New Year’s Eve Mochi Pounding in Maui, Hawaiʻi. [Image: Cliff Kimura / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)]

Hawaiʻi Honors Cultural, Culinary Connections with Japan through New Year’s Mochi Pounding Tradition

Japan Asia

Every year, families across Hawaiʻi gather with friends and neighbors to pound mochi. Mochi, a glutinous rice cake, has been made in Japan for centuries. It is a symbol of long life and well-being in the Japanese New Year. In Shinto rituals, large rounds of mochi are stacked atop each other, surrounded by auspicious items, and placed atop an altar as an offering.

The tradition, known as mochitsuki (餅つき), begins the night before when the sweet rice is rinsed and left to soak in water overnight. The next morning, the rice is placed into square wooden steamer baskets (seiro, 蒸篭) and set over boiling water. Once the rice is steamed, it is placed into a large mortar (usu, 碓). One or more people swing a wooden mallet (kine, 杵) to pound the mochi, while another person flips the rice grains over in a rhythm. Today, mochi is primarily made by machine except on special occasions like the New Year.

Once exclusively consumed by Japanese emperors and the royal class, today mochi is found across Hawaiʻi - in grocery stores, gas stations, and restaurants. Like other foods introduced to Hawaiʻi through immigration and cultural exchange, Mochi has been localized and made in a specific style only found in Hawaiʻi. Mochi is a popular topping for shave ice and frozen yogurt. It is rolled thin and filled with ice cream to make mochi ice cream. Mochi can have fillings like crunchy peanut butter, sweet adzuki beans, or even fresh whole strawberries. Chewy mochi donuts and butter mochi are popular spinoffs made with sweet rice flour.

As mochi shows, Hawaiʻi and Japan share very close cultural and economic ties stretching back several centuries. The Gannenmono, the first Japanese immigrants arrived in Hawaiʻi in 1868 as contract laborers on the sugar plantations. In 1881, while Hawaiʻi was still a monarchy, King David Kalākaua visited with the Emperor of Japan to seek an approval for more migrant labor. The emperor's approval was granted and between 1885 and 1924, more than 200,000 Japanese immigrated to Hawaiʻi to toil alongside Chinese, Filipino, Portuguese, Puerto Rican, and Native Hawaiian workers in the sugar and pineapple plantations.

Many second-wave Japanese immigrants put down roots in Hawaiʻi, shaping the sociocultural landscape in ways that persist to this day. Many notable people from Hawai’i are of Japanese descent, including Daniel K. Inouye, Senator Mazie Hirono, and Ellison Onizuka. Japanese visitors spend nearly $2 billion every year and are the largest foreign market for visitors to Hawai’i. Japan also has a huge appetite for Hawaiian culture. Many Hawaiian music groups and hula hālau (schools) visit Japan as part of their touring schedule. Japan and Hawaiʻi share 24 sister cities, more than any other state. Japanese restaurants are popular in Hawaiʻi and many Hawaiian foods, like poke, have Japanese culinary influences.

Mochi is just one example of the cultural and culinary connections between Hawaiʻi and Japan. Its delicious and celebrated history signifies the indelible mark Japanese immigrants have left on Hawaiʻi. Beyond cultural connections, the ever-growing relationship between Hawaiʻi and Japan has economic and political value and can serve as a model for future state-country partnerships with Indo-Pacific countries.

Lily Schlieman is a participant of the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a Master's Student at the University of Hawai'i-Mānoa in Pacific Island Studies and Ocean Policy.