Hawai‘i’s Largest Ethnic Festival is Moving to the Hawai‘i Convention Center
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
The birth of the state’s largest ethnic festival — the Okinawan Festival — on Labor Day weekend can be traced to 1980 and a concerted effort by a group of Sansei Uchinanchu leaders to perpetuate and share the Okinawan culture of their ancestral homeland with the larger Hawai‘i community. It began with their participation in a life-changing tour to Okinawa in 1980.
Thirty-five years after that first festival, mother nature and other forces have prompted the festival’s sponsor, the Hawaii United Okinawa Association, to reassess. After staging the festival at Kapi‘olani Park since 1990, this year’s festival will move indoors, to the Hawai‘i Convention Center for the next three years. The festival will still be held over the Labor Day weekend, which this year falls on Sept. 1 and 2.
Courtney Takara, who, at 31, is the youngest president to lead the HUOA, said the volunteer electricians, plumbers and construction workers required to install the festival’s temporary infrastructure has diminished over the years. Without these skilled volunteers, the association would have to pay for the work, resulting in additional costs, Takara said.
She acknowledged that “an outdoor festival atmosphere is hard to recreate indoors,” but said she hopes the move to the Hawai‘i Convention Center will give families “the opportunity to start new traditions.”
Logistically, Takara said it costs about $100,000 to operate the festival. Expenses relating to the purchasing the supplies for the food booths are about the same.
“That is one of the easier benchmarks for us. This (holding the festival at the convention center) was more manageable for us based on the manpower and the level of skill sets needed to execute it than when we hold it at Kapi‘olani.”
Takara said the estimated logistical costs of holding the festival at Kapi‘olani Park and at the convention center are similar. At the convention center, HUOA will have to pay for the exhibition halls and set-up of the stage, tables and chairs. The park costs, on the other hand, included hiring off-duty Honolulu Police Department officers to provide around-the-clock security for a week before the festival began, renting golf carts, toilets, trailers, chairs, tables and tents and erecting the tents, booths and chairs.
“We are trying to be prudent about our expenses,” said Takara, an (inactive) attorney and compliance officer with Central Pacific Bank. “Even more so with this festival because there are a lot of unknowns, which is expected when you do move.”
Takara said the HUOA made a concerted effort to communicate with its 50 member-clubs about the reason for the change in venue because many of the volunteers only know what occurs during the two days of the festival and nothing about the weeks and months of planning and preparation that go into each year’s festival.
HUOA officials decided to give the convention center a three-year trial, which will give them time to work out the kinks, Takara said. HUOA did not sign a three-year contract with the convention center, leaving the door open for a possible return to Kapi‘olani Park, she said.
“We don’t want to put the square peg in the round hole. If, after assessing everything at the end of this festival, it doesn’t seem like a good fit for us, we don’t want to be locked in. If it seems like it is not going to work, we don’t want to force it,” Takara said.
One of the advantages of moving to the 1.1 million square foot convention center is that it is air-conditioned, making it more comfortable. It is also safer for the elderly and disabled who use canes, wheelchairs and walkers, and there’s more space for them to relax and enjoy the activities, said the festival’s chairwoman and HUOA president-elect Jocelyn “Jo” Ige, a retired state Department of Education specialist.
“The weather can be unpredictable at that time of the year, said Ige. “It is hot, humid and wet.”
She noted that at Kapi‘olani Park, it took about a week for volunteers to erect tents, assemble food booths, and install plumbing and electrical fixtures. “That’s a lot of volunteers — and it’s getting harder to find them,” she said.
Takara said it takes more than 2,000 volunteers from HUOA’s 50 clubs and their friends to set up and run the two-day affair.
Utilizing the first and third floors of the convention center will make it is easier for the festival organizers. “This way, it is easier and faster to set everything up,” Ige said.
She said the move also created opportunities for the HUOA to add new cultural features to the festival, most of them in “The Mura,” or “Okinawan village,” which will occupy the third floor of the convention center, at the top of the escalator.
Takara said the HUOA board considered the Neal Blaisdell Exhibition Hall and Thomas Square as a possible venue, but concluded that they needed more space.
Ige said festival volunteers will continue to cook and sell local favorites like andagi (Okinawa deep-fried doughnut) and andadog (hotdog on a stick dipped in andagi batter and deep-fried). And, as in years past, volunteers will mix the batter at Jefferson Elementary School and shuttle it over to the convention center to be cooked. Organizers will use the convention center’s large commercial kitchens to prepare other dishes, such as the champuru plate, pig’s feet soup, Okinawan soba, yakisoba and yakitori sticks — all of which will be available on the main exhibit floor, known as “The Festival.” (More information on Pages 5-8)
All of the performances, including the Saturday night bon dance beginning at 5:30 p.m., will take place in the “The Festival” space.
