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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted at 3:56 p.m., Friday, April 21, 2006

Merrie Monarch: Connecting with a Japanese fan

By Wanda Adams
Assistant Features Editor

Saturday afternoon at the Merrie Monarch Festival.

HILO — We locals tend to think of the Merrie Monarch Festival hula competition as "our" event, celebrating "our" dance and culture. But a good portion of the audience comes from far away, and many of these are beginning to think of the dance, and Hawaiian culture, as at least a hanai'd part of their lives.

They are the literally thousands of Japanese who love, love, love hula — who study the dance, subscribe to hula magazines, spend untold amounts of money ordering CDs and instruments and Sig Zane designs online, as well as traveling to Hilo each spring for Merrie Monarch, for them the piko, the spiritual center, of the dance.

Here, they queue up to have their picture taken with colorful Uncle George Na'ope, one of the founders of the festival, and ogle Vicki Holt Takamine and Sonny Ching as though they were in the presence of Marilyn and Elvis.

Typical is Mitsukawa Miyumi, a Tokyo housewife who prefers to express her name in the Japanese way. Mitsukawa's daughter married an American and lives in California. Early on, mother and daughter began meeting in Hawai'i every couple of years as a halfway point.

Lonely and bored after both her children were grown and out of the house, Miyumi-san began studying English to prepare for these trips.

"In Waikiki, I see hula first time with my eyes," she says, referring to a trip a decade back. "I see on TV in Japan, but I not so interested. But I come here, I see the dress, the flowers, the way the hands move. Like me and my mother make Japanese dance when I am young girl."

Back home, she found a hula school — there are dozens of them, and some are so large they have to meet in warehouse-like buildings — and, suddenly, her days were filled.

"I am older woman, not pretty like the Miss Aloha Hula (candidates), but when I dance, I enjoy, I feel young and" — here, she actuallly blushes, giggles, covers her teeth with her hand — "my husband say I look nice."

Her husband, an "office man," foots the bill for her hula classes and equipment, which amounts to the equivalent of a couple of hundred dollars a month, and sometimes more.

"I raise children, I cook, I take care his mother until she die. He say, 'Now you retire!' " she says.

A skilled seamstress, Miyumi-san likes to make her own holoku, and one of her stops whenever she meets her daughter on O'ahu is June's Fabrics in Kalihi, where many halau buy their prints.

Asked if she feels awkward adapting and adopting a culture that is not her own, she looks surprised and a bit puzzled.

"You have many Japanese custom here, neh?" she asks, implying that this adopting business works both ways. Then she adds, "The Hawaiian culture, we respect. Yes, very much, respect."