Hawaii Travelogue: A Japan away from Japan [Ch.3: Japanese in Hawaii]

By | July 4, 2017

This article is a part of series of articles about my 2017 trip to Hawaii. Please see the table of contents that contains links to other chapters.

Japanese in Hawaii

Although I expected to see more Japanese people in Hawaii than in Portland (which in turn has a higher percentage of Japanese people than many other places in the US), we discovered the Japanese influence was very great and manifested in everyday life in surprising ways.

To begin with, walking around Waikiki we spotted an enormous number of Japanese people, more often than not younger couples, either apparent honeymooners (新婚さん) or those with one or two children. If you are fluent or learning Japanese, you’ll quickly pick up on bits and pieces of their conversations as you roam the streets. It seems that Hawaii is also considered by many Japanese people as a good place for a vacation, and given its proximity to Japan it makes sense that such a large percentage of travelers would be Japanese. There was also large amount of other Asian races, such that at times I felt Caucasians were the minority, at least if you exclude dark-skinned natives or those that have been on the island from some time. One taxi driver we spoke to said that the Island of Oahu has around 70% Japanese and Chinese people.

The bigger surprise was how the local business establishments had evolved to handle the mass of Japanese tourists. I vividly remember my first experience of this, seeing Japanese written in large letters on a sign for Tony Roma’s restaurant. Some stores will not just carry Japanese products, but even have written Japanese explanations of US-produced products. In rare cases you can find stores are *only* for Japanese people, like one called 移民の持ち家 in a Waikiki mall which, based on its name, seems to deal in homeownership for immigrants.

I found it funny that sometimes the Japanese translation actually gave more information than the original English did. For example, in a coffee store in the Ala Moana mall we were about to ask about the content of a certain drink but then realized a menu in Japanese on the counter described the ingredients. This information was not provided at all on the large English menu on the back wall.

Many stores will greet you with a friendly irasshaimase, and if you talk them to in Japanese there is a good chance they’ll respond back in fluent Japanese. For it is not just the tourists that are frequently Japanese, but many residents of Hawaii also have Japanese heritage. Such people are called nikkei (日系), and they may be second (日系二世), third, or even later generations. But don’t assume just because someone has Japanese heritage they are fluent in Japanese; I was told there are many nikkei who are not fluent in Japanese, which I feel is only natural given that English and Hawaiian are the only two official languages of the country. Ultimately, fluency for languages that are not required in daily life depends on how an individual was raised as much as their desire to gain fluency.

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5 thoughts on “Hawaii Travelogue: A Japan away from Japan [Ch.3: Japanese in Hawaii]

  1. Kurt

    A few comments:
    * The idea that Oahu is 70% Japanese or Chinese is laughable, and I daresay speaks to that cabbie’s prejudices rather than to reality. (Google says under 40% of Oahu is ethnically Asian, which comports with my intuition.)

    * Whenever I’m back home and walking around in Waikiki, it always takes a couple of days to realize I’m not in Japan anymore 😉 A big reason why there is still so much tourism to Hawaii is, at least according to most Japanese people I speak to, that English is simply not required (alas most of these people never leave Waikiki except to go to Ala Moana or to the Waikele outlet mall, both of which have Japanese shuttles). Also, remember that a Japanese driver’s license is valid in Hawaii (for up to one year)!

    * When I was in elementary school, seemingly all of my Japanese-American classmates went to “Japanese school” after school, but I wonder if that’s the case anymore (I’m old so this is 40 years ago). I doubt there are many second generation Nikkei anymore, and certainly very few under 60 or so.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the though-provoking comments!

      Didn’t know about the driver’s license thing, that’s pretty interesting.

      Also, I remember that I saw more Japanese tour buses than US-based ones.

  2. Jenna

    As Kurt mentioned above, the cabbie probably was influenced by his own biases. According to a 2020 Honolulu Civil Beat article entitled “Are You Local? What These Hawaii Scholars Have To Say Might Surprise You”, Hawaii is 22.1% Japanese, 21.3% Native Hawaiian, 14.1% Chinese, and 25% Filipino. Contrary to the mainland, people in Hawaii do not consider these ethnicities as one group. Race is decentralized in Hawaii and ethnicities are fore-fronted. Hawaii is also 43% White and White remains the economically dominant group in the state.
    Most Nikkei Japanese American Millenials in Hawaii are 4th-7th generation Americans. The main reason for the loss of culture is the outbreak of WWII and the subsequent outlaw of Japanese language and culture. This led to the closure of almost all Japanese language schools. And the imprisonment of Japanese Americans on the mainland. Very few schools could recover after the war. Never forget Japanese incarceration.


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