Category Archives: Personal

How Not to Refuse a Drink in Japan

Anyone who has lived in Japan or just deals with the Japanese on a regular basis knows that social attitudes toward alcohol consumption are different here.

That said, it appears attitudes are changing and that younger Japanese are less interested in drinking, a positive development in my opinion. And yet I still hear Japanese friends, acquaintances, and colleagues who like to imbibe jokingly say that they are “alcoholics.” In fact, I just heard it last week at a local drinking establishment. It reminded me of a nomikai (drinking party) a few years back when I had to interpret a conversation between a Japanese host and recovering alcoholic named “John.” Below is my analysis of what was likely going through the Japanese host’s head at the time.

Keep in mind that the scenario below is a great example of how not to refuse a drink in Japan. With the wisdom of hindsight, I should have handled the situation differently. What’s my advice to non-drinkers who want to politely avoid a drink when it’s offered in Japan without getting into the details of alcoholism and what it means? Simply say, “I’m allergic to alcohol,” “I’m on medication,” or “I can’t drink due to health reasons.” One of those polite lies usually gets the desired response.



Patience Grasshopper: Japanese Versus American Communication Styles

The first big translation project I ever did was a production control manual about the Kanban (Just-In-Time) system. It was boring beyond tears, but I’ll do my best not to make you cry.

It was the late 1980s. I was working at a new Japanese factory start-up in the Deep South. My Japanese boss mentioned in passing one day that, once we stabilized operations, we would be implementing Just-In-Time. Without any thought whatsoever, I volunteered to translate the manual, even though I had absolutely no idea at the time what “Just-In-Time” meant.

A novice to the industry, I had zero knowledge of manufacturing and knew even less about production control concepts (if that’s even possible). And as I started reading the manual (in Japanese, although I probably wouldn’t have understood it in English either), it didn’t take long before I wondered what I had gotten myself into. The manual was a bloody mess!

To the credit of the manual’s author, it started out simple enough with a clear objective: “To create a visual inventory control and scheduling system that keeps inventory levels to a minimum while ensuring components are produced only as needed.” I was fuzzy about what all this meant, but at least I had a general inkling of the goal. Or so I thought.

Then things got gnarly. The manual immediately jumped into the nuts-and-bolts of the system’s standard procedures without offering an overview of its key components, functions, and how the components fit together. At the time, I thought my confusion was due solely to my ignorance of production control concepts, which admittedly, was a big part of my problem. But what I didn’t realize was that it was written in typical Japanese “whodunit” expository style, best described as the “inductive approach”: start with the specifics and build to a conclusion until the mystery is solved.

This went against my deductive American (Western?) sensibilities, which craved for a general overview of the system followed by the details. No surprise, I spent lots of time picking my Japanese boss’s brain, while he gently encouraged me to “Be patient Grasshopper!”— although not in those exact words. I wasn’t at all patient, but I somehow muddled my way through, and by the time I got to the end, the lightbulb finally clicked on. Which just compelled newly enlightened Grasshopper to go back and rewrite the whole damn thing.

It shouldn’t surprise that the Japanese inductive style is not limited to technical manuals. I deal with it every day on a personal level. (And so do numerous non-Japanese friends who are married to Japanese spouses.) Because I love my dear wife with my whole heart and soul, I’ve learned over the years to approach her communication style as if I were a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire: can I figure out the answer before my wife is done giving me hints?

How have I faired? Let’s just say that if “The Secret” were true and my imagination could manifest reality, I’d be a rich man!

Disclaimer: Of course, not all Japanese communicate this way,. But it’s a discernible cultural pattern in their writing and verbal communication styles, as proscribed in the traditional 起承転結  (Introduction-Development-Transition-Conclusion) approach.

Below is my analysis of the communication gaps at play:


“You Probably Won’t Like This, But…”

The first time I was invited over for a meal at a Japanese home, I remember being confused (and a tad scared) when the wife, upon serving me food, said that she didn’t think I would like what she prepared. With some trepidation—and out of grudging politeness—I forced myself to take a bite, only to discover to my delight and surprise that the food was delicious. And I remember at the time wondering why she would say such a thing to a guest. It didn’t take long for me to learn that this was a common practice in Japan. But for a long time, I didn’t know why.

