Tag Archives: hula

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


“Flash Mob Hula” at 38,000 Feet: Hawaii Flies with Hawaiian Airlines!

I love my client Hawaiian Airlines. This is pure genius because only Hawaiian Airlines could pull it off. I’m blessed to work with the talented folks who made the “flash mob hula”  idea happen. At 38,000 feet mind you! Check out this video, it’ll make you smile!

The Power of Hula to Uplift Japan

It’s wonderful when I can find a way to tie together Hawaii and Japan in the same post, even better when I can work in a hula theme during this wonderful time of year in Hawaii that we call “Merrie Monarch week”.

For readers who aren’t aware, Hawaiian culture is booming in Japan, especially hula. According to Hawaii Tourism Japan, over 400,000 people in Japan are studying hula. That’s an incredible number, more than the total number of hula dancers in all of Hawaii they say.

But as you might imagine, in the last month not much hula dancing was happening in Eastern Japan, certainly not Iwaki City.

And yet twenty nine very resilient Japanese ladies from Iwaki are already back practicing their passion. This is incredible in light of what they’ve gone through. I could try describing what happened to their city, but this clip says it better than I ever could:

For the geographically challenged, Iwaki is in the southern part of Fukushima.

To get a feel for the scale of the town, it’s the 10th largest city in Japan with a population just shy of 350,000 people. And as you saw in the video above, it took some serious hits from the disaster.

But these hula dancers–many who lost their homes in the tsunami–refuse to let a disaster stop them from dancing. They already have plans to re-start hula lessons in a facility on the premise of a local hot-springs resort called, appropriately, “Spa Resort Hawaiians”.

But before doing so, they are going to take their hula show on the road. Their objective: inspire the rest of Japan with the power of hula!

As you might expect from the Japanese work ethic and attention to detail, the ladies are working hard to do the hula tradition proud. The leader of the hula group, Yukari Kato, summed up the goal of the tour: “we want to tap into the power of dance and inspire the rest of Japan by showing that Iwaki City is working hard, in high spirits and smiling.”

The power of hula–and the power of Japanese women–never cease to amaze and inspire me. These ladies have some serious “mana” happening!

Hawaii can take pride in the fact that its ancient tradition is helping uplift our Japanese friends during very tough times.

(Source: NHK News. Unfortunately the original link to the source article no longer provides access.)

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011

The Intercultural Party Zone

Several times a year we host a musical event at our home. We invite many of our Japanese retiree friends in the neighborhood, as well as a select group of “Japan-friendly” local friends. This time our event theme was “authentic Hawaiian music”.

At these events we try to accomplish a couple things. Most important, we want to bring together Japanese retirees and local folks to laugh and have fun together. Music has a way of removing the language barrier, especially when you’ve got the right band (and believe me, we did).

The other reason we do this is to make Japanese retirees aware of some of the honest, hard-working folks in our community who offer a variety of quality services they might someday need (including landscaping, carpentry, lawn-care, business development, painting, deck-building, English language/hula/ukulele lessons–and an array of other educational options through local institutions).

This is the fourth time we’ve done this kind of event, twice last year. We didn’t expect a big turnout this time around as we only spent a couple weeks promoting the event. Thinking 30 to 35 people would show up, we had over 45! (30 Japanese friends, the rest “locals.”)

The band–the very same one that played at our last hula event–was a big hit. Kahele and Chino merged their lovely vocals into beautiful harmonies while Darren made his dobro wail. Really sweet music, can’t wait to do this again.

Some pictures. Enjoy.

Hawaiian music night 002Guests filing in, and a back view of the mysterious man behind Island Notes

Hawaiian music night 004

Hawaiian music night 012

Hawaiian music night 014

Hawaiian music night 007

Introducing the band…

Hawaiian music night 008Darren introducing himself in Japanese (good job!)

Hawaiian music night 010Kahele and Chino greeting the guests

Hawaiian music night 011Jammin’ Hawaiian style

Hawaiian music night 014

Hawaiian music night 015Chino singing his heart out

Hawaiian music night 018Samurai Wife introducing local businessman Grif Frost

Hawaiian music night 019Grif and son Anthony (of Maikai Ohana Tours)

Hawaiian music night 020Mike and John can build and beautify anything

Hawaiian music night 021Baby sis’ Pamela, greeting our guests.

Hawaiian music night 022

Our friend Laszlo, artist, sculpture and local puppeteer

Hawaiian music night 023Our friend Kaori…what a lovely hula dancer she is!

Hawaiian music night 029Takanashi-san and Ikeda-san jammin’ with the band! 🙂Hawaiian music night 030

Kahele’s havin’ a good time!

Hawaiian music night 031Wait ’til their friends at home see them jammin’ with da locals!

Hawaiian music night 039Bruddah Jeff jammin’ too!

Hawaiian music night 040

It was a fun party! The guests were engaged, stayed later than all past events, and raved about the band.

Thanks again to Chino, Darren and Kahele for another great performance. To all the readers who made it past the pictures and read this far, here’s your reward: click your way over to Island Notes, where Darren, slide guitarist extraordinaire, has some live recordings “posted” on his site. (Not live from the above-mentioned party, but many of the same songs.)

By the way, the band still needs a name so if you have any suggestions I’ll pass them on to professor Darren.


Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009

Mayor Kenoi, How About A Hilo/Puna “Stimulus Trip” to Japan?

