Hawaiʻi’s long-lasting popularity with Japan and Japanese travelers, and desire for their post-COVID-19 return, highlight not only tourism, but the historical and cultural bonds they both share.
Hawaiʻi and Japan share a tourism and cultural relationship stretching back to the 1960s. Now, amid easing travel restrictions from the pandemic, Hawaiʻi hopes to see a return of Japanese travel to their resorts, sandy beaches, and restaurants.
Hawaiʻi saw a peak number of 734,000 Japanese travelers to its islands in 2019, spending a combined total of $1.03 billion. Those numbers dropped dramatically due to travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as pre-departure COVID testing. Now, Japan is easing those restrictions for its travelers and Hawaiʻi hopes to observe an increasing return of Japanese to the state. Still, there are obstacles at play, particularly for the Japanese. The yen has declined against the U.S. dollar which, combined with high plane ticket and fuel prices, make for an unfavorable situation for eager travelers.
Japan and Hawaiʻi’s relationship began in the 19th century with many Japanese farmers leaving hardship in Japan for greater opportunities in Hawai’i, with the first group setting sail in 1868. However, deceptive labor contracts and small pay led them to return home, resulting in Japan banning immigration to Hawai’i. Fortunately, a brief but promising relationship between King Kalakaua and Emperor Meiji when the King traveled to Japan in 1991, seemed to ease relations. The King even proposed a matrimonial bond between Hawaiʻi and Japan through a marriage between his 5-year old niece and the teenage Japanese prince. The Emperor declined. Nevertheless, the immigration ban was lifted soon after, and Japanese began traveling in larger numbers to Hawaiʻi. Nearly a century and a quarter later, according to the 2021 US Census Bureau American Community Survey, 314,102 Hawaiians, or about 21%, identify as Japanese or part-Japanese. In addition to immigration, post-World War II travel and economic renewal in the 1980s enabled many Japanese tourists to visit Hawaiʻi in large numbers.
From this history of exchange, Japanese and Hawaiian culture feature prominently in both societies. In Hawaiʻi, pā mea ʻai, or plate lunches, a dish mixed with Hawaiian, Japanese, and other Asian food are popular. These plate lunches include white rice, macaroni salad, mayonnaise, thick gravy, and a choice of protein. In Japan, restaurants offer the Hawai'ian cuisine. For example, Akihiro Misono opened his plate lunch restaurant Da Plate Lunch 808 in Chiba, Japan last year and has a Honolulu radio station transmitted there for ambiance. Mochi is a popular Japanese cuisine in Hawaiʻi, and symbolizes long-life and well-being in the Japanese New Year. Along with plate lunches and mochi, Hawaiian shirts, or “aloha shirts” in Japan, also bridge cultural ties between the two archipelagoes. Japanese immigrants started importing fabric to Hawaiʻi and the locals wanted to make shirts from them, which began the creation of aloha shirts with Japanese patterns. Lastly, Japan and Hawaii have a number of sister-city relationships, including Honolulu and Hiroshima City, Maui County with Fukuyama, and Kauai County with Iwaki City in Fukushima Prefecture, among others.
It remains to be seen whether Japanese tourism in Hawaiʻi will reach pre-pandemic levels, but the connections Japan and Hawaiʻi have will help foster travel for the future.
Niles Rodgers is an Intern at the East-West Center in Washington. He graduated with a Master's degree in Asian Studies from George Washington University, and is a native of the DMV region.