“Dis wen happen long, long time ago in Japan,” she starts in a low voice as the sun begins to set over the West Maui Mountains. About 400 people from 8 to 80 years old lean in closer as Kathy “Tita” Collins takes the stage at University of Hawai‘i Maui College.
“Dis ol man and dis ol lady, all dey wanted was to have one litto behbeh dey can raise and teach and love so one day he could be one responsible citizen ’cause dey so Japanee. But year aftah year, no mo behbeh. So one day da ol lady started in her backyahd pulling weeds in da daikon patch an’ wen spot someting bright red in da daikon patch.” Collins’ eyes widen as she looks out into the audience.
“Wat you tink was? Was one litto one-inch behbeh. He so small, but da lady said, ‘Nevamind. We shall teach him, feed him, love him, and one day, he will grow mo big and mo strong and mo smart. But for now we call him Issun-boshi, little one-inch.”
For the first time in its 14-year history, the annual Maui Matsuri opened with traditional and obake (ghost) storytelling, a departure from the usual movie screening on the first night of the two-day festival.
“We wanted to do something different this year,” said Kay Fukumoto, one of the festival’s founders, who has helped organize the event every year since its inception.
She said storytelling is something new that the festival organizers are hoping to bring back next year and turn into a tradition.
Kathy Collins has been telling stories professionally for more than 15 years, traveling all over the country to share her stories, characteristically told in pidgin. The Maui diva was joined at this year’s festival by other local storytellers and the Bento Rakugo group from O‘ahu.
“But little Issun-boshi grew mo smart and mo strong, but neva mo big,” Collins continued. “Still, he set out one day for go out on his own so dat he could someday come back and take care of his ’ol mama-san and papa-san.”
As the story goes, Issun-boshi eventually ventures to the doorstep of the Shogun’s castle and, despite his small one-inch stature, secures a job as the young princess’ bodyguard. In his adventures, he defeats a mean, scaly oni (ogre), who drops his magic hammer. The princess picks up the hammer and discovers that every time she shakes it, Issun-boshi grows an inch. She shakes the hammer 75 times and Issun-boshi grows to be more than 6 feet tall. He and the princess get married and live happily ever after.
The story of Issun-boshi is a beloved Japanese folktale, and hundreds enjoyed traditional and more modern stories told at this year’s Maui Matsuri.
GROWING INCH BY INCH
Like little Issun-boshi, the festival has grown immensely since it was first conceived 14 years ago. Shaking the hammer are four local Sansei women who started the festival as a small cultural celebration on Market Street in Wailuku.
Maui residents Kay Fukumoto, Yuki-Lei Sugimura, Lynn Araki-Regan and Tiffany Iida volunteered to co-organize the first festival, and over the years have remained involved with the annual celebration.
The first festival, which was called the “Natsu (Summer) Festival,” was held June 17, 2000, and only ran for four hours. The Maui County Office of Economic Development partnered with churches and the Japanese Cultural Society to put together that first festival, which attracted about 1,500 people.
The festival soon outgrew Market Street and was moved to Kahului Shopping Center in front of what was then Ah Fook’s Supermarket. When the store burned down in 2005, the festival was moved to its current home at University of Hawai‘i Maui College.
Over the years, attendance has grown nearly tenfold, to about 10,000, with hundreds of volunteers helping each year to bring the festival to life. The festival budget is about $50,000 financial support coming from the Japanese Cultural Society of Maui, the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority, advertisers and other donors.
This year’s Maui Matsuri was held over two days, May 9 and 10. A kimono fashion show promotional event was held at Queen Ka‘ahumanu Center shopping mall a week before the festival.
This year’s celebration featured many of the usual favorites — Kodomo Corner, taiko drumming and bon dance — as well as a number of new additions, like the storytelling night, a kendama tournament and a cosplay contest.
FOR THE SAKE OF THE CHILDREN
“Kodomo no tame ni,” an often-recited Japanese phrase meaning, “for the sake of the children,” is the perpetual theme and driving force behind the festival, organizers say.
