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Hawaii and Japan reestablish connection with weekend cultural festival

Honolulu Festival reopened this year with an eye toward strengthening tourism between Hawaii and Japan after the pandemic decimated travel opportunities between them.

HONOLULU (CN) — With a firework show, a grand parade and a weekend long fair, Honolulu Festival, conducted for the first time in-person since the beginning of the pandemic, successfully celebrated the relationship between Hawaii, Japan and other cultures in the region.

Since 1995, Honolulu Festival has, according to the festival itself, worked to promote “mutual understanding, economic cooperation and ethnic harmony between the people of Hawaii and the Pacific Rim region.” While the festival welcomes and celebrates cultures from all over the Pacific region, it particularly highlights Japan and its long history with Hawaii.

A majority of Japanese settlers in the United States have found themselves in Hawaii, beginning with Japanese immigrants that were some of the first to appear in Hawaii in the 19th century. A significant portion of Hawaii residents can claim some Japanese ancestry and Japanese culture in particular has had significant influence on local food and language. And in Japan, Hawaii has developed into the gold standard of dream tropical vacationing.

Economically, Japanese visitors have historically made up the bulk of Hawaii’s international tourism, but numbers had fallen off drastically during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite some pushback from the community that called out the harmful impact visitors have on the islands, one of Hawaii’s biggest industries has steadily crept back up to pre-pandemic heights.

“When I came down here during the pandemic, there was no one walking around, it was odd but kind of nice," said Becca, a Hawaii resident attending the Waikiki parade. "Seeing the crowd now, it’s exciting but I miss how much of the islands were for us back then.”

According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, tourism has recovered nearly to pre-pandemic levels, with mainland United States visitors, who were quick to begin travelling to Hawaii as soon as domestic travel became open again, comprising a majority of the current visitors to the islands. Japanese tourism, however, has lagged behind.

Japanese tourists, generally considered more respectful of island culture and its environment, have been the main focus of the Hawaii travel industry since pandemic restrictions have lifted around the world.

The festival doesn’t have any Covid-19 restrictions, but many people chose to remain masked at the events, especially at the indoor food and craft fair.

“It’s just to be safe, just in case,” according to a masked family. “You can’t be too careful!”

Many of the booths also sold handmade cloth masks, some with local inspired designs and some with anime and manga characters.

Hawaii was the last state to lift their indoor mask mandate, which lasted into March 2022. In Japan, like much of Asia, face masks were commonplace even before Covid-19 became a concern. The country only recently in March 2023 relaxed their mask recommendations to the individual’s discretion.

Japan itself had only relatively recently opened its borders for less restrictive travel in and out of the country in October, when Hawaii began seeing a bit of an uptick in Japanese tourists but not nearly to the same levels prior to 2020.

According to Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism statistics, the number of visitors from Japan in January 2023 is up significantly compared to a similar time during the pandemic, but still have not reached 75% of the numbers in 2019 before the pandemic, with spending amounts corresponding.

This year’s Honolulu Festival especially has become a symbol of both Japan and Hawaii’s hopes for the future of tourism between the two.

After a three-year hiatus from in-person festivities — and one year of a virtual televised program — the Honolulu Festival brought back many of its usual activities, beginning with an exclusive Friendship Gala on Friday. A public fair and Japanese film festival took place in the Hawaii Convention Center, which also hosted performances from both local and international entertainers.

The festival had something new for their comeback this year, in the form of a Sake and Food Festival featuring samples of the traditional Japanese rice wine, brought in from Japan and Hawaii’s only sake brewery on the Big Island. Sunday saw the return of the festival’s grand parade in Waikiki. Festivities concluded with a firework show with special fireworks from Honolulu’s sister city, Japan’s Nagaoka city.

Festival-goers sample sake from Nagaoka, the Japanese city that also provided the fireworks for later in the night. (Candace Cheung/Courthouse News)

Nearly every aspect of the festival highlighted the connection between Hawaii and Japan — events were emceed in both Japanese and English and many of the craft fair vendors even defaulted to Japanese first when promoting their wares.

"There is such a big connection between Japan and Hawaii!" said Yuka, who had donned a typical Japanese school uniform to encourage festival-goers toward her booth for a Japanese company that helps students study abroad in Japan. "This is my second time in Hawaii, I love it here, I love the food!"

Hula dancers from both local halau and halau in Japan and Taiwan performed at the parade and convention center stage. Local artists and vendors showcased their wares alongside various Japanese companies and representatives promoting visits to different cities in Japan.

The Calligraphy Club from Kansai University in Japan showcased their skills, creating this massive artwork on stage within 15 minutes. (Candace Cheung/Courthouse News)

The festival was also an opportunity to support efforts to improve the local interests. The Genki Ala Wai Project conducted presentations about restoring the infamous Ala Wai Canal, a waterway bordering Waikiki known around the island for being extremely polluted, to swimmable and fishable levels. The project combines the concept of ‘genki’ — Japanese for ‘health’ or ‘wellness’ — with community efforts to construct and toss ‘genki balls’ made of microorganisms that combat harmful bacteria in the canal. A volunteer with the project said that they always make sure to include Native Hawaiian kumu, or teachers, when they toss the genki balls into the Ala Wai.

While the relationship between Hawaii and Japan remained the main focus of the festivities, Honolulu Festival also encouraged the connection Hawaii has to other communities, particularly in East Asia and the Pacific. The parade not only featured traditional Japanese dances and hula performances, but also included Chinese lion dancers, Filipino flag wavers and even a troop of bagpipers.  

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