Japanese Love of Hula

CIMG2007_edited
Local girls Hula dance group in Waikiki

(Japanese-Hawaiian connection series #2)

I had a great time on the cruise to Hawaii in late February to early March. I wrote about the Japanese fondness of Hawaii in my previous blog post, “Japanese Hawaiian Connection“. On the cruise, I decided to participate in Hula dance classes that were held on the days the ship was at sea. The ship cruised from Los Angeles to Hawaii and back, and these Hula classes made these “at sea” days delightful.

At first, I wasn’t convinced that if I like Hula dancing, but as time went on, I was hooked. I have an average Japanese build, short at 5’2” (157cm) on a good day with long torso and short legs. Not exactly an ideal physique for performing arts. I found that Hula basic posture and movement fits someone like me very well. To dance Hula properly, and have the natural sway of the hips, you have to bend your knees and step side ways back and forth. Having my center of the body to be closer to the ground makes the movement (kaholo) easier. I have strong legs from my regular workouts, and bending knees for a prolonged time for the dance was not a huge problem for me.

I had a great teacher (Leialoha), who taught beginners to dance Hula on cruise ships for many years. The class was very popular and had quite a few returning passengers who danced Hula with the same teacher in the past cruises.  On this Hawaiian cruise, there was one day designated for the Hula class to perform in front of the audience (out friends and family passengers) on a big theater stage, a big Kahuna! There were probably 60 dancers on the stage, and we all had a great time performing on the stage. I think Leiahola had lots of experience of orchestrating the show, and I have a deep appreciation for having her on my cruise.

Leialoha mentioned that Hula dance is currently very popular in Japan and there are 2 million people who dance hula in Japan. I wasn’t aware of the fact, so I decided to do the research on “Hula popularity in Japan” once I got back on land. According to my research, there are estimated 500,000 to 1 million people who participate in Hula classes or events. I couldn’t find the number of 2 million anywhere, but the numbers are all estimates, so who knows. Either way, it’s vastly popular and Hula classes can be found in any major cities throughout Japan. Some Hula teachers and students regularly have trips to Hawaii to horn their hula skills from the real pros.

Japanese interest in hula has increased substantially from the early 1980s to mid-1990s. Hula schools blossomed throughout Japan, Japanese dancers started to participate in major hula competitions in Hawai’i (such as the King Kamehameha Hula Competitions and the International Hula Festival), and Japanese students began to visit Hawai’i for first-hand instruction from “native” teachers. Some students even obtained student visas to study hula over a prolonged period of time in Hawai’i. ¹

hula stage
Hula show on board the cruise ship by Honolulu youth Hula troop age 6 to 16.

Naturally, Hawaiians love Hula and they start learning at young age. We saw a show by Honolulu girls Hula troop age 6 to 16 on the cruise ship. I heard they start as young as age 3. The girls were all great dancers, and they were very cute and sweet, too!

Japanese love love love Hula dance and everything Hawaiian. The population of hula dancers have been increasing in Japan, and there are businesses selling specialized Hawaiian goods in Japan. Maunaloa MMJ has an on-line shop in Japanese, and has a 5 story department store in Ebisu, Tokyo. It’s expanding business in different cities such as Osaka and Kobe. They sell Hawaiian dress and jewelries, dance costume, food and everything else Hawaiian.

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Credit: Spa Resort Hawaiians Hula Girls movie

I was curious about how the Hula craze started in Japan, and found a film called “Hula Girls” (2006).  It’s based on the true story of the events leading up to the opening of Joban Hawaiian Center (current Spa Resort Hawaiians). In 1965, the coal mining town of Iwaki (200km north of Tokyo) was experiencing a crisis from closure of coal mines. The city planners decided to build a Hawaiian themed resort called “Joban Hawaiian Center”. The center piece of the resort was shows by Hula dancers. Some local girls who were totally armatures with a Hula teacher from Tokyo, had to overcome obstacles to learn to dance Hula in short time for the successful launch of the resort.

I think “Hula Girls” represents the early Japanese adaptation of Hawaiian culture, especially, Hula dancing in Japan. Since then, the increasing number of Japanese tourists visited Hawaii and came to love the Hawaiian culture. My guess is that Hawaiian culture has huge appeal to the Japanese visitors. Hawaiians are friendly, casual and laid-back, totally opposite from the Japanese norm of strict hierarchical order, stressful long working hours and conformity to others. They can be totally relaxed, away from the hustles in Japan, spread their wings.

I wish I could keep dancing Hula back at home in Las Vegas, but there are no adult beginner classes in the area. My Hawaiian dream continues. I wish I were back in Hawaii, laying in the warm tropical sun on the beach.

  1. Kurokawa, Yuko. “EOL2/Hula Halau in Japan“Ethnomusicology Online. Undated.
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5 thoughts on “Japanese Love of Hula

  1. It was great to read your article and reminded me ofour stay at a minshuku on Ishigakijima. The owner was really into hula dancing and everytime we had a barbecue in the evenings she would dance with her friends. It was the first timeI realised that Japanese were so fond of hula dancing and Hawaii in general.

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    1. Ohhh, Ishigakijima (Okinawa) is like Japanese Hawaii, I hear. I would love to visit! A friend of mine visited Ishigakijima, and found Spam Musubi sold there. That’s a Hawaiian staple (influenced by Japanese Onigiri).

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  2. There is a weekly series on Japanese culture on TV in Singapore (not that we need that lol) and there was one episode when the TV station went around looking for small towns. And in one of them was a hula lesson taking place!

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