This scenario happens often in Japan, whether the guest is a foreigner or not. The expression “Kore wa kuchi ni awanai ka mo shirenai kedo…” (Literally, “This may not suit your palate, but…”) is a standard, scripted expression Japanese hosts typically use prior to presenting food to a guest.

What, you may ask, is going on below the linguistic surface? Here’s my analysis:


Cross-Cultural Expressions of Love & the Implied Double-Negative

Following up on yesterday’s Humor Lost In Translation post, today’s scenario deals with two cross-cultural communication issues: one linguistic, the other concerning different ways of defining and expressing love.

On the linguistic front, this scenario represents a common communication breakdown that occurs in dialogues between English speakers and Japanese who haven’t mastered the finer nuances of the English language. In this case, the unsuspecting American husband asks a question in a negative format. (i.e., “Don’t you…?) The Japanese wife responds the way she would if the same question were posed in her native language: with an implied double-negative that she fails to clearly articulate. As a result, the two lovebirds get their wires crossed.

On the “love” front, sure wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a forlorn gaijin husband complain about the “lack of affection” from his Japanese spouse. (And I’d gladly give the nickel back if I could help them work out their issues.) Goes without saying, nothing beats an open dialogue and better understanding of each other’s culture. Below is an attempt to provide a framework for such a dialogue.


Disclaimer: in no way am I suggesting this applies to all intercultural (“gaijin”-Japanese) couples. Also, keep in mind that couples can evolve. For example, when I first started dating my wife, she wasn’t a hugger. After 33 years of living in the U.S., she’s become much more openly affectionate. And even my 88-year-old mother-in-law has gotten into hugging, although she reserves it exclusively for her gaijin son-in-law. 🙂 


Humor Lost in Translation (and the Ticked-Off Japanese Wife)


The graphic above is an example of an attempted joke that, had it actually been told in the context described, would have failed miserably in eliciting a laugh. First, a disclaimer: I’ve never been so bold as to say such a thing to my Japanese wife, as we always communicate in Japanese. Truth is, I wouldn’t know how to communicate this in Japanese anyway, as certain types of humor get obliterated in translation. Also note that I stole this particular line from my high school math teacher, so the exchange above is completely fabricated. But it doesn’t matter: Just about any sarcastic remark will elicit a similar reaction. After 35 years of marital bliss, I’ve learned how to make my wife laugh but occasionally stumble and make jokes that…well…let’s just say she is not amused…

That said, I can attest from personal experience that humor, if used in the right way, can be a powerful tool in bringing cultures together. But it can just as easily offend. And this underscores the reality that communication is much deeper than words, especially when a comedian-wannabe wades into the unfamiliar waters of cross-cultural humor.

Indeed, even people who speak the same language can miss an inside joke. I experienced this firsthand when I attended a party in Chicago in the late 1980s after living in Japan for ten years. My brother’s friend was telling jokes and doing impersonations, and everyone in the room was roaring with laughter. Except me. In this instance, the jokester was impersonating well-known characters on Saturday Night Live, a cultural phenomenon I had missed during my Japan residency. (Nope, no American TV in Japan back in the old days.)

Think about it: If I had never heard or seen the characters being imitated, then how could I appreciate the quality of the impersonation? This is precisely the same reason my Japanese wife never laughed when she’d hear Rich Little impersonate John Wayne. She knew who John Wayne was but never heard his voice since Western movies in Japan were always overdubbed in Japanese. (Nothing is trippier than hearing John Wayne utter in Japanese, “Well, okay pilgrim!”)

Likewise, I didn’t get the humor at the aforementioned party because I lacked the shared experience that gave context to the Saturday Night Live impersonations. I had completely lost touch with American popular culture.

The moral of this anecdote is that even though linguistic barriers make bridging the humor gap a challenge, the gaps are much deeper than words. Humor requires a degree of shared experience and common values to crossover.

