EOL 2: Hula Halau in Japan
A Case Study of Hula Schools in Tokyo

Yoko Kurokawa

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) Such enthusiasm raises important questions, especially since Hawaiian music--popular in Japan during the late 1920s through the 1950s--had been out of favor for many years. What are the factors influencing this new Japanese attraction to Hawaiian music and dance? What distinguishes this recent phase of participation from earlier years of popularity? How is hula transmitted in a Japanese setting?

Field research in Japan (December 1995 and August 1996 (2)) indicates that the initial hula craze of the 1980s gave birth to a new generation of Japanese hula teachers in the 1990s. One can trace the history of this development and examine the changes initiated by this new generation of hula teachers. One can also explore ways in which Japanese reinterpret Hawaiian models for learning to fit a traditional Japanese ideas of artistic training.

Culture Center Schools

Musicians and hula teachers in Tokyo generally attribute the popularity of the hula to the introduction of hula classes at private community schools sponsored by major department stores and newspaper companies. When the bubble economy began to expand in the early 1980s, these community schools, or "culture centers" as they are known, sprang up all over Japan, targeting middle-aged housewives who had enough money and leisure time to participate. Hula classes in Japan today remain almost exclusively female, primarily because of this marketing strategy and a Japanese image of hula as a female dance form.(3)

Video 1 Exercise class

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In the 1980s, the hula courses offered at culture centers usually advertised themselves as a mild, low-stress form of exercise. They came at the right time, because aerobics classes were already popular throughout Japan and women in general were more health conscious and interested in physical fitness than ever before. Advertisers often used enticing phrases such as "Dance hula for your beauty and health" or "Elegant hula for your youth" to attract the attention of middle-aged women. This fitness element continues to play a big role in some classes. For instance, in one class where the participants were mostly in their fifties, the teacher introduced an exercise wherein the students march in place, raising each knee high in front and simultaneously swinging the opposite arm forward so the hand rises slightly above head level (Video example 1).(4)
Video 2
Hula 'auana

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The teacher of this class explained that quite a few housewives hurt their knees when they first come to class because their thigh muscles are not strong enough to keep the bent-knee position common to many hula postures. In order to prevent such injuries, she created this exercise in consultation with a chiropractor.(5) The physical fitness aspect aside, most of the students in this age group had already studied ballroom dancing or Western folk dance and were interested in hula primarily as an alternate dance form. They are particularly drawn to hula 'auana (Video example 2), the modern-style hula, because: 1) they are familiar with the musical style of hula 'auana that was popular in their youth, and 2) the more upright dance position of modern hula places less stress on the knees.(6) (7)

Audio 1
"Blue Hawai'i"
110 K .au; 690 K .au

Audio 2
"On a Little Bamboo Bridge"
140 K .au; 650 K .au

Audio 3
"Beyond the Reef"
150K .au; 670K .au

It also appears that hula attracted women in their sixties because of their nostalgic feeling toward old hit songs from the 1940s and 1950s.(8) Some students say dancing to those old songs functions for them as psychological, as well as physical, rejuvenation. Conscious of their students' age, teachers in beginning classes almost always include Hawaiian songs that were popular in Japan during the late 1930s through 1950s such as: "Blue Hawai'i" (Aoi Sangosho), "On a Little Bamboo Bridge" (Chiisana Take no Hashi), and "Beyond the Reef" (Sangosho no Kanata).(9) These three songs are so well-known among Hawaiian music fans in Japan that they collectively have a nickname, "Ao dake sango," which translates "Blue bamboo reef," taking the first word from each of the three song titles (Audio examples 1, 2, and 3).(10)

Teachers find it useful to use such old hit songs in teaching beginners because, whether they are sung in Japanese or English, most of the students already know the tunes and their lyrics. These familiar songs help to overcome the language barrier that students face. With one exception, all of the teachers interviewed were concerned with this language issue, and said they chose special songs to teach beginners the relationship between words and choreography. These include: "Blue bamboo reef," old hula songs with Japanese lyrics, "made-in-Japan" Hawaiian-style songs, and even Japanese popular songs.

The "New" Hula Schools

Throughout the 1980s, the culture centers were the main venue for hula study. However, growth in the economy fueled the eventual development of another stream of hula schools in the 1990s, set up by and for a younger generation. The high exchange rate of the yen made it possible for young people to travel abroad more often, and Hawai'i was a favorite destination. The increased exposure of these young Japanese to performances in contemporary Hawai'i encouraged an interest in learning hula.(11) This young generation, however, did not view Hawaiian music as nostalgic. Upon seeing the hula as performed in Hawai'i, they were struck by the differences between what was popular in the islands and what had been taught in Japan. Strongly attracted by the contemporary Hawaiian practice, these young people turned away from the old, Japanized model and replaced it with one that values replication of the musical and dance styles prevalent in contemporary Hawai'i.