Hawaii’s visitor numbers continue to slide and Japanese visitor trends are falling right along with ‘em. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that even in the current downturn people are still coming to Hawaii. It seems that even in hard times the hardcore Hawaii lovers find ways to get here, especially the “exceptional” traveler who visits the East side of the Big Island.

Keep in mind that although the overall Japanese numbers are down statewide, a friend, who specializes in East-side tours serving the Japanese market is experiencing double-digit growth compared to this time last year. He says his success is tied to the “niche” lure of Hilo, Kilauea and Kalapana, backed by his company’s impeccable service. He seems to be doing something right, as many of his customers are repeaters. The strong yen and reduced airfares are helping too.

More good news: With the booming popularity of Hawaiian culture in Japan, Hilo has the capacity to make the economic pie bigger for everyone, and do it without destroying the charm of the East side. With the growing popularity of the Merrie Monarch Festival, Hilo could rightfully be touted as the “Mecca of Hula”. So much more culture and resources–including University of Hawaii–are waiting to be tapped. What are we waiting for?

If the right people chose to do so, Hilo could give its economy a big boost by targeting the right demographic–the retiring Japanese baby boomers–and offering a new generation of culture/education centered products. Japanese tourists who come to Hilo typically aren’t looking for surf, sand and sun. (Thank goodness for that.) No, the Hilo lovers tend to have a special affinity for–indeed a spiritual kinship with–Hawaiian culture. Like my friend’s repeat customers from Japan, many Japanese visitors keep coming back to Hilo for new cultural experiences. They seek a deeper, authentic “spiritual” experience that only Hawaii can offer.

When I talk about Japan’s spiritual kinship with Hawaii, it’s a connection that runs deeper than even the genetic and cultural ties Japanese visitors share with the local Japanese-American populace (although the connection is not insignificant); I’m talking about connecting points on a more basic, primordial level.

As I learn more about native Hawaiian culture, it’s become apparent that Hawaii and Japan share powerful cultural connecting points. Consider this: Japan and Hawaii are both volcanic, island cultures; both share an awe-inspiring love of nature and beauty, a polytheistic religious tradition, and spirituality rooted in animism (the belief that spirits inhabit the natural world in the form of rocks, rivers, trees, waterfall, etc.). The ancient Japanese honored the gods by building shrines in beautiful natural places, often at the top of majestic mountains; much like the Hawaiians, Japanese understand and respect the notion of a “sacred place.” When Japanese come in contact with Hawaiian culture and spirituality, it never fails to awaken their Shinto sensibilities and inspire the feeling that they’re with kindred spirits.

In light of these powerful connecting points it shouldn’t surprise that Hawaiian culture commands such an avid following in Japan. So why not leverage these common values to bring the right kind of visitor to Hawaii?

Even with the economic downturn Hawaiian culture continues to enjoy popularity in Japan. Clubs promoting Hawaiian arts, crafts, music, language and travel are proliferating. Some estimates claim that nearly half a million Japanese are studying hula today. (That’s an incredible number.) Other Hawaii-themed clubs are focused on “long-stays” and part-time retirement options in Hawaii. Some of the old-timers even come to study English as a second language.

The Japanese retiring right now are indeed an attractive demographic. This is the last generation of big savers in Japan. Most have kept their money stuffed in mattresses…er…Japanese banks–but at nearly 0% interest it’s almost the same thing! The way I see it, they need our help spending this money. That’s where Hawaii comes in!

The real “gem” demographic is “dankai no sedai”, the Japanese “baby boomer” generation over 7 million strong. They are at retirement age right now. This demographic is said to have over $2 trillion in savings, and it doesn’t even include pensions. Thankfully most Japanese boomers were too conservative to put their money in the stock market (either that or their wives wouldn’t let them). This is probably the most recession-resistant demographic on the planet right now.

It shouldn’t surprise then that Japanese seniors in this cash-rich demographic, being retired as they are, have a lot of time on their hands. With hobbies to pursue and travel destinations to visit, they offer numerous opportunities for the right entrepreneur. The key is reaching the market then delivering quality products and services tailored to satisfy their needs.

With so many Japanese-American professionals in Hilo–doctors, lawyers, dentists and politicians–you’d think we have the connections and resources to launch a campaign to promote “traditional old Hawaii” to untapped markets in rural Japan.

Imagine this: A high-profile “Japan roots tour” where Mayor Kenoi (a little birdie told me he’s married to a Japanese woman) and other esteemed Hilo-ites visit Japan as ambassadors to drum up business for East Hawaii. They could start by having high-profile Japanese-Americans do a “roots tour” to geographical areas of their ancestors, reestablish old family ties, make connection with Japanese politicians, and then work outward from there. During this “stimulus trip”, our distinguished leaders could invite relatives, new friends and Hawaii fans in rural Japan to “bond” with East Hawaii on a deeper level–through tourism, education, cultural exchange, new friendships and business opportunities. Our ambassadors could deliver a kind of “love letter” from Hilo saying that we welcome with open arms our Japanese friends, family and kindred spirits to visit our unique part of the world.

Imagine how much this could benefit the people of East Hawaii.

I’m not confident the above scenario will ever happen, but the potential opportunities for East Hawaii are mind-boggling. Why not leverage the values that bind us to build a mutually beneficial relationship between Hilo and Japan?

Just some new ideas for our new leaders in Hilo to chew on…

And if Hilo’s leaders ever need help in making things happen with Japan, drop us an email. Kurumi and I would love to help.

The next post will discuss another idea on stimulating Hawaii’s East-side economy–once again with a little help from our friends in Japan.

Copyright © Tim Sullivn 2009