Years ago I read about an American businessman who went to Japan to give a speech. He met with his interpreter in advance to preview the content. Somewhere in the speech the American planned to tell a joke. The interpreter understood the joke but knew the Japanese audience wouldn’t. He advised the businessman to remove it, but his advice fell on deaf ears. Frustrated, the interpreter took matters into his own hands. When the American delivered the joke, the interpreter turned to the audience and said (in Japanese of course), “the American told a joke. He thinks it’s funny. Please laugh!” As instructed, everyone laughed. (I envision in my mind’s eye the American speaker at some point turning to the interpreter and saying, “See I told you they’d get it!”)

Is Sarcasm a Foreign Concept in Japan?

I’ve heard many Japan pundits claim that Japanese don’t use nor do they understand sarcasm and irony. (To distinguish between the two, by definition, sarcasm is “the use of irony to mock or convey contempt.”)

My first observation is that the Japanese language has one all-encompassing word—”hiniku” (皮肉)—to describe sarcasm, irony, satire, and cynicism, all of which are slightly different concepts.

My other observation is that, in general, Japanese humor tends to be more self-deprecating than its American cousin. As far as I know, there is no Japanese comedian who openly mocks people a la Don Rickles. Another difference is that Americans value the notion (if not in reality then at least in principle) of not taking themselves too seriously. So when someone takes offense from a joke directed at them, my compatriots will often say that the offended party is “too sensitive” and “can’t take a joke.”

It shouldn’t surprise that in Japan—a culture which values harmony, understatement, politeness and sincerity—the practice of openly mocking people would be considered bad form. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that sarcasm doesn’t exist. It’s just more subtle. One could argue that the example of the interpreter’s joke above was, at the very least, borderline sarcasm (i.e., the American told a joke, he thinks it’s funny…”).

Here’s an example of a subtle version of Japanese sarcasm that someone shared on a reddit message board:

“…one time my boss, a Japanese guy, was bragging about being popular in high school, saying he had lots of girlfriends and experiences. Another Japanese guy just looked at him blankly and, after about 10 seconds, said ‘そうか,’ meaning something along the lines of ‘Ok then….’ It was expertly timed and everyone around laughed, including myself.

Another example is how Japanese parents might use polite speech to gently mock their own children. For some background, it’s generally considered improper to address one’s inner group (which of course includes family members) with honorifics like “san” or “sama.” A Japanese mother might sarcastically refer to her willful, demanding daughter as “uchi no ojōsama” (うちのお嬢様), a polite term normally reserved for someone else’s daughter. The context in this example makes it clear that the remark is sarcastic. But even in this situation, the joke has a self-deprecating nuance, as it is directed at one’s own family member.

The Pitfalls of Being a Smart Ass in Japan

The movie Gung Ho has a scene that shows a wise-cracking American completely bombing with his Japanese audience when he uses a sarcastic, rhetorical question to answer “yes” to a a straight-forward question. (I truly wish they had used native Japanese speakers for the movie, a discussion for another day.) Here’s the dialogue between Hunt Stevenson (played by Michael Keaton) and his Japanese coworkers right after Hunt has been offered a job in the plant:

Kazuhiro:“Can we count on you?”

Hunt:“Fellas…is a frog’s ass watertight”?

Kazuhiro: After intense discussion in “Japanese” with his colleagues, Kazuhiro turns back to Hunt and says, “Yes, we believe it is!”

I’ve had my share of jokes bomb in Japan. After many years living here, well-intentioned Japanese friends and acquaintances still compliment me on my “amazing chopstick skills.” (It happens to all foreigners.) Truth is that I am skillful; it’s what happens when you use them everyday for four decades. But after a thousand or so compliments, the remark started to annoy me and one day I finally snapped. While eating a Japanese bento with chopsticks, my Japanese table mate hit me with the dreaded chopstick rap: “Tim-san, you are very skillful with your chopsticks!”

In an ironic twist of fate, my friend was cutting into a piece of beef with a knife and fork. So without thinking I blurted out, “Well you’re pretty good with a knife and fork!”

To which he replied in earnest, “Arigato!” (Thank you.)

Of course.

Religion and Other Sacred Cows

Religion is a risky topic for humor even within cultures. For better or worse, most Japanese see religion as fair game, including Buddhism (see the rakugo story Okechimyaku for more on this). Noteworthy is that the important exception is the Japanese Royal family, completely off limits.