For example, one teacher in her late thirties(12) said that she was fascinated by a hula performance she had seen in Hawai'i in the mid-1980s. On returning from her trip, she joined a hula class taught by a Japanese teacher. Seven years later, she decided to come to Hawai'i to study with a Hawaiian hula master because her teacher in Japan did not know the ancient-style tradition in which she was interested.

Another hula teacher in her early thirties(13) was inspired by a video from the Merrie Monarch Festival, the largest hula competition held in Hawai'i. She had already been studying hula with a Japanese teacher since high school, but what she saw on the video was completely different from the style she knew. She eventually came to Hawai'i to study with the Hawaiian master she chose from those featured in the video performances. After several years of training in Hawai'i, she opened a school in Tokyo that she views as a branch of her master's school.

Classes in the schools operated by this second generation of teachers differ from those in the culture centers of the 1980s. They aim to teach dance as currently performed in Hawai'i and offer both ancient and modern hula. The students often include young adults. Some of the classes are geared toward participation in the competitions held in Hawai'i, and the schools often have a close relationship with a Hawaiian hula master.

Among the new practices of this younger generation of teachers, their participation in Hawaiian hula competitions particularly drew the attention of other teachers. In general, the older generation, who established the Japanese hula tradition in the 1950s, are opposed to it. Michiko Honma, the vice president of Zen Nihon Hula Kyokai (All Japan Hula Association), especially opposes this idea, because she thinks that attempts to compete with Hawaiian troupes constitute disrespectful behavior toward the host culture.(14) On the other hand, Keiko "Ku'uleinani" Hashimoto, whose group has been attending the King Kamehameha Hula Competition since 1988, suggests that the appearance of foreign troupes may stimulate the motivation and competitive spirit of the Hawaiian troupes.(15) Yet another teacher points out the phenomenon of coalition between Hawaiian masters and Japanese hula schools for the purpose of winning competitions.(16) She feels that the prize tends to go to a troupe from a rich country because a halau (hula school) from a rich country can hire the best choreographer or the best musicians from Hawai'i for the competition.(17) She confessed that she discovered this formula and used it once; her group won the prize. After that she decided to withdraw from competition.

No matter what opinion people hold in regard to competition participation, Japanese dancers have become increasingly active in performing in Hawai'i.(18) This has brought several changes in the hula communities, both in Japan and Hawai'i.

Video 3a
Hula Kahiko

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Video 3b
Hula Kahiko

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For instance, the strongly Japanese-flavored hula danced to Japanese Hawaiian songs has waned. Today, stimulated by younger students who advocate a direct-import style, most of the teachers visit Hawai'i several times a year and bring back newly-learned repertories in both modern and ancient styles, or they invite Hawaiian teachers to Japan to hold workshops for their students. Thus, the gulf between hula in Hawai'i and hula in Japan has become narrower than it was twenty years ago. Beginning in the early 1990s, Japanese teachers have started to teach the ancient-style hula, hula kahiko, wherein the teacher typically chants and accompanies herself with the traditional Hawaiian gourd idiophone, the ipu (Video examples 3a, 3b).(19)

The attitudes of Japanese and Hawaiian hula teachers have also changed. In Japan, a hula teacher who has studied with a prominent Hawaiian hula master acquires more prestige and attracts more students. Thus, Japanese teachers want to have a direct connection with a well-known Hawaiian kumu hula (hula teacher). Among Hawaiian teachers, some view having a sister school in Japan as a status symbol. Furthermore, these associations provide enhanced business opportunities for the Hawaiians, because Japanese students pay high fees to attend workshops with the invited Hawaiian masters.

The Iemoto System and the Hula School

It appears that Japanese willingness to pay a high tuition fee derives from the iemoto system, the Japanese system of traditional art schools.(20) In the iemoto system, if one wants to study with the iemoto, the master of a school, the student can expect to pay the equivalent of several hundred dollars per lesson. Instead, beginners and intermediate students often take lessons with instructors who have received a professional name and teaching certificate from their respective schools.

Likewise, Japanese hula teachers and students view their Hawaiian teacher as the ultimate master of their school. As in the traditional iemoto system, many Japanese hula teachers also issue formal certificates to their advanced students, and bestow Hawaiian names on them.(21) To receive a name, however, one must pay an average of 20,000 to 30,000 yen (the equivalent of $200-$300 at fall-winter 1995 exchange rates) to the Japanese teacher. The hula students nonetheless value possession of a certificate and a stage name as a symbol of achievement and a ticket to a professional career. While Japanese students see their Hawaiian teacher as a master comparable to the Japanese iemoto, the Hawaiian teachers do not reap the monetary benefits of the iemoto system such as the honoraria for bestowing professional names. Instead, they profit by teaching at workshops and performing in concerts organized by the Japanese hula schools.

