Growing up in Hawaii, I was always acutely aware of the close relationship between Hawaii and Japan—particularly when it comes to tourism. After all, it was pretty hard to miss the tour busses full of Japanese tourists unloading at the mall, the daily destination weddings held at the picturesque chapel next to my school, or the stands full of Japanese language travel magazines standing at busy street corners. But despite their seeming omnipresent, for most of my life, you could readily expect to see Japanese tourists in just a few centralized locations—Waikiki, Ala Moana, and the outlet malls, primarily.
The last few years, though, have seen a shift in travel patterns as Japanese tourists have begun to venture outside of organized tours to explore smaller neighborhoods, lesser known restaurants, and beaches outside of the trolley routes. I never thought much of this shift until I moved to Japan on the JET Program and encountered the Hawaiian pancake phenomenon.
Since around 2010, Japan has consumed and been consumed by a “pancake boom.” There’s been an explosion of Hawaiian themed pancake restaurants, Hawaiian pancake flavored snack items, and even Hawaiian pancake specials at restaurants like McDonald’s. As someone born and raised in Hawaii, this was all kind of baffling to me as I’d never considered pancakes a particularly Hawaiian dish, and indeed, what are considered “Hawaiian” pancakes in Japan are often nothing more than simple buttermilk pancakes.
It didn’t take long to realize that the origin of this fad was a restaurant called Eggs n’ Things, once a 24-hour spot in Waikiki for surfers to refuel and club-goers to wind down after a long night, now a neatly designed brunch restaurant with four locations in Hawaii and 21 in Japan. I had the chance to chat with the restaurant’s director of operations in Honolulu, and according to him, this shift from local dive to food trend trailblazer began a couple decades ago when a Japanese waitress at Eggs n’ Things would draw Japanese tourists passing by into the restaurant. Eventually, more and more came to visit and brought word of the restaurant and its foods back to Japan. Prior to this, pancakes were not widely known in Japan, and the only place Japanese people were eating them was in Hawaii. So, the association between Hawaii and pancakes gradually took root in the Japanese popular imagination.
Besides creating a link between pancakes and Hawaii in the Japanese imagination, this popularity boom, promoted largely via word of mouth, also mirrors the shift in travel styles from pre-packaged tours to slightly more independent, media-guided exploration. Japanese tourists are now drawn to what might be considered a more authentic experience — choosing to trust the opinions of friends and travel professionals to create a Hawaiian experience more tailored to their individual preferences.
Flipping the metaphorical pancake, we see that Japan isn’t the only one affected by this pancake boom and that Hawaii has felt some kickback as well. Aside from Eggs n’ Things, several other local brunch spots have seen a notable uptick in tourist traffic, and many have even opened Japan locations, too. One of the most popular brunch spots on Oahu, Cinnamon’s in the small town of Kailua has been particularly affected. In fact, the last five years have brought such an increase in tourists to the store that the owner and many regular customers could feel the “complexion” of the store changing, prompting the opening of a second Oahu location in Waikiki.
In the end, Hawaiian pancakes can be seen to embody a long, complex relationship, and while the relationship may take the form of pancakes today, the dynamics of socio-cultural exchange between Hawaii and Japan are in constant motion.
Jacqueline Oshiro is from Honolulu, Hawaii, and served as a JET in Hyogo Prefecture from 2016-2018.
This article is part of a guest-contributor partnership between the East-West Center in Washington and the United States Japan Exchange & Teaching Programme Alumni Association (USJETAA) in which former JET participants contribute articles relating to their experiences in Japan.
The USJETAA is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational and cultural organization that promotes grassroots friendship and understanding between the United States and Japan through the personal and professional experiences of over 30,000 Americans who have participated on the JET Programme since its inception in 1987. USJETAA serves as a resource for individual JET alumni, JETAA chapters nationwide, and potential JET participants; supports the leadership of JETAA chapters with programming, membership recruitment, chapter management, leadership, professional development, and fundraising; and, supports the JET Program(me) and engages with the U.S.-Japan community.