I’m dating myself here, but back in the 1980s, a controversial commercial aired on Japanese TV. The product being advertised was innocuous enough: Bee Line pens. It was a very strange ad indeed: A Japanese comedian impersonating Christ on the cross was suddenly doused with a red liquid that looked like blood. That’s it. After which they pitched their pens and the commercial was over. The commercial was so offensive to Christian viewers that it prompted a slew of angry letters to the editor of The Japan Times. The ad left me scratching my head, totally beyond my ability to comprehend. Truth is I was much more confused than offended, but I completely understood why Christians would take offense.

The commercial was so strange and controversial that I couldn’t help but discuss it with Japanese friends and colleagues. Nearly everyone I spoke with was oblivious to how offensive it was to Christians. At first, I rationalized: how could they empathize unless they themselves were offended by the desecration of Buddhist or Shinto symbols? Then Shinto rang a bell, and I started asking how they’d feel if a member of the Imperial family were in the commercial rather than Jesus. That got the point across.

Humor that Works in Both Cultures?

In my quest to identify American jokes that work in Japanese culture, my Japanese wife is my test subject. Below are some examples of American-style humor that made her laugh.

Here’s a “dad joke” (known in Japanese as 親父ギャグ) that worked, one I heard from none other than retired basketball player Charles Barkley. It’s a silly play on words and requires a minimal understanding of English. But it has already gotten a laugh from not only my wife, but also several other Japanese friends (even those who speak very little English):

“What do you call someone with no body, and no nose?

Nobody knows!”

Yuk, yuk, yuk.

My wife also thinks the snarky mother-in-law character in the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond is a scream, a character that reeks of sarcasm, albeit the sarcasm is not directed at a real person. My wife’s ability to relate makes total sense, as in Japan, mother-in-laws are notorious for verbally abusing their daughter-in-laws.

My wife also appreciated the Seinfeld episode on “re-gifting” because Japanese also happen to be notorious re-gifters. Back in my college days when I taught English to Japanese doctors, they all gave me copious amounts of premium Scotch and other spirits that their patients had given them, all of which I re-re-gifted to friends who actually drank the stuff. Like America, it’s technically taboo to re-gift in Japan even though everyone seems to do it. The unspoken rule is that it’s okay as long as the original gift giver doesn’t find out.

Here’s another joke that made my wife laugh:

An experiment that proves dog is truly man’s best friend: Lock your dog and your spouse in the trunk of your car. After an hour open the trunk. Which one is glad to see you?

If there’s a pattern in humor that can cross over to other cultures, it’s the universal human condition. Most folks, regardless of culture, can relate to annoying in-laws, social taboos, angry spouses, and even black humor (as demonstrated by numerous death-related Rakugo stories and Itami Juzo’s dark comedy, The Funeral [お葬式]). But bridging the gap can be risky business. And while I believe humor is a wonderful tool in bringing people together from different cultures, my advice is to tread carefully, and leave irony and sarcasm to the local native speakers.

Can anyone offer examples of humor that crosses over?




How a Bearded Barbarian Won Over His Japanese Mother-In-Law


We were resolute but worried. After an eight-month courtship, I had finally popped the question to my Japanese girlfriend. She accepted, and with that, we were committed to tying the knot come hell or high water. But we still had to break the news to her parents. We were cautiously optimistic they wouldn’t try to stop us, but we had concerns. Mostly about dad.

Her parents had met me six months earlier when my girlfriend decided—against my better judgement—that it was time to ease me into the family fold. It’s worth noting here that I am three years younger than my wife, so at the time she viewed me—somewhat condescendingly—like the little brother she never had, a formidable barrier in getting her to consider me as a serious suitor. But alas, I was too in love to be deterred, so was more than willing to overlook a little condescension. Like an obedient little brother, I did what I was told. It was time to meet the parents.

When girlfriend called her parents to let them know she was bringing home a guest, she referred to me ambiguously as otoko no ko, which literally means “a young boy,” even though I was 24 years old at the time. Hilarity would ensue, although it wasn’t funny at the time.

