Tag Archives: Aloha

Aloha in the Aftermath of Iselle


The Puna district on the East side of Hawaii Island took a direct hit from Tropical Storm Iselle on August 7th. Here’s what every other street in my neighborhood looked like.



In our case the power was out for five days. Got our internet back a couple days after that.

And we were one of the lucky ones: we were well prepared for the worst-case scenario and, thanks to the fortuitous direction of the winds, we suffered minimal damage.

Unfortunately, not so for all our neighbors. The good news is that no one died from the storm, truly amazing in light of the devastation, especially if you see what happened in Kapoho.

But even dire situations have an upside. Witnessing so many acts of kindness in our community from friends, neighbors and complete strangers has been uplifting and inspiring. For whatever reason, disasters seem to bring out the best in people. In our case, on two different days two different strangers showed up at our front gate with free ice. We didn’t need it but their kindness and selflessness made us feel wonderful. (On both occasions we humbly accepted the ice then paid it forward by sharing with our elderly Japanese neighbors.)

Our Kona friends and island neighbors also pitched in. A shout out to Hawaiian Airlines for doing their part in flying over pallets of bottled water donated by Hawaiian Isles Water Company. (Mahalo HIWC!) Another shout out to Kona’s Liz Heiman for rallying her neighbors around Puna in a time of need. Also special thanks to Mike Sato (Reptillian Tank) and friends who organized Ride the Breaks and solicited donations for Puna. And last but not least, a heartfelt mahalo to local comedian Augie T who showed up at Maku’u farmer’s market to lift people’s spirits and raise awareness for the cause.

I’d be remiss not to mention all the hardworking folks at HELCO who made things happen very quickly. I’ve never been a big fan, but have to give them their props on this one: they stepped up their game working late into the night under tough conditions, even during heavy downpours. Very impressive how quickly they restored our power, so a big mahalo from all of us.


Thanks to lots of hardworking folks our personal situation is now stable here in Pahoa. But lots of other folks are still without water and electricity. Help from both inside and outside is still needed and much appreciated.

It will take time for Puna to recover. But our community has pulled together and we’re stronger for it. Didn’t realize just how tight-knit we could be until this happened, the proverbial blessing disguised as a disaster.

In light of the massive scale of devastation, Puna’s pace of recovery is much faster than anyone had anticipated (although admittedly the folks in remote and devastated Kapoho might beg to differ–my heart goes out to all of them).

I can only speak for myself, but the aloha around me continues to inspire. Didn’t think it was possible, but I love this place even more than I did before. So proud and thankful to be part of this community.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014


Lessons in Culture from Twenty-Four Japanese Hula Dancers


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

Korea and Japan Practicing Aloha?

With the rhetoric heating up between Japan and Korea over the disputed Takeshima islets,  a beautiful reminder of the counterintuitive possibilities. Who says Japanese and Koreans can’t hug? This young Japanese man set out to prove it can be done, aloha at its best.

One subtle point about the video that caught my eye: notice that the editor chose to block out the face of the only hostile person shown in the video. Beautiful.

Hawaii Academy of Arts & Science Hosts Rainbow for Japan Kids

By now we all know the story: on 3/11 a 9.0 earthquake in Tohoku rocked Japan from the northeast to the Kanto plain. It was the largest recorded earthquake in Japan’s history, the fourth largest recorded ever. The quake was so massive in scale it actually moved portions of northeastern Japan 8 feet closer to North America. The ensuing tsunami left 15,451 dead, with 7,692 missing (presumed dead), and over 40,000 living in shelters. The estimated tally in material damage is expected to exceed $300 billion, an estimate that would make it the most costly natural disaster in history. (Data source)

Anyone who has read my ramblings on this blog knows I have close ties to Japan, starting with my Japanese wife, which by logical extension means we have family there, including my son who lives and works in Tokyo. In this sense, the disaster truly hit close to home. It’s personal.

When the disaster struck on 3/11, my wife and I felt helpless. We were heartsick and wanted to do whatever we could to contribute but our options seemed limited. We donated to the Japan Red Cross through various avenues; volunteered to open our home to refugees from the disaster area (still waiting for a taker); wrote about unfolding stories in Japan on my blog; and Kurumi even started a “Gambare Japan” fundraiser with her Japanese language students at Hawaii Academy of Arts & Science (HAAS).

We were glad to do what we could, but something was missing. We wanted to directly connect with folks who needed help, look into their eyes, embrace them, hopefully make them smile.

That’s why we were lucky to get a call from our good friends at Japan America Society of Hawaii (JASH), asking if we knew of a Big Island school with lots of aloha that would be willing to host 20 Japanese middle school students from the disaster area in Japan.

We said we knew just the school: of course Hawaii Academy of Arts & Science!

The Birth of Rainbow for Japan Kids

Let’s start with a very sincere plug for JASH: it is a wonderful non-profit organization doing lots of good deeds these days. Established in 1976 its mission is “promoting understanding and friendships between the peoples of Japan and the United States through the special and unique perspective of Hawaii.” To achieve these ends JASH provides programs that help expand knowledge, increase meaningful human contact, and facilitate discussion of important issues related to Japan-US relations.

