And the Power of Hibari’s Classic “Kawa no Nagare no Youni”
Jodie Chiemi Ching
Hawai‘i’s enthusiasm for Japanese popular music started after World War II. “By 1950, nisei orchestras were flourishing and performing to enthusiastic Japanese American audiences. These orchestras whetted the appetite for Japanese popular entertainment that was cautious at first and grew with enthusiasm in postwar Hawai‘i,” writes Dr. Christine Yano, professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa in her book, “Crowning the Nice Girl.”
After starring in the movie, “Kanashiki Kuchiyube,” Misora Hibari’s fame as a prodigy found its way to Hawai‘i. Even as a child, she was considered to have the understanding and emotional maturity of an adult. So when the 12-year-old superstar arrived in the Islands, she was welcomed with a lively audience that filled the old Civic Auditorium from wall to wall. Hibari also performed at McKinley High School and on the Big Island. Proceeds from her shows went to help build the Club 100’s clubhouse honoring the World War II 100th Infantry Battalion soldiers.
The popularity of enka over the years has become a bridge connecting Hawai‘i and Japan for many years. And the song, “Kawa no Nagare no Youni,” in particular, has transcended time. It was the last song Misora Hibari recorded and performed after being diagnosed with cancer before she passed away in 1989.
We couldn’t help but ask ourselves, “What is it about this song?” It brought to mind two fabulous singers — one a professional entertainer and the other an “amateur” talent — who shared a love for the song.
“Kawa no Nagare no Youni” means “Like the Flow of the River” — a metaphor for life’s journey. Perhaps it could be best described by the Japanese idea of mono aware — the pathos of things, the bittersweet awareness of impermanence. Youth, romance and the seasons are not to be mourned, but cherished and appreciated for their temporary existence, for from that comes beauty.
Singers Karen Keawehawai‘i and the late Lorraine Kaneshiro both experienced emotional moments of “mono aware” in the context of living and performing “Kawa no Nagare no Youni.”
Karen Keawehawai‘i’s Story
Many years after Hibari shared enka music with the Aloha State, Karen Keawehawai‘i took Hawaiian culture to Japan. Little did she know how much of an impact the experience would have on not just her Japanese audience, but on Keawehawai‘i herself.
In the latter part of 1990, Keawehawai‘i was invited to perform in Japan. She decided that she wanted to sing a Japanese song, so she called her friend, Edward Kalahiki — “Agaboo,” as she called him — a kumu hula (hula teacher) and United Airlines flight attendant.
“I’m gonna go Japan, and in the closing, I want to do a song that will impact the Japanese people. I want to make their hair stand up!” Keawehawai‘i told him.
Without even pausing to think, Kalahiki replied, “You gotta do Hibari!”
“’K den, gimme da words to ‘Hibari,’ I said.” Keawehawai‘i retold the story with her famous big laugh. “I thought ‘Hibari’ was da song!”
Kalahiki recommended that she sing “Kawa no Nagare no Youni.” But, he warned her, “You just going play the introduction and they (audience in Japan) are going to know it. So you better put your ‘big girl pants’ on and SELL IT!”
Keawehawai‘i went straight to work and learned the meaning of “Kawa no Nagare no Youni,” a song about life’s unpredictable, challenging and beautiful journey. She also learned that it was the last song Hibari recorded and that she knew at the time that she was dying of cancer. The fact that Hibari knew her days were numbered affected Keawehawai‘i’s connection to the song.
She practiced the song every morning as she drove her kids up Kapälama Heights to Kamehameha Schools, singing along with a cassette tape recording of “Kawa no Nagare no Youni.” After the third or fourth day, her kids grew tired of the song. “Give it a rest,” they told her. But Keawehawai‘i persisted.
After a while, the kids began singing along with their mom.
“When we got to the bridge of the song, the kids would belt it out so loud –– AH-AAHH, KAWA NO NAGARE NO YOOO NIIII!”