Honorable girlfriend was a teacher by profession. I would later find out that Japanese mom and dad were half expecting their daughter’s mysterious guest to be a young student of elementary-school age. And they were half-right: I was a student, in my 3rd year at International Christian University. Unfortunately, I was also an idiot, a fact bolstered by my lack of proper grooming. Think wild, disheveled hair, scruffy beard, and sloppy loose-fitting clothes that could easily be mistaken for pajamas. My heart was in the right place, but I lacked the wherewithal to dress the part. I would find out later after we left that day that intense debate ensued within the family on whether I looked more like Jesus or Socrates.

Now try to imagine the look on Japanese mom’s face when she greeted us at the front door. The scene is still vivid in my memory even after 36 years: door opens, mom looks downward expecting to see a little kid, her eyes track upward until she stops abruptly at my unshaven mug and curly, wild hair. Normally a stoic, poker-faced woman, she couldn’t hide her disdain. It was obvious even to common-senseless me that I’d blown my one and only chance to make a good first impression.

Japanese dad’s reaction was tougher to read. I had no clue what he was thinking, which was, in a weird way, more disturbing than knowing for certain that he disapproved. The only saving grace at the time was that neither mom nor dad knew the nature of my relationship with their daughter. To them, I was just a “friend,” albeit a barbarian friend who didn’t have the good sense to change out of his pajamas.

Fast forward six months, back to our impending engagement announcement. In retrospect, why we were more concerned about dad than mom is beyond me. Maybe it’s because we knew his approval carried more weight. Or that we overestimated mom’s tolerance for foreigners. Whatever we were thinking, they both threw us a curveball. Here’s how it unfolded.

Girlfriend phoned home to break the news. Dad answered because mom was out and about. A straight-shooter by nature, my wife-to-be didn’t mince words:

“Dad, remember that foreigner I brought home about half a year ago?”

“You mean the guy wearing pajamas who looks like Jesus?”

“Yes, that’s him.”

“What about him?”

“We’re getting married.”

“Oh, that’s good. Anything else?”

“No that’s it. Could you let mom know?”



Girlfriend was stunned. Bearded barbarian was equally stunned. Dad didn’t object! And suddenly we were hopeful. That is, until half an hour later when mom called back in a tizzy.

“You’re going to marry that hairy foreigner who looks like Socrates?”

“Dad said he looks like Jesus.”

“Well, I still don’t approve!”

“Dad didn’t object.”

Pregnant pause.

“Are you sure about this? Don’t you know that all foreigners get divorced?”

“They don’t all get divorced. You worry too much.”

“How will you communicate?”

“He speaks Japanese, mom, remember?”

“But he’s going to take you back to America, and I’ll never see you again!”

“No, he wants to live in Japan forever.”

“But what does his family think?”

“They are fine with it.”


Then just for fun, my fiancé dropped another bombshell.

“Oh, and before we get married, we’ve decided to live together for half a year, just to see how it goes before we make it official.”

Needless to say, fireworks ensued and it wasn’t pretty. But my fiancé held firm.

We would later learn that dad put the kibosh on mom’s objections when he told her, “If I had listened to my parents, I’d have never married you. Our daughter is a grown woman, we raised her to make good decisions. We have to trust her and let her live her own life.”

And that’s when we realized just how cool Japanese dad was.

On the other hand, it took a big adjustment to my grooming standards—not to mention help from a trusted friend—to move the needle with mom. My Japanese guarantor, a well-respected researcher with a steady job and doctorate degree from a highly respected school (Kyushu University), was kind enough to drive out to the homestead to assure mom that, despite my appearance to the contrary, I wasn’t the devil. By then my friend had already met my parents and understood that I came from “good stock” (or so he thought). His ringing endorsement went a long way in mitigating the situation, as Japanese mom quickly went from “absolutely not,” to “grudging acceptance.” Not optimal, but it was a start.

The following year we officially tied the knot. I buckled down on my Japanese studies, graduated from college, cut my hair, became gainfully employed, and even upped the ante a year later by producing (with some help from my wife) a grandson for my in-laws, making it virtually impossible for mom to withdraw her support, however grudging it was. The only glitch occurred when I was offered and accepted a job with a Japanese automotive parts supplier committed to building a new factory in America’s Deep South. This was a career-altering opportunity, a two-year stint that my wife enthusiastically supported, which means we had to break that little promise about me living in Japan forever.

