Issue 12.3: June/July 2009

A Day at the Races

story by Sue Kiyabu
photos by Olivier Koning

Some twenty years ago Jimmy Arakaki, a one-time Hilo city councilman, was visiting the Okinawan city of Nago on a goodwill trip. Nago is Hilo’s sister city, and “they asked what we wanted from them as a sister city,” Arakaki recalls. The councilman had an audacious request in mind. He knew that Nago was home to one of Okinawa’s most important haari boat races—races loosely modeled after Chinese dragon boat races but unique to Okinawa and an important part of the one-time kingdom’s rich maritime culture. Arakaki knew, too, that his constituency back in Hilo contained not just water-loving paddlers and Okinawan descendants, but water-loving paddlers who were Okinawan descendants. And so he decided to ask for haari boats for Hilo. “I was going to ask for one boat,” he remembers, “but my guy told me, ‘Ask for three boats. That’s what they race.’ And I did. And they said OK. I was so surprised! These boats, they are the real McCoy. They had to import the wood from Japan. They hired a master boat builder and built these boats from scratch just for us.”

As he tells this story, Arakaki is thick in the middle of preparations for the 2008 Haari Boat Festival in Hilo’s Wailoa River State Park. It’s a semiannual festival, first held in 1990, in which the three boats from Nago are raced on the city’s river. Arakaki’s no longer a councilman, but no matter; he’s still heavily involved in this civic celebration. For this race, he’s sponsoring two teams, and that means backing some forty people from the youth arm of the Kamehameha Canoe Club. Arakaki, himself a third-generation descendant of Okinawan immigrants, is a passionate believer in the importance of shared culture—and an avid booster of Okinawan hospitality. He once raised $30,000 to take a team of young paddlers from Hawai‘i to Okinawa to participate in a haari boat race, and he hopes to do it again someday.

“Okinawans are so accepting,” says Arakaki. “They have a saying, ‘From the first time I meet you, I feel like we are brothers and sisters.’ I want these kids to experience that.”

That type of hospitality—open, unquestioned, laid-back, sincere—is what both Hilo and its haari boat races are all about. For proof you need look no further than the 2008 practice session for the race. Glenn Okuma is about to teach twelve women from the club Hui o Laulima how to paddle a haari boat. But first he has to teach them how to climb into the boat. The vessel used in haari races is called a sabani (SAH-bah-nee). Roughly 30 feet long, it narrows toward the back and then widens out again. “It’s more clumsy than the Hawaiian canoe,” says festival organizer Margaret Torigoe, “but I think it looks more sturdy.”

It might look sturdier but it doesn’t necessarily feel it. Okuma sits in the steersman position at the stern and calls out advice to the novice aunties as they board. “Make like one ‘a‘ama crab!” he yells. “Stay low! Shrink your ‘okole! Down low!” The women climb on, holding their arms aloft in a desperate quest for balance. They wear wide-brimmed sun hats and sensible board shorts. “Don’t get seasick!” they advise each other. “Don’t rock the boat!” They let out a collective “whooooo-aaaa” as the vessel leaves its moorings and heads out into the Wailoa River.

They make it back without capsizing, and Eleanor Miyasaki, one of the twelve,exits the boat with an expression of wonder and pride. “I’m a mountain person,” she says, sounding incredulous. “I’m from Pearl City. I’m not a water person.” Yet here she is. The haari boat races are open to everyone who shows up, paddler or not, Okinawan or not. Collins Tomei, one of the race organizers, says the idea of including only Okinawans or Okinawan descendants in the haari boat races was initially considered but then ruled out. “Maybe that’s going down the path of the dinosaurs, yeah?” says Tomei. “So what, you gotta be 80 percent Okinawan to paddle in a boat? Quarter percent Okinawan to paddle in a boat? No. You got the spirit, you show up, you paddle. Let’s go.”

The festival’s self-deprecating organizers like to describe it as a community event that allows the people of Hilo “something to do on a long weekend.” But in truth the festival is much more than that. The races allow Okinawan history a chance to come alive—descended as they are from an ancient tradition that celebrates the prosperity of fishermen and that gives thanks to the gods of the sea.

Hui Okinawa, the organization that sponsors the haari boat festival, is one of the largest and most active community clubs on the Big Island, boasting roughly 700 members. It began, like many Okinawan clubs, after World War II as a way for Okinawan immigrants and their descendants to maintain their cultural moorings. The clubs played a role in Okinawa’s recovery after the war’s devastation, sending food, clothing and livestock. And according to the Hawaii United Okinawan Association—the umbrella organization for clubs such as Hui Okinawa—the US government at one time sanctioned such clubs to serve as ambassadors for visiting officials and participate in various government-sponsored programs.

“For the older generation, a club like this was the sounding board for their cultural roots,” says Tomei. “It might have meant a lot more to them. The second and third generations became totally immersed Americans. They fought for their place to be Americans.”

Festival organizers acknowledge this dichotomy—holding to tradition, embracing the new—and honor both. The 2008 races are definitely Okinawan-inspired, but one look at the participants milling about the riverbank offers a multiplicity of shapes, sizes and colors—and a pretty comprehensive slice of the demographics of the Islands.

Sweetie Pacheco and Kiana Ishibashi both paddle for the youth arm of Kamehameha Canoe Club in Hilo; they’re on one of the teams Arakaki is sponsoring. They step onto the shores of the Wailoa River, wearing matching orange T-shirts and speaking rapidly. They have just won the first heat of the 2008 race, and they are exuberant.

“It’s really different, yeah?” says Ishibashi without taking a breath. “Because you are sitting next to someone so you are constantly conking. So every time you bring your paddle up, you are conking. I’m going to have bruises all over here,” she adds, rubbing her elbow. When she grins, the pink bands around her braces seem to emphasize her enthusiasm. At 17 she is all legs and arms but quite petite nonetheless; Pacheco, 16, is even shorter. What they have going for them, besides their experience and fearlessness—and what will eventually make them champions of this race—is their lightness and size. For in the sabani, size matters.

For the race, twelve people traditionally operate the boat: one steersman in back, ten paddlers stationed two-a-side toward the wider middle and one person who holds a gong. The paddle itself is baffling. It’s not much wider than a child’s hand, and paddling with it is a bit like using a stir stick to move a canoe. As one volunteer steersman—used to Hawaiian canoes—put it, “The paddle is junk, but I guess that’s what they’ve used for a long time.” The paddlers sit side by side stroking throughout the 250-meter race, causing inexperienced arms to feel like “wet, aching noodles.” And then there is the issue of balance. “It was hard, because when you sit in the boat, you gotta keep your balance, yeah?” Pacheco says. “And once we got in there, the first thing we did was tipped to one side. We were all screaming because we thought we were going to huli [flip].”

But they made it. From the start, both Team Arakaki and the Arakaki Dragons paddled well against older, more experienced teams, including the goodwill team of Piichiku Paachiku from Nago City. The young teams’ vigor allowed them to put up the best times of the day and to stage more than one come-from-behind victory. At the awards ceremony, Arakaki’s paddlers were dressed in their orange team shirts, grinning for the cameras. While some held dripping cones of colorful shave ice, others took pictures with cell phones. It was impossible to tell the Okinawans in the bunch.

“Okinawa used to be a kingdom, just like Hawai‘i,” Tomei says. “We share a lot in terms of weather and temperament of the people. So it’s the spirit of Okinawa—and it’s a certain flavor of aloha.” HH

For more on Hilo’s Haari Boat Festival, visit the website at