Some Japanese hula teachers instruct only intermediate and advanced levels at their own private schools. They let their best students serve as assistant instructors who teach the beginners at the culture center classes. One teacher had twenty- five such assistants throughout Japan, each of whom taught at three culture centers.(22) Another had thirty assistants teaching at culture centers, while the teacher herself taught only those assistants.(23)

This system benefits the Japanese hula teacher, even though a large portion of the tuition at the culture centers goes to the companies who sponsor the school. While working at these schools does not bring much direct profit to the teachers, culture centers function more as an advertisement for, and a feeder to, the teachers' private hula schools. For their part, the new assistants gain teaching experience through this process before they establish schools of their own.(24) This whole system of using assistants for setting up branches is typically Japanese. It is different from hula teaching in Hawai'i, where the masters normally teach all levels of students and the assistants merely help the master during class.


Japan has developed two distinct streams of hula. The first and older is "Japanized" and isolationist. This style flourished during the 1980s in the setting of the culture center schools. In the 1990s, increased opportunities for Japanese to visit Hawai'i led to the emergence of the second stream, which values the replication of contemporary Hawaiian practice. While it closely resembles the styles currently popular in Hawai'i, the structure of the teaching in this latter form is still predominantly Japanese. By applying the hierarchy of a quasi-iemoto structure--along with its stage-name system and monetary "honorarium" to the teacher--Japanese seek to make hula a successful business and an art form acceptable according to their cultural criteria.


Hayatsu, Toshihiko. 1987. Nihon hawai ongaku buyoshi [History of Hawaiian music and dance in Japan]. Tokyo: Sankurieito.

Hosokawa, Shuhei. 1994. "Hawaiian music in Japan," Perfect Beat 2(1):50-67.

Kanahele, George S. (ed.) 1979. Hawaiian music and musicians: An illustrated history. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii.

Kawashima, Takeyoshi. 1957. Ideorogii to shite no kazoku seido [The Family system as Ideology]. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten.

Kitano, Koichi. 1970. "Hierarchical structure of the iemoto system: Its effect on social stability," MA thesis, University of Hawai'i, Manoa.

Matsuzaka, Hiro. 1972. "Nihon no jazu soshiki kara dai niji taisen made [Japanese jazz from its beginning through the second World War]," Jazu Hihyo 1(12):8-69.

Nagisa, Yuko. 1983. "Beyond the reef," Miwaku no Hawaian 8: Sangosho no Kanatani. Toshiba WT-45408. Cassette.

________. 1983. "Blue Hawai'i," Miwaku no Hawaian 8: Sangosho no Kanatani. Toshiba WT-45408. Cassette.

Nakada, Ethel. 1983. "On a little bamboo bridge," Miwaku no Hawaian 10: Aloha Oe. Toshiba WT-45410. Cassette.

Nishiyama, Matsunosuke. 1959. Iemoto no kenkyu [Research on Iemoto]. Tokyo: Azekura Shobo.

Ortolani, Benito. 1969. "Iemoto," Japan Quarterly 16(3):297-306.

Shiraishi, Makoto. 1992. Hawaiian best 100. Tokyo: Doremi Music Pub. Co., Ltd.

Shoji, Hitoshi. (ed.) 1990. "Hula syndrome," Hawaiian Wave 1(6):8.

________. 1996a. "Hula news," Hawaiian Wave 10 (60):13.

________. 1996b. "Meri monaku hula fesutibaru hawai sokuho [Report from the Merrie Monarch Hula festival in Hawai'i]," Hawaiian Wave 11(61):5.

Stillman, Amy Ku'uleialoha. 1996a. "Hawaiian hula competitions: Event, repertoire, performance, tradition," Journal of American Folklore 109(434):357-380.

________. 1996b. "Competition hula: An index of mele and halau in the King Kamehameha hula competition (1982-1995) and the Merrie Monarch hula competition (1980-1995)," MS in the Hawai'i-Pacific Collection at Hamilton Library, University of Hawai'i at Manoa.