Well, that two-year stint turned into a thirty-three-year stay in the U.S. So we didn’t just break that promise, we blew it to smithereens. As penance, we gave Japanese mom another grandchild, which compelled her and Japanese dad to come for a visit. After meeting their second grandson and a face-to-face with my parents, there was no turning back. Mom was now firmly trapped in “grudging-resignation” mode.

From that fateful day thirty-six years ago when my wife brought me home to meet the parents, winning over mom has been like turning a battleship around in the water. Four years ago during a Japan visit, mom finally came clean about her strong opposition to our union. (I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’d been privy to her feelings all along.) Most impressive was that she openly admitted she’d been “wrong” to oppose our marriage, that she could see how happy her daughter was, and that she was genuinely glad we had gotten married. And yes, her precious grandchildren had a lot to do with it, too. But she still likes to remind me how pathetic I looked the first time we met, and we laugh and laugh. Still, words can’t express how good it felt to officially win her approval, and how much respect I have for her ability to reflect, transcend her prejudices, and admit to me she was wrong.

And today we’re as thick as thieves.


After thirty-three years in the U.S., we’ve come full circle. Sadly, Japanese dad passed on four years ago, so mom now lives alone. We recently moved back to Japan permanently to care for mom in her old age.

I’ve spent my 40-year career helping Japanese and non-Japanese connect in the workplace, often going into hostile environments to defuse explosive situations, with the goal of coaxing clients into “kissing and making-up,” so to speak. And yet, I consider the relationship I’ve built with Japanese mom to be my ultimate cross-cultural accomplishment. If I can bridge a culture gap on this scale—further compounded by the poor judgment of my reckless youth—then I can bridge just about anything.

Who In Their Right Mind Moves to Pahoa?


I’ve always had a rebel streak in me. Got it from my dad, a grown man who relished finding ways to break rules without technically breaking them.

Dad liked to say he didn’t “play according to Hoyle,” a reference to the famous book of rules for card games (see According to Hoyle). Clueless at the time about the Hoyle reference, I knew from context what dad meant: he liked to do things his way.

How dad navigated our expressway tollbooths speaks volumes about him, and by extension, me. He’d always have exact change in hand when pulling into what was then considered an automated tollbooth (long before the days of ipass scanner technology). He’d toss in his coins without coming to a stop, punch the accelerator, and race toward the tollbooth red light, his goal, to trip the alarm before the light turned green—ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!

And on the rare occasion the green light beat dad to the punch, he was visibly disappointed, a lost chance to stick it to the man–or at least tweak him–without technically breaking any rules.

I still remember asking dad why he did it. His answer was borderline blasphemous: “I don’t have time to wait for the goddamn light to turn green—I’m a busy man!”

And with all due love and respect to my dad he was full of shit; he blew those tollbooth lights because he didn’t play according to Hoyle.

These moments are still etched in my memory forty years later. And even with all the teenage relationship issues I had with my dad at the time, every time he’d trip those annoying tollbooth bells, I remember thinking he was about the coolest guy in the world.

With that kind of role model it’s no surprise I turned out the way I did. And not so outlandish that I ended up in Pahoa, a place where folks don’t play according to Hoyle.

From Outlaws to Barefoot Hippies With iphones


Pahoa has an outlaw reputation that was well earned back in the 1970s and 80s during its pakalolo heyday. Pakalolo (literally, “crazy weed”) is still around of course, but the heydays of yore are well behind Pahoa–for reasons beyond the scope of this post.

Hoyle and his rules notwithstanding, Dad wouldn’t have liked the old outlaw version of Pahoa, nor would he have been thrilled with today’s version either; way too many hippies for his liking, and not a single tollbooth to violate.

But dad would surely have appreciated the historical significance of Pahoa Town, and grudgingly acknowledged its funky Bohemian charm.


Interestingly Hawaii’s own locals are harder on Pahoa than most mainlanders. Shortly after moving here it surprised me to learn that Pahoa’s reputation extended to our neighboring islands. I still remember exchanging business cards with a client in Honolulu who, upon seeing my Pahoa address, asked with tongue in cheek, “Who in their right mind moves to Pahoa?”

