Tag Archives: Big Island

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


Straddling Paradigms: Redistribution of Wealth Through Grassroots Capitalism

A friend recently told me I “straddle paradigms.” Never thought of it that way but my wordsmith friend elegantly captured a fuzzy notion that’s been floating around in my head for years, I was just never quite able to articulate it. Thanks for crystallizing that idea, my friend! (You know who you are.)

Indeed, straddling paradigms is what I do. It’s the essence of cross-cultural communication. And while today’s theme is clearly outside the murky boundaries of the Intercultural Twilight Zone, it’s all about straddling paradigms.

The On-Line Social Media Boom and Grassroots Tourism

Love it or hate it, on-line social media looks like it’s here to stay. Most folks I know seem to be passionately for or against: got some friends who believe Facebook is the Devil (digitally) incarnate, and others who swear by it (my two sons included).

My somewhat neutral–dare I say ambivalent–stance in the middle puts me in minority territory. Such is the life of a straddler of paradigms.

I’m a good example of someone who isn’t an online-social-networking personality. Sure I’m on Facebook–didn’t get the concept at first but after tinkering with it for a while am starting to see the value. Still, don’t spend much time there.

And I’ll fess up here and admit that I’ve even “tweeted” half a dozen times. But for the life of me I still don’t get it, at least not the value of using it on a personal level. Can’t imagine why anyone would be interested in reading about the mundane details of my life. And can’t believe anyone would “follow” me as my tweets are rare. If you’ve read other posts on this blog then you know that I share personal stories on occasion, but only if there’s a message, lesson or “moral” to the story. But the pointless, mundane details of my life are, frankly, no one’s business but my own. Folks don’t need to know what’s happening in my life real-time.

Conversely, I absolutely don’t care to hear about the mundane details of other people’s lives either, even if (no, especially if) you’re Brittany or Paris or Ashton. Got my own life to worry about thank you very much.

That said I do see twitter as a potentially powerful marketing tool, although I haven’t taken the time to make it work for me. But I can see how big-time social-networkers could revolutionize marketing, even capitalism itself. Precisely because of the relatively small investment in capital that it takes to “socially network” on-line, it seems to me that this is the ideal tool for driving grassroots capitalism. It’s actually perfect for the average Joe with limited resources since little investment in capital is required: to effectively “socially network”, all you need is a computer, power source, internet connection, and the motivation to put in the time and effort.

So getting to the meat of this post, a few months back Big Island blogger Damon Tucker started promoting the idea of bringing more tourists to Hawaii. We had a gentlemen’s disagreement on how dependent our community should be on tourism. For the record I’m all for tourism. But only if it fits into a comprehensive plan designed to make our communities sustainable long-term; and only if it makes our communities a better place.

So I got to thinking…

Before attempting to find answers, I pondered the following questions:

1) How might we “straddle” these paradigms? In other words, how might we take matters into our own hands and “redistribute wealth” (there’s a lightning rod expression if you ever heard one) through grass-roots capitalism, still be friendly to the a’ina, and in the process maintain our sense of place?

2) How might we bring tourists to our island without lining the pockets of middlemen whose added value is not commensurate with the compensation they typically receive? (You know, the cattle herders, sub-par hotels and such.)

3) How might we put this money directly into the pockets of the local populace and local businesses instead?

4) And most important, how might we put to work Damon Tucker’s on-line networking talents to create opportunities for our community and maybe even a job for Damon himself?

By all appearances Damon is the quintessential on-line social networking dude of all dudes. It’s his passion. So I say, let’s leverage Damon’s passion and talents to help our community!

Wanted: Big Island Locals for Grassroots’ “Adopt a Visitor” Program

Want to give “tourism” a unique Hawaii-Island twist? I’d like to see someone set up an “adopt-a-visitor” program based on the tried-and-true home-stay model.

The idea came to me after I started thinking about what added the most value to my vacations in Puna prior to moving here. It wasn’t the amenities of the rental unit; it wasn’t the weather, the palm trees, not even the scenery. It was the experience of interacting with local folks, sharing a small slice of their lives and forging new friendships in the process. And it hooked us after our first visit. So much so that we came back five more times on vacation. It was only natural that we eventually moved here.

Google tells me that the notion of “adopting a visitor” is not original. But I love the concept! And it seems to me that with the right strategy and coordination it’s something that could be promoted directly through on-line “social networkers” who could act as go-betweens in connecting visitors with local host families. The idea would be to sell our island as a “retreat” destination where visitors can live like a local, mingle with locals, and do it all in an a’ina-friendly way at a bargain price. Packages could include actual “home stays”. But for hosts uncomfortable having strangers in their homes the service could be scaled down, for example, a local person could meet at the visitor’s hotel or vacation rental, and act as a “local friend” on an agreed upon day or days. In the spirit of sustainability, host families and other local entrepreneurs would get fair compensation for their products and services.

