In October, Japanese fruit company Hanafru opened its first US restaurant, selecting Hawai‘i as its debut market. The restaurant, called Sunny Days, is located near Waikiki Beach. Seating 40 customers, the full-service establishment offers cold-pressed juices and healthy versions of popular local dishes. The number of Japan-themed establishments in Hawai‘i has been growing. The New Otani Beach Hotel is one such venue which caters to Japanese tourists with waitresses in kimonos, and private rooms floored with traditional rice-mats.
Hanafru is no stranger to Hawaiian cuisine, having already opened a Hawaiian-themed cafe called Northshore in Osaka. Although most of Hanafru’s businesses are small fruit and snack shops in department stores, Northshore is enjoying success, owing to a current wave of demand for Hawaiian culture and food in Japan. Examples of Japanese businesses taking advantage of Hawai‘i’s popularity are common. Kenji Arai, owner of Lahaina restaurant in Japan’s Gunma Prefecture, visits Hawai‘i a few times per year to study local cuisine. He personifies the Japanese infatuation not only with the food of Hawai‘i, but also with the state’s image and atmosphere. His restaurant sports coral, palm leaves, and surfboards to foster the feeling of authenticity. Arai’s aim, and that of other Japanese owners of Hawaiian restaurants, is not just to replicate Hawaiian traditions, but to create a new tradition which is greater than the sum of its cultural parts.
Owing in part to proximity, Hawai‘i and Japan have a robust history of economic and cultural trade. In the aftermath of WWII, Hawai‘i donated pigs to Okinawa to assuage post-war food shortages, a show of friendship which eventually lead to a sister-state relationship. Now, the state exports over $464 million worth of goods and services to Japan, more than 27% of which are food, and those exports support almost 3,700 Hawaiian jobs. Additionally, majority Japanese owned firms account for about 15,000 jobs in Hawai‘i, a number which has grown by more than 2,000 over the past two years.
Peter Valente is a graduate student at American University, and a research intern for the East-West Center in Washington, DC.