After much practice, it was time to go to Japan. It was early 1992. Keawehawai‘i had been booked to perform at the Iino Hall in Tökyö. There, she met Izumi Takashi, senior vice president of Columbia Records, who began his career as Hibari’s “go for guy.” Izumi described Hibari as “talented and humble,” saying she commanded with her presence, not with words. That only deepened Keawehawai‘i’s admiration for the iconic singer.
After a fabulous Hawaiian performance, it was time for the finale, time for Keawehawai‘i to pay tribute to Japan and Misora Hibari, who had passed only a few years earlier in 1989. Keawehawai‘i had asked the show’s producers to keep her closing song a secret.
As she stood at the center of the stage, the opening melody of “Kawa no Nagare no Youni” began. Keawehawai‘i recalled, “Oh my gosh! I’m on stage and I heard the audience gasp. They were looking at this Hawaiian lady, this big Hawaiian lady. And Agaboo’s words rang in my ears.”
With her “big girl pants” securely on, she took three steps forward and bowed respectfully as the introduction of the song played.
She began to sing, “Shirazu, shirazu, aruite kita . . .” Then “about one-third of the way, after the first bridge, I got lost and consumed by the song and it was as if she (Hibari) was there.” When Keawehawai‘i finished the song, she was overwhelmed with a standing ovation.
Keawehawai‘i turned around and saw her daughter Tracie, kumu hula O’Brian Eselu of Na Wai Eha O Puna and one of his male dancers in tears. They had been on stage, ready to perform “Hawai‘i Aloha” with Keawehawai‘i as their final number.
“The best you can get is an audience’s appreciation,” she said, smiling with tears in her eyes.
Although it was Hibari’s song, Keawehawai‘i said it was important that she not try to imitate Hibari. Her gift to her audience was to sing it as Karen Keawehawai‘i.
Off-stage, the Japanese promoters rushed over to her, “Karen, many people waiting.”
She went out to greet her audience in her street clothes. “Oh! They were in tears and talking to me in Japanese, so I thought, ‘Must be good,’” said Keawehawai‘i with a smile. She knew then they were very happy.
After everything had settled down, she called Kalahiki. “I put my ‘big girl pants’ on . . .”
“. . . And you SOLD IT!” Kalahiki happily finished her sentence for her.
Keawehawai‘i continues to honor the love between Hawai‘i and Hibari. Another friend of hers, Royal Hawaiian Band clarinet player Steven Agasa, was moved by Keawehawai‘i’s rendition of “Kawa no Nagare no Youni.” Agasa approached bandmaster Clarke Bright and suggested that they do an arrangement of the song to accompany Keawehawai‘i.
Sometimes, when Keawehawai‘i performs with the band at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Japanese couples will come and talk to her to share their appreciation for her beautiful performance of the song.
It may be that Hibari is helping to guide the joy and aloha through Keawehawai‘i’s performance, as opportunities to share the beloved song with Japanese audiences continue to find their way to Keawehawai‘i.
In 2014, Keawehawai‘i’s daughter Tracie and son-in-law, Keawe Lopes, both kumu hula, were invited to take their hula halau, Ka Lä ‘Önohi Mai O Ha‘e Ha‘e, to perform in the Tokyo Dome following their award-winning performance at the Merrie Monarch Festival. They were among the top four winners of the competition.
Tracie remembered how her mother had wowed the Japanese audience in 1992 and decided to revisit that special memory by choreographing a hula to “Kawa no Nagare no Youni” for their Tokyo Dome performance. Two days before their flight, Tracie asked her mother to practice the song with the band and the halau. It was to be their final rehearsal before the Tokyo Dome show.
While the dancers watched, Keawehawai‘i sang with the band that would be accompanying the halau to Japan. Once again, she was so immersed in the flow of the song, singing with her eyes closed, wrapped up in pure emotion. When she finished the song, she opened her eyes and found everyone in tears again.