We’ve been members of JASH since we moved to Hawaii five years ago and have seen firsthand the value this organization brings to Hawaii. My company continues to collaborate with JASH on projects when the need arises.

After the 3/11 disaster my friends at JASH really stepped up to the plate. As of this writing, they’ve raised $3,665,166 for Aloha for Japan and other donations, and another $106,757 for their new initiative created last May, called “Rainbow for Japan Kids”.

Here’s an excerpt from the Rainbow for Japan Kids mission statement:

“Hawaii is a place where people from different cultures and backgrounds meet and coexist surrounded by natural beauty. This combination of cultural diversity and natural beauty holds recuperative powers. By providing this opportunity here in Hawaii, we hope the affected children will experience the spirit of Aloha of these islands, and return to Japan with their eyes opened wide by the experience with new hope to create a better future for themselves and their community.

What I love about the Rainbow program is its commitment to helping the most vulnerable victims of Japan’s disaster. So when JASH told us about the program, it not only tugged at our heartstrings, it presented the perfect opportunity to contribute our cross-cultural skills to the cause.

The program concept is to bring to Hawaii, groups of Japanese kids from the affected disaster areas to “engage in educational and cultural activities designed to provide physical and psychological relief from their tragic experiences”.

The first Rainbow group would arrive on July 27 and stay for ten days. They would spend the latter part of their trip on the Big Island, and requested to visit HAAS on August 3rd.

HAAS Reaches Out to Japan

So we approached Steve Hirakami (Principal of HAAS) and Dan Biegler (campus director) to ask if HAAS would be willing to host the first group of Rainbow for Japan Kids. They were nodding their heads before I got the request out of my mouth.

The first group would be 15 girls and 5 boys, all Japanese middle-school children from Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima. One of the children in this group was actually swept away in the tsunami and later rescued; another was trapped on a roof for 2 days without food, not knowing if her parents had survived. (Thankfully they did.) Most lost friends or relatives; all the kids from Iwate and Miyagi lost their homes and are currently living in evacuation centers or with relatives or friends.

Classes began at HAAS on August 1st, so the teachers and students had only 2 days to prepare for the event. Our initial worry was lack of time to find enough student performers to entertain our guests for an hour. Happy to report that we had so many students volunteer, we ended up using some of the snack time period to squeeze everybody in!

The Festivities

The teachers came up with a great plan for the event. Here’s how it unfolded:

The students gathered at the school entrance, then cheered when the guests arrived in their tour bus. When each guest  stepped off the bus they got a lei, a gift pack, and a hug. (All leis were handmade by HAAS students and teachers just for this occasion, and gift packs also put together by the students.)

The performances took place in the HAAS Pavilion. We reserved the two rows of seats in front of the stage for our guests.

Principal Steve Hirakami kicked off the festivities by welcoming our guests. He talked about the depth and history of the Japan-Hawaii relationship, his own lineage to Japan, and the importance of nurturing students to become global people.

After Steve’s welcome we cut the students loose to begin the entertainment, starting with two Japanese-language students who sang three traditional Japanese songs. Our guests joined in and it turned into a Japanese sing-along!

Then the Tahitian dancers took the stage, followed by ukulele players, singers, guitar players, hula and hip-hop dancers. The Tahitian dancers came back to close out the show with a finale, at which time they invited our guests up on stage to join them.

During the performances, we kept our focus on the audience. Our guests were engaged and smiling.

Campus Tour

Afterwards, we encouraged our guests to wander the campus, even had them feed the tilapia in the HAAS aquaponics pond.  When the fish were full we headed over to Jeanine Baker’s class for an interactive game of “Fox and Rabbit”. Well, that turned out to be so much fun our guests decided to hang with us an extra 15 minutes even though their schedule was very tight.

Hat’s off to everyone at HAAS for a wonderful event that filled the campus with smiles. If you ask Principal Steve Hirakami he’ll tell you that the philosophy at HAAS is to mold students into being “good people”. The idea is that if HAAS students do good things for the community then the “smarts” will naturally follow. On August 3rd the students turned that philosophy into reality.

And the “goodness” of everyone present inspired us. To all the students, teachers and staff at HAAS who put together this event, you can feel good that for just a couple hours, you brightened the lives of some kids who really needed to smile, and in the process built yourself a beautiful rainbow bridge to Japan.

Rainbow for Japan Kids will be an ongoing program. We look forward to facilitating an ongoing relationship between HAAS students and Japan’s “Rainbow Kids”. Anyone looking for a worthy cause where 100% of your donation will go to helping the victims, please consider supporting the Rainbow for Japan Kids program.

Special thanks to Ed Hawkins and Kelsey Soma of JASH, Ryoichi Okubo (President of JAL Hawaii), Kaori Kano (Bikki), Hiro Ito and Kyoko Tomita (Kids Hurt Too), “Mimi” Izumi Nakano (our great interpreter!), and everyone else who made this wonderful program come to fruition.

Also a big mahalo to the donors and partner’s sponsoring the Rainbow kids. Check ’em out and give them your business if the spirit moves you.

Last but not least, thanks to my son Grady and his friends Babatunji, Trey and Junior–all dance instructors from Center Stage in Hilo–who volunteered their time and energy to perform for and interact with our guests.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011