Hawaiian Kanji

No, I’m not going to show you some cartoon of a spam musubi or a “remove your shoes” sign. This is, apparently, serious stuff: Educators working with the Hawaiian language revitalization and immersion movements have begun to use Kanji — and Japanese language generally — as a teaching tool for the Hawaiian language.

In spite of the fact that this press release came from my own institution, I actually know nothing about this. It’s wild stuff, but it has some very interesting pedagogical and cultural and linguistic foundations. There is a PDF from ‘Aha Pūnana Leo (‘APL) which has a great deal of detail and examples, including the one mentioned in the press release.

The core of the program is that both Hawaiian and Japanese are, phonetically speaking, syllabic languages, and that there are a lot of Japanese in Hawai’i, including relatives and ancestors of students in the Hawaiian program. The teachers who designed the program, aside from instilling respect, understanding and aloha in their students, wanted to use the ideographic characters to emphasize the syllabic nature of Hawaiian, as opposed to the alphabetic system of Roman letters. After assigning basic characters to each of the forty-five syllables of the Hawaiian language, they went on to teach the students more kanji by meaning, as well as conventional Japanese language instruction. (( as the press release points out, one of the criticisms of the Hawaiian immersion program is that it seems somewhat limited, in terms of economic potential after graduation. Japanese, of course, is the road to riches. At least that’s what it says in the big print. ))

I have to admit, it seems like a terribly roundabout way of handling the languages.

There’s an interesting historical side note to this, though. As I wrote in my dissertation (( p. 20. The citation is to Hilary Conroy’s The Japanese Frontier in Hawai’i, pp. 50-52 )):

Hawaiian King Kalakaua visited Japan in 1881 and made three proposals which, although they were rejected, endeared the Hawaiian monarch to the Japanese authorities. The offer to revise their treaty to eliminate extra-territoriality was rejected so as not to interfere with similar negotiations with the Great Powers. An impulsive offer by King Kalakaua for a marriage alliance between his niece and an Imperial Prince (ages six and fifteen years, respectively) was turned down after a show of due consideration. Finally, a “Union and Federation of Asian Nations and Sovereigns” which would have given Japan a platform to demonstrate leadership and build prestige in the Pacific was rejected as endangering the generally good relationship between Japan and the United States, which had particularly strong interests in Hawai’i.

Hawai’i and Japan might have had a much closer relationship, and there might have been even more Japanese influence on the islands than there already is. There is also considerably more influence the other way than most people realize. There is an extensive Hula halau (school/team) network in Japan, whose members regularly visit Hawai’i to study with local teachers and immerse themselves in the culture. (( one of the best Hula dancers and Hawaiian singers I’ve seen recently was a Japanese woman who teaches Hula in Japan )) The Japanese government has even promoted the Hawaiian shirt (in its Okinawan form, officially) as a cool answer to the problem of work attire, and there are still lots and lots of Japanese who come to Hawai’i for honeymoons and vacations who could do some good for the economy and ecology of both countries by stocking up.

Sheer geography and the history of Japanese migration to Hawai’i has created an interesting — and definitely under-studied — relationship. One that could be shaped anew by a really creative reimagining of language pedagogy. Or it could be a complete dead end.


  1. As we know, Japan has licenses for everything. My Japanese friends tell me that recently there has just come into existence
    an “Aloha License,” which you can obtain (at three different levels of Aloha-ness) by taking a written exam on Hawaiiana.

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