MATSUSHIGE, Tokushima Pref. — “It began with a cold,” Lance Kita, 24, replied when asked how he came to teach hula in Japan. Kita, raised in Hawaii, had never taught or even performed the dance native to his home state before coming to Shikoku, Japan’s least visited major island.
Kita arrived in Matsushige, Tokushima Prefecture, a small farming community, in 1998 with a ukelele, a boogie board and a one-year contract to teach English on the Ministry of Education’s JET Program. In addition to assisting with classes at the local junior high school, he had ample opportunity to participate in town activities. As a foreigner, he was automatically made a member of the Matsushige International Association. The group holds an annual event to promote intercultural understanding — such as the international dance program in which Kita was invited to take part.
Kita decided to ask Jeanette Tom, a fellow Hawaiian, to join him for a hula demonstration. He would play the ukelele and sing in Hawaiian; Tom would dance. Unfortunately, a few days before the show, he came down with a cold and lost his voice. Since he couldn’t sing, Tom insisted that he dance with her and she taught him a hula in three days.
After seeing his performance, the president of the Matsushige International Society, as well as several local women, asked him to teach hula to interested townspeople. A class was quickly arranged.
Around 15 women ranging in age from early 30s to 70s showed up for the first class. Some came to get a little exercise. Others were curious about Kita and his home state.
“Hula is very holistic,” Kita says. “In order to understand hula, you have to know a little bit about many aspects of Hawaiian culture.”
During his lessons, which were held twice a week in a tatami room at the Matsushige Town Hall, he instructed his students in the Hawaiian language and in the islands’ history. Before their first public performance, he taught the women how to make leis of ferns and orchids.
Kita’s student Kuniko Komatsu, 43, a mother of two and part-time bakery worker, had been watching an instructional series about hula on NHK-E, Japan’s educational network. Previously, she had an image of the traditional dance as something performed by Polynesian women in “grass skirts and coconut brassieres.” However, after viewing a few episodes, she saw the dance as “romantic.” She didn’t actually attempt to learn the hand and hip movements, which she found embarrassing at first, until joining Kita’s class.
Initially, she was interested in what she calls the healing aspect of hula. “I wanted relief from the stress of daily life,” she says. “I’ve never been to Hawaii, but when I dance hula, I feel that I am there, far away from Matsushige.”
When Kita announced that he would be leaving Japan to take on a new position at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii, the group decided to continue on their own. They found a new teacher who comes to Matsushige from Osaka once a month to drill them in basic movements.
Ironically, Kita now sometimes teaches hula to visiting Japanese tourists at the museum. He recently returned to Matsushige for a visit and was impressed by his former students’ progress. “They’re so good now,” he says.
Kazumi Tamadani, 41, is one of the core members of the Moana Hawaiians, as they now call themselves. Moana means “beautiful sea” in Hawaiian, a name that group members found apt as Matsushige is located on the Seto Inland Sea.
“At first, I refused to join,” Tamadani says, but she was eventually persuaded by friends to take part in Kita’s class. Now she is one of the most enthusiastic members.
Like Komatsu, she once thought that hula was “too sexy.” When she worked as a travel agent, she had several chances to see hula shows put on for tourists in Hawaii and Guam. She has since learned that hula, like the locally famous Bon dance Awa Odori, was originally a dance for the gods. According to legend, hula was first danced by Pele, the volcano goddess, after hearing the drumming of High Chief Lohi’au.
Although, according to Tamadani, their new teacher claims that the group is not ready to perform in public, she hopes to dance in front of an audience again soon.
“I like dancing onstage more than practice,” she says. No stranger to the stage, Tamadani began studying nihon buyo traditional Japanese dance at the age of 6 and worked as an extra in various TV shows during college.
She acquired a license to teach nihon buyo when she was in high school. She says that she loves being in the spotlight.
“I want to dance everywhere,” she says. “I want to dance at weddings or even hoji (Buddhist memorial services).” Already, the Moana Hawaiians have demonstrated their skills at various international cultural events around Tokushima Prefecture. Tamadani and other members have also performed at a day-care center, a senior citizens’ recreation center and a neighborhood festival. Another danced a hula at her son’s wedding in Hawaii.
Tamadani claims that her once supportive husband is now sick of hula and is no longer willing to record her performances on video, but she wants to keep dancing “forever.”
“I’m addicted,” she says with a smile. “I can’t stop.”