On the spot, it was decided that Keawehawai‘i would travel with the group and sing “Kawa no Nagare no Youni.” Together, they awed the Japanese audience and the Tokyo Dome staff. As they left the stage, the workers were bowing to them as they walked by. For Karen Keawehawai‘i, the memory endures.
Lorraine Kaneshiro’s Story
Many Hawai‘i music lovers likely remember the late Lorraine Kaneshiro, whose voice was as rich and captivating as Misora Hibari herself. Lorraine’s husband, Arthur Kaneshiro, and their daughter, Stacy Kawamura, described her as an “unabashed fan” of Hibari. They shared fond memories of Lorraine, who died of cancer in 1999, and her love for Hibari and her music. Hibari had influenced much of Lorraine’s life and musical talent.
Arthur said Lorraine’s admiration for Hibari began as a very young child.
“Lorraine started singing when she was about 6 years old. Music was always a part of the family. She told me that she had a phonograph that she played all of Misora Hibari’s records that her mother loved to listen to,” Arthur recalled.
“At an early age, she became a part of the Chidori Orchestra, led by Charles Mimura. Because Lorraine had a Misora Hibari-like-voice, he made her sing mostly Misora Hibari songs. I am guessing that singing and performing Misora Hibari songs just made her a big fan and influenced her selection of songs. At family parties, the requests for songs were always that Lorraine sing a Misora Hibari song.”
Lorraine “could sing all of them,” Arthur said. “At Toma’s Karaoke, there is a recording that is a medley of Misora Hibari’s songs. Lorraine could sing every song in that medley!” he exclaimed.
Stacy added, “People loved hearing Mom sing ‘Kawa no Nagare no Youni.’”
“It became Lorraine’s signature and final song, too (like Hibari),” added Arthur. There were other coincidences.
“Of course, these are just coincidences, but nice coincidences,” which have given meaning to Lorraine’s connection with Hibari.
One of Arthur’s favorite memories was his first trip to Japan with Lorraine in 1971. They saw a poster advertising Misora Hibari’s 25th anniversary performance.
“The performance would take place on that very day,” said Arthur. “Lorraine got really excited and told our friends that we should try to get tickets to the performance. Our friends said skeptically, that those tickets were probably sold out months in advance and the likelihood of getting tickets would be slim to none. Lorraine insisted we try. We went to the theater and in her limited Japanese along with our friend, convinced the ticket lady that she was a huge Misora Hibari fan, came all the way from Hawai‘i and that we just had to get in to see the show! We got in! They put up folding chairs in the aisle for four of us and we enjoyed the show. It was four and a half hours long, but it was worth it. Lorraine was in seventh heaven and it made the trip just so special.”
By coincidence, Lorraine was also in Japan on the day Hibari died.
In 1996, on another trip to Japan, this time to visit Stacy, who was attending Waseda University in Tökyö, Lorraine had her mind set on visiting Hibari’s gravesite. They asked for help locating the gravesite and learned that it was in Yokohama. They took a bullet train to Yokohama to kick off their adventure.
Stacy recalled the adventure. “With my limited Japanese and my mom’s persistence, we managed to find the grounds. But when we entered and asked someone who worked there if Misora Hibari was buried there, he basically said something along the lines of, ‘I don’t know and if I did know, I couldn’t say.’ I tried to explain that Mom was a big fan, that she came all the way from Hawai‘i . . . and he sort of said something along the lines of, ‘I don’t know, but maybe you should look around this area,’ and gave us numbers or something like that. I wasn’t sure exactly what he was telling us, but he walked away, so we started to walk around and realized that he had given us enough to match it to an area in the cemetery. We found her tombstone and paid our respects. It was the craziest thing.”
Lorraine took her last trip to Japan in 1999, after having been diagnosed with cancer. She and Arthur went to visit Stacy, who was teaching English in Okinawa. They then returned to mainland Japan and learned that there was a Misora Hibari museum in Kyöto.