That is why every year, the festival features food, entertainment and activities that are fun for the entire family, young and old. In the Kodomo Corner craft tent, one of the festival’s most popular activities, children learned how to make a hachimaki (headbands) and gyotaku (fish printing) and did simple origami paper folding and calligraphy.
“The goal of the festival is to ensure the Japanese culture and traditions our parents and grandparents shared with us are passed down to future generations,” said Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa. “Tradition is just as important here on Maui as it is in Japan, and the Maui Matsuri reminds us of that each year.”
It’s important that young people, especially, are exposed to facets of their own culture.
Immersion in the Japanese culture from a young age often has a lasting effect, Kay said.
She started taiko drumming when she was just 10 years old. Lynn was involved in classical Japanese dance; Tiffany’s grandma would buy her kimono for obon festivals; and Yuki-Lei’s mother was one of the founding members of the Japanese Cultural Society.
“When you look at all of us, we saw we were introduced to the culture at a young age and continued to be connected to it,” said Kay, a retired certified public accountant and currently executive distributor for Nu Skin USA.
In turn, the women have raised their children rooted in elements of Japanese culture, which they hope will be passed on to their children.
“When my mother lived with us, my son got to look at artwork, screens and scrolls she had collected over a lifetime and with great pride,” said Yuki-Lei, a public relations professional who owns her own event management company. “He took an interest in the language, studied in Japan. It’s woven into every day life.”
“The matsuri (festival) just brings it all out to the community and helps us celebrate it.”
Lynn Araki-Regan, an attorney with her own firm, Araki-Regan & Associates, LLC, and Mayor Arakawa’s campaign manager, said she is passionate about Maui Matsuri not for her own benefit, “but really to have my son and his generation learn his heritage.”
“If we don’t have the opportunities here (on Maui) to share with young kids, those traditions will quickly stop with my generation,” Lynn said.
The women say the matsuri is — and always has been — for the sake of the children.
“One of the most rewarding comments is when a parent tells you if it weren’t for this festival, my kids wouldn’t have this Japanese experience,” Kay said. “That’s why we do what we do.”
KEEPING TRADITION ALIVE AND LOCAL
Although matsuri are commonplace year-round in Japan, many of the old traditions are not regularly practiced even in the mother country. The Maui Matsuri aims to stay as true to the old traditions as possible, while making it relatable for all people, no matter their age, ethnicity or background.
“Even people living in Japan, a lot of them have never even stepped into a kimono, or they don’t know how to tie an obi (kimono sash),” Lynn said. “When they come to the Maui Matsuri, they’re amazed that we kept so many traditions alive here in Hawai‘i.”
Kay, Yuki-Lei and Tiffany said they received similar feedback from Japanese visitors.
Tiffany, who is administrative assistant to Maui County’s managing director, said it is important to share the Japanese culture with other ethnic groups “so we can all learn from each other.”
“Bon festivals during the summer months are the biggest Japanese tradition, and although it came over as a religious practice, in Hawai‘i it’s become accepted as something that everyone can do to honor their ancestors,” Kay said.
“Now when you go to bon festivals, it’s ethnically diverse, even religiously diverse. You could be dancing next to someone who’s Catholic or Christian. Anyone can join in the ring and dance,” she said.
Indeed, hundreds of residents and visitors this year joined in on the bon dance as Maui Taiko drummers performed a century-old song, “Fukushima Ondo.” The group performs the song at more than a dozen bon festivals during the summer season.
Guests unfamiliar with the dance quickly pick up the steps as they watch dancers dressed in kimono and yukata (cotton kimono) in the middle step through the moves.
“Our goal is to get as many people to the festival as possible. It’s not only trying to hand down tradition to the next generation who are Japanese, but to also share one of the cultures in Hawai‘i,” Kay said.
For more information, visit mauimatsuri.com.
Eileen Chao joined The Maui News as a reporter last year after having worked for Honolulu Civil Beat and The Molokai Dispatch. Chao was born and raised in Orange County, Calif., and earned her bachelor’s degree in communications and English from the University of California, San Diego.