Some might argue that legal issues and quality control concerns make this risky business. To give an extreme example, what happens if a visitor is inadvertently hooked up with a meth-head? It’s a valid concern. But I would counter that such a program could be modeled after existing cultural exchange/home-stay programs. The go-between would be responsible for “quality control”–easy if you’re introducing visitors to family and friends, much tougher when you’re dealing with host families you don’t know. That’s why doing it grassroots would seem to be the way to go, perhaps even work under the umbrella of local non-profit institutions.

The notion of “adopting-a-visitor” is not so farfetched. We’re currently working through several local educational institutions to promote something similar (education-themed programs for Japanese visitors that directly involve local residents). Our business currently doesn’t reach clients through on-line networking, but it’s a viable possibility in the future.

There’s absolutely no reason I can think of that the same concept couldn’t be applied to mainland visitors, or folks from just about any foreign country for that matter. And the beauty is that it breaks the traditional tourism mold by focusing on education, authenticity, sustainability, social consciousness, even community enrichment.

How It Looks Through the Pono Prism

How does the adopt-a-visitor idea fare under the scrutiny of Peter Apo’s Pono Prism? Let’s ask the 5 key questions:

How does the activity make Hawaii a better place?

It promotes human interactions that deepen relationships, encourage community-enriching activities, and brings money directly into the community.

How does the activity create opportunities for prosperity for all segments of the community?

It maintains our community’s “sense of place” since bulldozers are unnecessary. It involves the host community directly in commerce. If done properly it would also promote respect for local customs and the a’ina

How does the activity help connect the community’s past to its future?

A key role of local members of the community actually “adopting” visitors would be to educate their guests on the history, customs and traditions of native Hawaiians, as well as other ethnic groups that call Hawaii home. (Training would be required.)

How does the activity bring dignity to the community and the people who live around it?

It promotes local culture and local pride. As mentioned above, host families get paid sustainable wages (assuming a reasonable fee is agreed upon by both parties). And by circumventing big business, participants in the host community would receive substantially better compensation than minimum wage, since you cut out middlemen who line their pockets without adding value.

How does the activity insure that the people who live in and around it can continue to live there?

It offers host residents a means of earning reasonable compensation for services rendered, and taps into our sense of place.

The Bottom Line

Looking at it from a business perspective:

  • It creates tremendous value for the customer but doesn’t cost host families a penny since they would (in theory) factor costs into their prearranged agreements with visitors and receive compensation for their time, knowledge and (ideally) aloha
  • It’s an attractive, low-cost vacation alternative in a down market as it helps visitors offset the rising cost of airfare and lodging
  • It would distinguish our community from other travel destinations and travel packages, by cutting out the middleman and connecting folks directly with real people who live here
  • It taps into the value of Hawaii’s authenticity
  • It holds great potential for eco-tourism and education, even volunteer activities that could help the community
  • It bypasses the low-quality hotels and tour companies, and instead funnels money directly to the local residents who have the most to offer–and who could really use the money the most
  • It creates ideal conditions for authentic human interaction, a powerful driver of repeat business

So Damon…you ready to rock-n-roll?

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009

Ken Swift & Local B-Boys: Dancing on the Big Island

The other day my son Grady mentioned how glad he is that we moved here. When I asked him why, he said that he’s made so many great friends and found opportunities he wouldn’t have had otherwise.

I’ve met most of his friends and have to agree. They’re all great dancers of course (as you’ll see in the pictures below). But what’s more impressive is they’re great kids. Why? Well, in just this past month they’ve worked with mentally handicapped kids (teaching hip-hop dance), and hosted a delightful young man from Japan with Down Syndrome. (He learned a dance routine with Cataclysm/Shell Shock; together they danced at his graduation from a local English school program.)

Cataclysm also works with younger kids promoting the message of healthy living through dance. How refreshing to have young role models adding value to our community. So proud that my son is part of it. (Yeah oya baka for sure!)

Recently, b-boy legend Ken Swift visited the Big Island to educate local kids on “Rock Dance” (a dance style derived from hip-hop culture). It was a thrill for Cataclysm to meet one of their b-boy heroes. Grady says Ken’s a great teacher, and just a down-to-earth guy. He seems to have taken a special interest in Cataclysm

A word about the pictures below: most are the work and property of Mike Sato (a local professional photographer from Kona). He did a wonderful job capturing the dancers’ passion, form and personalities. (You’ll know Mike’s pictures when you see them):


Dance Crew Shell Shock



Grady and Tunji


Grady’s “elbow pike”




Grady and Tunji synchronizing their backflips



Always fun to be around these kids…


How does he do that?