Ige noted that 800 parking stalls will be available at the convention center for $10. Entrance to the second floor parking area is from Kaläkaua Avenue. Festival attendees can also park free at McKinley High School and catch a festival shuttle bus to the convention center. The shuttle will run from 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 1, and from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 2. Doors to the convention center will open at 9 a.m. both days. The $3 return shuttle ticket can be purchased at the festival information booth at the convention center, or festival visitors can buy a $5 commemorative pin that includes a shuttle ticket.
VISITING “COUSINS” FROM OKINAWA
This year’s festival will be attended by some 300 guests from Okinawa, most of them members of the Okinawa Hawaii Kyokai. Besides attending the festival, they will participate in the dedication of the $6.7 million Hawaii Okinawa Plaza, located across the street from the Hawaii Okinawa Center. The dedication and blessing ceremony are set for Sept. 3.
“We are very grateful,” said Ige, noting that supporters in Okinawa pledged nearly $500,000 to help build the two-story, 12,000 square foot commercial building.
THE FIRST FESTIVAL RECALLED
Roy Kaneshiro, who was among the Sansei that participated in the 1980 leadership tour to Okinawa and returned a “born-again Uchinanchu” (as 1986-87 HUOA president Edward Kuba describes the group), says moving to the expansive Hawai‘i Convention Center is like “watching a child grow, becoming a teenager and then an adult.”
After experiencing the culture of their ancestral homeland, including the colorful Naha Matsuri, the younger members of the United Okinawa Association, led in 1982-83 by Roy Kaneshiro, proposed that a festival similar to the Naha Matsuri be staged in Honolulu for Hawai‘i’s Okinawan community and to introduce the larger community to the culture, cuisine and products of Okinawa.
Prior to the 1982 festival, the Hui O Laulima women’s club and the United Okinawan Association had co-sponsored “Jubilee cultural shows” at Farrington High School. Taking the cultural aspects of the jubilees and combining them with the vitality of Okinawa’s Naha Matsuri, the Sansei Uchinanchus organized the first Okinawan Festival at McCoy Pavilion in Ala Moana Park. Nearly 17,000 people poured into the pavilion for the two-day affair that involved more than 500 volunteers.
The idea was new and untested and a huge financial gamble for the UOA (renamed the Hawaii United Okinawa Association in 1995), so there was, understandably, some apprehension.
“There also was a lot of support from the clubs and officers,” said Kaneshiro, now a retired Waimanalo egg farmer.
Especially helpful were the owners of popular restaurants, such Wisteria, Columbia Inn, Flamingo and Zippy’s — all owned by local Okinawans — and the culinary experts at Leeward Community College. They helped develop the festival menu and the Okinawan dishes for the food booths, Kaneshiro said.
He said the first Okinawan Festival was more than just an attempt to replicate an event held in Okinawa: It was the result of the encouragement of the Issei and Nisei generation to retrace the footsteps of the immigrant pioneers.
In a 2001 interview for a historical video on the then-50-year-old HUOA, Kaneshiro recalled a moment from the 1982 festival. He repeated it in a recent interview with the Hawai‘i Herald.
He said an elderly woman who had come to Hawai‘i as an immigrant decades earlier “came up to us and told us that at this point in her life, being kind of old and not in really good health, she knew she could never go back to Okinawa. So to see something like this in Hawai‘i, she was really happy. She was just thrilled with the idea that the Sanseis could do something like this. And for us, it was really an emotional moment.”
Three years later, the festival moved to a bigger venue, Thomas Square and the Honolulu Academy of Arts. However, the lack of parking in the area proved to be a problem, Kaneshiro said.
Festival organizers took a year off in 1989 to plan the 1990 festival, which was chaired by Isaac Hokama, also a past president. It would be a landmark year for Hawai‘i’s Uchinanchu community, highlighted by the 90th anniversary of Okinawan immigration to the Islands, the dedication and opening of the Hawaii Okinawa Center, and the festival’s move to Kapi‘olani Park to attract a larger and more ethnically diverse audience.
In its 26 years at Kapi‘olani Park, the two-day festival has grown by leaps and bounds, attracting upwards of 40,000 people each year. Only the threat of Hurricane Lester in 2016 forced HUOA to cancel the festival out of concern for the safety of the public.
Reflecting now, more than three decades later, Kaneshiro said the first festival at McCoy Pavilion seems so small compared to what it became at Kapi‘olani Park.
“I don’t think any of us really realized that it would have grown to this proportion. But I think all of us who were involved in the first festival feel good about the whole thing, how it’s grown and how important it’s become to the community.”
@okinawanfestival, hashtag — #okifest2018.
Gregg K. Kakesako worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Gannett News Service in Washington, D.C and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for more than four decades as a government, political and military affairs reporter and assistant city editor.