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HILO, Hawaii -- Hula dancer Hisayo Shimizu isn't competing in Hawaii's most prestigious hula festival, but she's as excited to be at the Merrie Monarch Festival as anyone at the competition.
The Tokyo dentist is among hundreds of Japanese visitors who have come to the 40-year-old festival, Mecca of a tradition that an estimated 300,000 Japanese have embraced.
Every Hawaiian child is exposed to the hula, with its mix of rich spiritual tradition and connection with nature, and many make it part of their lives. But given the dance's popularity in Japan, which has a population about 100 times Hawaii's 1.2 million, more people might be dancing hula in Japan than in the islands where the dance was born.
Several hundred dancers from Japanese halau, or hula schools, have come to Hawaii's Big Island to watch the annual contest.
Shimizu lived in Hawaii for four years while attending Chaminade University, and developed an appreciation for the hula dancers she saw.
When she returning to Japan, she joined Halau Nalei Lehua i Kauanoe in Tokyo, where she has been dancing for three years.
"I love it. It's so beautiful," Shimizu said. "When I dance I feel something from nature. I feel the mana (spiritual power) of Hawaii."
Hula is a multimillion-dollar enterprise in Japan. More than 100 hula schools operate in Japan, according to Yasunari Ishimura, a Japanese publisher and producer who also promotes hula programs there.
Several quarterly publications extoll the native Hawaiian dance form and other aspects of Hawaiian culture. The nearly 200-page slick, full-color journals include feature stories on Hawaii kumu hula, how-to articles on making floral lei, and other topics of interest to hula dancers, as well as dozens of advertisements for hula halau, Hawaiian festivals, and Hawaiian clothing, jewelry and food products.
In Japan, most hula dancers are women, but men are starting to train as well, said Tamaki Takahashi of Tokyo, a freelance writer and hula dancer. Takahashi said the magazine she writes for, "Attractive Hula Style," has a circulation of about 80,000.
"Hula in Japan is big business," said Hawaii kumu (teacher) Coline Aiu. She said her mother, the late kumu Maiki Aiu Lake, was the first to teach in Japan.
"Hula is the only dance that allows anyone of any shape, ethnicity, or any ability to participate," Aiu said. "It encompasses all and invites them to participate -- just like our culture."
Takahashi agreed, saying that 10 years ago, it was mostly older women doing the hula "because it is not too difficult physically."
Different styles of hula
Now, she said, people in their 20s and 30s are doing hula -- and not just the more graceful auana, or modern hula, but the more physical kahiko, or ancient style.
"Japanese people are very busy and life is hectic," Takahashi said in explaining the popularity of hula in Japan. "In hula, they can forget the stress."
Takahashi said the dance draws many Japanese fans to a growing interest in Hawaiian culture and history. She comes to Hawaii four or five times a year to study with a Hawaiian kumu.
"In learning from a Hawaiian kumu, you learn not only the dances but the language and culture and the background of the songs and dances," she said.
Hawaii kumu Noelani Chang said she doesn't foresee Japanese halau competing at Merrie Monarch.
The competition, televised live across the islands, is the most anticipated hula event of the year. There are no cash prizes. Winners in various categories receive ukeleles, Hawaiian drums and the glory of winning the dance's most important competition.
"There is a need to keep certain things very much Hawaiian," Chang said. "They have so many opportunities to compete in Japan.
"They have the heart, but we have the blood," she said.
On the Net:
Festival site: http://www.merriemonarchfestival.org/