1. Student visas are required for any period longer than three months. Back

2. Fieldwork in Tokyo in December 1995 and August 1996 was supported by the Bill Murata Scholarship and the William P. Lebra Scholarship, respectively. Back

3. This Japanese image of Hawaiian dance reflected, in turn, an older Hawaiian view of hula as a predominantly female activity. Stillman (1996a:360) notes that, even in Hawai'i, the idea of hula as feminine (and of male dancers as effeminate) persisted for decades before the Hawaiian renaissance of the 1970s. Back

4. The Tropical Dance Club in Tokyo, directed by Keiko "Ku'uleinani" Hashimoto (December 21, 1995). Back

5. Personal communication with Keiko "Ku'uleinani" Hashimoto (December 19, 1995). Back

6. For the purpose of this paper, I use the term, hula 'auana, loosely defined as modern hula performed to sung Western melodies accompanied by chordal instruments such as guitar and 'ukulele. Likewise, I follow the common definition of hula kahiko as "the older performance style believed to descend from pre-European times, in which the melody is said to be chanted rather than sung, and the accompanying instruments are the indigenous percussive instruments that predate European contact" (Stillman 1996a: 366). For an in-depth discussion of these terms, see Stillman (ibid.). See also Smithsonian Virtual Festival hula videos. Back

7. An advanced-level class taught by "Lehuanani" Satake in her studio in Tokyo (August 12, 1996). Back

8. Hawaiian music was popular in Japan before the war, largely due to the international distribution of movies and recordings, and the contributions of an active community of nisei (first-generation American-born Japanese) Japanese and Hawaiian musicians performing in Japan (Hosokawa 1994). A specific wartime Japanese ban on Hawaiian musical instruments and a list of fifty to sixty forbidden Hawaiian songs suggests the wide popularity of Hawaiian music throughout Japan at the time. Although informants were too young to be part of the first craze of Hawaiian music in the 1920s and 1930s, many were actively involved in the later resurgence of Hawaiian music after World War Two. Back

9. "Blue Hawai'i" was written by Leo Robin and Ralph Ranger, the staff composers of Paramount Pictures in the 1930s. It became a worldwide hit two times--first for Bing Crosby in 1937 when he sang the song in the movie, "Waikiki Wedding," and then when Elvis Presley sang the same song in the 1961 movie, "Blue Hawai'i" (Kanahele 1979:46). "On a Little Bamboo Bridge" was composed by Al Sherman in 1937; Louis Armstrong recorded this song with Andy Iona and his Islanders (Hawaiian Best 100: 82). In Japan, many singers recorded this song as well; the renditions by Dick Mineh and Setsuo Ohashi were especially popular (ibid.). "Beyond the Reef" was composed by the Canadian composer Jack Pitman in 1948 and recorded by Bing Crosby and Margaret Whiting in 1950 (Kanahele 1979:44-45). Back

10. The audio examples are excerpts from "Blue Hawai'i" and "Beyond the Reef," sung by Yuko Nagisa, and "On a Little Bamboo Bridge," performed by Ethel Nakada. Back

11. In interviews with twenty-six students in their twenties and thirties, ten answered that watching Hawaiian music and dance performances in Hawai'i had stimulated their interest in hula. Two said that the Polynesian shows they saw in Australia and Guam, respectively, aroused their curiosity. Back

12. Personal communication with Masami Sato on December 27, 1995. Back

13. Personal communication with Sawako "Maka'alohilohi" Yamazaki on December 24, 1995. Back

14. Personal communication with Michiko Honma on January 15, 1996. Back

15. Personal communication with Keiko "Ku'uleinani" Hashimoto on December 19, 1995. Back

16. Personal communication with Maria Nino on December 27, 1995. Back

17. Although she attributes success to the wealth of the country, the wealth of the teacher who hires the Hawaiian expertise plays the more crucial role. Back

18. Although the number of Japanese participants in the major Hawaiian hula competitions is increasing, many dancers enter the competitions as members of their Hawaiian master's troupe. For example, Sawako Yamazaki has performed at the Merrie Monarch Festival Hula Competition (1991, 1992, 1995, and 1996) and the King Kamehameha Hula Competition (1994, 1995, and 1996) as a member of Aloha Delire's troupe, "Keolalaulani Halau Olapa O Laka." As of 1996, Keiko Hashimoto's troupe, "Halau Mehana O Ka La," is apparently the only Japanese halau (hula school) to participate in the King Kamehameha Hula Competition. They have entered both in the hula 'auana and hula kahiko divisions since 1988. Back

19. An advanced-level "kahiko" class taught by Keiko "Ku'uleinani" Hashimoto in her studio in Tokyo (December 19, 1995). Back

20. For discussion of the iemoto system, see Kawashima 1957, Nishiyama 1959, Ortolani 1969, and Kitano 1970. Back

21. For example, the Hula Dance Network led by "Lehua" Tomoko Nawa has an advanced course called shihan-ka [instructor course] for the students who intend to teach hula. Nawa said she gives Hawaiian names to her students at this level. Back

22. Personal communication with "Lehua" Tomoko Nawa on December 25, 1995. Back

23. Personal communication with Maria Nino on December 27, 1995. Back

24. This may bring them into conflict with their own mentors, because the students' independence could harm their teachers' business. Back

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