It may surprise you to read that there are probably more hula dancers in Japan than there are in Hawaii. While the Japanese love of hula is decades old, hula instructors and tourism officials in Hawaii say the number of enthusiasts is at its highest point yet. In addition, the number of Japanese visitors who go to Hawai'i specifically for hula instruction is growing. (HA)
Before we get into this article, we should briefly discuss the hula. From ancient times, Hawaiians danced the hula to celebrate, praise the gods and chiefs, tell epic stories and transmit history and lore. It was accompanied by chanting, percussion of drums, gourds, bamboo rods and stones. When the Christian missionaries arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in the 1820s, they immediately banned it as heathen activity and dancing the hula went underground until in the 1870s under King David Kalakaua, the ban was lifted and hula dancing in public was again allowed. King Kalakaua is venerated as a patron of Hawaiian art and culture. Hula dance is divided into two basic groups, the HULA KAHIKO (old style) and HULA AUANA (new style). The KAHIKO style is done with traditional costumes, usually accompanied by a chant and percussion. The AUANA style is done with modern dress and instruments ('ukulele, guitar, bass, piano) to songs composed during and after the reign of King Kalakaua. In both styles of hula, the steps and hand movements tell a story or accentuate the meanings of the chant or song.
Japan's first contact with Hawaiian culture came with the visit of King Kalakaua to the Emperor Meiji in 1881. From then, the Japanese began their love affair with all things Hawaiian and especially, the hula, as cultural exchange between Japan and Hawaii began with the King's visit and continues to this day.
Just how big is hula in Japan? Hula L'ea, one of the most popular monthly hula magazines in Japan, lists over 200 halau (hula school) and hula studios on their home page. There are no official statistics, but everyone agrees that it's beyond huge- and growing. In a 2011 article in the Hawaiian Airlines Magazine Hana Hou, Lisette Marie Flanary, a Brooklyn-based filmmaker who is working on a documentary titled Tokyo Hula, estimated the number of hula dancers in Japan at 600,000, while numerous published articles placed the figure between 400,000 and half a million. "It's a rare Island kumu hula (hula teacher) who doesn't offer periodic seminars in Japan, and many have now opened their own sister halau or become affiliated with Japanese hula academies. I've interviewed Hawaiian kumu hula who have more students in their Japanese 'satellite' halau than they do in Hawai'i," Flanary says. The appeal of hula is obvious, especially for a people like the Japanese who have historically been drawn to foreign cultures and to the beauty of nature and art. (HH) Furthermore, the hula and the traditional (and very precise) Japanese dance 'Nihon Buyo' are quite similar in that both depict stories through their movements, an aspect which makes hula all the more adaptable and appealing to the Japanese.
Hawaiian music has been popular in Japan since the 1930s, off and on, but hula-as-a-hobby didn't really catch on until the 1980s. At first it was taught mostly at "community culture centers" dancing to nostalgic tunes from the 40s and '50s or even to Japanese songs. In the early 90s there was a shift away from what hula scholar Yoko Kurokawa calls "Japanized" hula toward a more authentically Hawaiian style of dancing and teaching. Hula continued to evolve rapidly through the affluent 90s as more and more students were able to travel to Hawai'i expressly to study "real hula." (This led naturally to a demand for Hawaiian kumu and their disciples to teach in Japan.) One intriguing chapter in Japan's hula history involved the unlikely transformation, in 1965, of the snow-country mining village of Joban (just south of Fukushima and closed since the Fukushima disaster) into the Hawai'i-themed destination known as Spa Resort Hawaiians (also known as Joban Hawaii) -a saga that was engagingly chronicled in the award-winning 2006 movie Hula Girls. The movie is still going strong. (HH) and indeed, this movie caused the 'hula boom' to mushroom into the current 'hula craze.'
To many Japanese, hula dancing is simply a fun and healthy activity, but many more take their hula dancing very seriously. Hula halau can be found in every prefecture in Japan. These halau often have connections to parent halaus in Hawaii. The kumu of the Hawaiian-based halau visit Japan to hold workshops, train instructors, and teach Hawaiian culture. Some Japanese travel regularly to Hawaii to study under their kumu.
Japanese are traditionally respectful and appreciative of their teachers in all the arts, but hula teachers (whether Japanese or from Hawai'i) seem to evoke a worshipful fervor more often associated with religion, politics or rock 'n' roll. In Japan's hula hierarchy, you score major points for any connection with the late Uncle George Na'ope, who co-founded Hilo's Merrie Monarch Festival in 1963 and remains an iconic hula figure worldwide. Japanese are in awe of the Merrie Monarch Festival's display of skill and talent, and the visionary kumu whose halau have repeatedly excelled on that stage (Aloha Dalire, Keali'i Reichel, Johnny Lum Ho and Sonny Ching to name a few) are welcomed as gurus, role models and sources of inspiration. (HH)
Many of the serious hula dancers in Japan go to Hawai`i to perform in competitions such as the King Kamehameha Hula Competition, The Waikiki Hula Conference, the World Invitational Hula Festival, the Moku O Keawe International Festival at Waikoloa, and the grand-daddy of all hula events, the annual Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo. In Japan, the annual Tokyo Hula Festival, World Invitational Hula Festival, and Nani Iapana, are three of the biggest and there isn't a week or month that there is not some kind of hula event being held somewhere in Japan.
So, has the hula craze reached backwoods, sleepy-hollow small town of Misawa? You bet! There are three hula halau right here in Misawa- The Misawa Hula Aikoukai, Pili Aloha O Hula, and MCS Nahoku Hula Dance. Some local events are the Misawa Culture Festival in October, the Towada Culture Festival in October, the Hachinohe Summer Festival, and the Hachinohe Fantasia in March, all of which feature the local hula schools and dance studios. So, if you're not into skiing or snowboarding or other activities of high risk of broken bones, if you just want to look and feel pretty while getting a workout, and want to make some great friends, contact one of the local halaus. No need to worry about language-hula transcends all lingual and national boundaries and….it's all in the moves.
HA=Saturday, December 14, 2013 Honolulu Advertiser
HH=Hana Hou -Hawaiian Airlines Magazine Oct/Nov 2011 V14 No5
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