I’ve even heard of folks born and raised in nearby Hilo—just 30 miles away—who have never in their lives been to Pahoa Town, not even the Puna district, because of the bad rap we get. So bad is our rap, that even Dog the Bounty Hunter’s crazy wife Beth once warned viewers that, “Puna is a place you don’t want to be after dark.”

There’s a story behind Puna’s outlaw reputation, a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that the “Wild East” days of Pahoa Town are well behind us, but the reputation lives on.

Last time I ventured into Pahoa there were no outlaws, no bounty hunters, just some barefoot hippies drinking lattes and gazing at their iphones. (But let’s not tell Dog and Beth.)


Who in their right mind moves to Pahoa?


If my circle of friends is any indication, people in their “right minds” actually do live in Pahoa, but they tend to stand out. The good news is, Pahoa tolerates normal people too.

For context it’s worth touching on local demographics. In addition to the native Hawaiians, Pahoa and the surrounding area is populated by locals of various ethnic and racial backgrounds, many of mixed heritage, many third and fourth generation Japanese. Being that this is their turf and all, the local folks would logically represent “the norm” in this context–which by default makes the rest of us the oddballs.

The area has also had a new influx of transplants from around the world over the past decade, mostly from the mainland. Last I checked Caucasians are still in the minority in the Puna district, and that’s fine with me, as my former life in Japan taught me to embrace being the only white guy on the block.


It’s useful to think of Puna locals as a completely different culture, richly diverse, but generally much closer to Asia than mainland U.S.A. The fact that the locals speak English can almost lull you into thinking otherwise, but deep below the familiar linguistic surface, culture gaps abound.

To an outsider–even folks from Honolulu–the Puna district seems like a strange, exotic foreign country. But most Puna locals I know, within the context of their own cultural norms, tend to be a socially conservative lot. So let’s forgive them for thinking us newbie transplants are a little strange and not quite right.



But all bets are off for the rest of us who moved here in search of Hoyle-free horizons. We colored outside the lines of our respective cultures, and were just crazy enough to move to the world’s most isolated landmass at the foot of the world’s most active volcano. I think Pahoa is a better place for it.

After living through two disasters in just the past three months, you’d think I’d be ready to pack up and run for the hills. Amazingly these disasters have had the opposite effect: after being on the receiving end of so many kindnesses–through hurricane Iselle and now this sputtering lava flow–I’ve fallen deeply in love with my community.

I’d be remiss not to mention that Pahoa has more than its share of warts: crime, poverty, alcohol and meth addiction, spousal abuse, homelessness—the same stuff we had back on the mainland. So if you’re looking for trouble in Pahoa–or anywhere in Puna for that matter–it’s easy enough to find.

But if you’re looking for good-hearted people who have your back when the power goes out or the lava hits the fan, well, they’re even easier to find, and sometimes they find you. (Learned this firsthand in the aftermath of Hurricane Iselle, when on three different occasions during a 5-day power outage, folks showed up at our front gate with free ice, two of them complete strangers.)

No matter what happens with our ongoing lava flow, no regrets moving here: so much good has come to my family, so many new friendships formed, such a rich, meaningful life we live. Did I mention the weather is awesome? No, we’re not going anywhere.

And if my dad were alive today he’d tell me what a dumbass I was to live at the foot of an erupting volcano in a house anchored to a concrete slab sitting in the path of a lava flow. If he put it that way I’d have to agree with him. But I’d remind him that I don’t play according to Hoyle either, and he’d understand–at least I’d like to think so.

Stay tuned for more ramblings on Pahoa. If you like classic rock from the 60s and 70s, check out these two jams we stumbled onto in our town’s main parking lot behind Luquin’s one lucky evening.


We ended up hanging with a bunch of old hippies, the real deal. (Unlike dad, I’m totally chill with the hippies). Together we took a musical trip down memory lane while we lamented the passing of Pahoa, now looking like a premature eulogy with the flow front stalled. But here’s what things looked like from town back then!


What the clips below mean to me, is that Pahoa has the magic–the mana–to make a group of strangers hold hands and feel like old friends. (And please forgive the dark image, I took this at night with an iphone; but hopefully the spirit of the moment comes through):

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014