic roots, a this-worldly spirituality with multiple deities (powerful female deities, mind you), and an awe-inspiring reverence for nature–where we stumbled was in the everyday, practical realm of breaking bread: in Hawaii it’s unacceptable to run out of food, so locals go to the extreme and provide massive portions. In contrast, Japan, a traditionally resource-starved culture, sees waste of any kind as taboo.

What our hula friends were telling us in their gentle, respectful, boozy way is that we failed to anticipate the optimum portion-size for them, forcing them to do what Japanese folks abhor doing: waste stuff, especially food.

Shame on me for not anticipating this from the start–I absolutely should have known better. The silver lining is that, thanks to our kind Osaka hula friends, I now in fact do know better.

It may sound strange to describe getting constructive feedback as a “bonding moment,” but it absolutely was in the most tangible sense. As I see it, our straight-talking Osaka friends thought enough of us to respectfully provide constructive feedback, although admittedly it took a few beers to get there. But in my eyes it was a wonderful gift, one that will last me a lifetime. What more can a friend ask for?

But the real gift was being part of an event that connected Japan with local Hawaii culture, and creating new friendships that continue today. Can’t think of a more gratifying way to to make a living.

Aloha nui from the Big Island of Hawaii.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

6 responses to “Lessons in Culture from Twenty-Four Japanese Hula Dancers

  1. Aloha Tim! Thank you for sharing. Insightful. Tatemae-Honne is always a HUGE challenge in Japanese-American communications. You were lucky to find out first hand what the challenge was…so often the challenge is shared via third parties or not at all.

  2. Reblogged this on Cultural Detective Blog and commented:
    Just spoke with Tim this morning. I so enjoy his storytelling and his humor. I am confident you will learn a lot from this powerful, simple yet profound, story. Gorgeous photo, too!

  3. Great story. Thanks a lot.

  4. Mary Beauregard

    Very enjoyable, Tim. Great information and description of Japanese regional differences, which is always important to note in any culture. And your own personal experience with Tatemae-Honne is perfect! Thank you so much.

  5. What about the whole ‘when in Rome…’ Maybe it was the ‘responsibility’ of the Japanese side to adapt to the environment they found themselves in? Don’t be so hard on yourself! I am sure that if you told the Japanese guests that it would be more offensive to provide little food from the Hawaiian side, they’d understand :-) It’s like when you’re going for a bow and the other person for a handshake, even though YOU are the one who usually shakes hands, and they’re the one bowing… you know what I mean…

    • I understand your point wolikag, and thank you for your encouragement! :) In this case, the hula dancers were our customer and guests, so as I see it, it was my job to make them feel comfortable…not to mention we really wanted repeat business!

      As for being hard on myself, perhaps I came across as “beating myself up” but it was actually a personal exercise in self reflection, the only way I know to keep improving. I’m past it now and a better person for it! In the end it all worked out, and I actually feel honored that we got close enough to our guests to get the “real story.”

      Thank you so much for taking time to read the piece and also for commenting. Hope to see you again in the Intercultural Twilight Zone!

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