“Although weakened from our trip to Okinawa, Lorraine insisted we visit the museum,” said Arthur. They spent close to five hours in the museum.
“Lorraine took in everything exhibited in the museum. The last exhibit was a theater featuring video performances by Misora Hibari. I think we sat through the complete performance and more,” said Arthur, recalling how fulfilled and happy Lorraine was to have had that opportunity.
“It was her last trip to Japan and her last encounter with Misora Hibari’s legacy. Lorraine was truly an appreciative and unabashed Misora Hibari fan.”
“It’s been 20 years since my mom passed away,” said Stacy, “and I realize there are less and less people who remember her and remember her singing. But events like these bring her memory to the surface again and I am grateful. I think she would want people to learn about and appreciate the legacy of Misora Hibari so that perpetuation of music and culture continues in Hawai’i.
“Kawa no Nagare no Youni,” is one of the most popular Japanese songs of all time. It’s hard to pinpoint any one reason for its popularity. Whether you are Japanese or not, the meaning of the lyrics tell the story of all human life, even though we are all different. Seasons change, rivers flow and life goes on. All are constant yet different. It is a cycle that all living beings experience in various degrees of joy and sadness.
Beauty comes from mono aware, and because these moments are fleeting, we should enjoy and appreciate them fully. When Keawehawai‘i got lost in the song, and when Lorraine spent five hours in the Misora Hibari Museum, time stood still. Nothing in the past or future existed in those mindful moments, only enjoyment, probably in the presence of Misora’s guiding spirit.
On Saturday, Nov. 24, there will be an opportunity to celebrate the life and music of Misora Hibari at the Neal Blaisdell Concert Hall at 7 p.m. Tickets for the Misora Hibari Music Festival can be purchased at www.ticketmaster.com or by calling 1-800-745-3000.
The Misora Hibari Film Celebration honoring the Gannenmono 150th anniversary will be held Monday, Nov. 26, at 6 p.m. at the Palace Theatre in Hilo. Tickets are $15 and available at the Hawaii Japanese Center and KTA Superstores in Hilo. The celebration is being presented in cooperation with the Hawaii Japanese Center.
KAWA NO NAGARE NO YOUNI
Lyrics by Yasushi Akimoto
Shirazu shirazu aruite kita
Hosoku nagai kono michi
Furikaereba haruka tooku
Furusato ga mieru
Dekoboko michi ya
Chizu sae nai sore mo mata jinsei
Ah-ah kawa no nagare no you ni yuruyaka ni
Ikutsu mo jidai sugite
Ah-ah kawa no nagare no you ni tomedo naku
Sora ga tsogare ni someru dake
Ikiru koto wa tabi suru koto
Owari no nai kono michi
Ai suru hito soba ni tsurete
Ame ni furarete nukarunda michi demo
Itsuka wa mata hareru hi ga kuru kara
Ah-ah kawa no nagare no you ni adayaka ni
Kono mi o makasete itai
Ah-ah kawa no nagare no you ni ustsuriyuku
Kisetsu yukidoke machinagara
Ah-ah kawa no nagare no you ni odayaka ni
Kono mi o makasete itai
Ah-ah kawa no nagare no you ni itsumademo
Aoi seseragi o kikinagara
I came walking on this long, narrow path without knowing it
When I turn around,
my distant hometown is visible
The uneven path twists and turns
and doesn’t even have a map
So is the road of life
Ah, like the flow of the river
the era passes by leniently
Ah, like the flow of the river
the sky is just endlessly dyed at twilight
Living and taking a journey,
an endless path
Take the person I love to my side
while searching for a dream
Even if I’m rained on and the path is muddy,
Some day the sunny day will come again
Ah, like the flow of the river
I want to calmly go with the flow
Ah, like the flow of the river
Forever while listening to the blue babbling river