This week, I’m visiting Japan. The trip has given me cause and time to think about culture and how it develops in place.

I was raised by my mother, a Japanese-Okinawan woman born in Hilo. However, I struggle to identify with Japanese or Okinawan culture.

Culture is complex in a land of immigrants and in an island state known as a “melting pot.”

Like many local people, I descend from plantation labor. My ancestors were born in Japan and Okinawa and came to Hawaii for opportunity at the end of the 19th century. They joined Chinese, Portuguese, Korean, Filipino and Puerto Rican immigrants.

Are we preserving enough of the cultures that have created Hawaii’s diverse population?

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

In Hawaii, my family found opportunity and prosperity, but not without cost.

Over time, we shed culture, starting with language. My great-grandmother was the last to speak Japanese at home. Obaachan (my grandmother) was the last one fluent in Japanese. My mother and I know only a few words and phrases.

We still remove our shoes before entering the home, dine seated on the ground, and favor Japanese food. But these are somewhat superficial manifestations of culture, and they’re not particularly Japanese in a place like Hawaii.

When the last vestige of culture vanishes, all that remains is blood. I feel Japanese and Okinawan in name only. Still, it’s not possible to live without culture. If not the culture of my ancestors, what culture can I claim?

What is Local Culture?

I am a product of local culture. Yet I’m not sure exactly what local culture is.

Hawaii is one of a few places on Earth where European, Asian and Polynesian cultures mix. It is rightfully called a melting pot, and displays unique cultural features.

Pidgin, a language created by plantation laborers, is the most recognizable of these. But Hawaii also boasts a distinct culinary scene. And families tend to be extended and fluid, recalling Native Hawaiian culture.

Like other coastal areas in the tropics, recreation takes place outdoors. Swimming, surfing and sunbathing feature prominently.

But urban development colors local culture, and American culture’s emphasis on the individual contends with the collective orientation of many immigrants.

Progress alters culture. As cities grow and technology networks the globe, local cultures erode.

Coffee shops and big-box stores replace mom and pop businesses. Old buildings are razed to build condominiums reaching far into the sky.

Through this process, each city comes to resemble every other city. But with effort, they can retain something unique.

Traditional Culture And Urban Settings Can Co-Exist

In Osaka, the third-largest Japanese city, urban culture lives next door to tradition.

The other day I watched a woman in full kimono and wooden geta sandals walk by beanie-clad skateboarders wearing Vans sneakers.

In neighborhoods like Amerikamura, teens wear American streetwear brands. Hip-hop music blares from shop speakers.

In Osaka, Japan, cars, bicycles and pedestrians share narrow streets.

Sterling Higa/Civil Beat

Japan wears urban culture well. Yet each trend is inflected with a Japanese sensibility.

Cobblestone roads in Osaka were paved with asphalt to suit automobiles, but the roads weren’t widened much. Though not as narrow as during the Edo period, each street still feels intimate.

Among other ingredients, Japanese chefs adopted wheat flour from the West, but used it to create new dishes like okonomiyaki and takoyaki.

Buddhist and Shinto shrines remain scattered throughout the city, often sandwiched between new construction.

Osaka is a global city, but remains itself.

Progress In Honolulu

In some ways, local culture is young and fragile. Native Hawaiians have a rich history to draw on, but recent immigrants have just over a century to work with.

As Honolulu develops, we should ask what kind of place we want to become and what kind of culture we desire long-term.

Place and culture are integrally related. Piety in Japan is fostered by the physical presence of shrines. The outdoor culture of the islands is a product of sun and open space. The width of streets determines more than traffic.

It is impossible to preserve culture wholesale. In the face of urbanization and globalization, we must focus on keeping the best features of local culture. My nominees for inclusion: the Asian and Polynesian emphasis on extended family, the playful relationship with the outdoors, and the plate lunch.

As we build rail stops and new housing, we should think about how physical space affects how people behave and feel. We should imagine what patterns of action – what culture – a place produces.

Social relationships are defined by a sense of place, so decisions we make about what to build and what to demolish will shape the culture of Honolulu for many years to come. Let’s create something worthwhile.

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About the Author

  • Sterling Higa
    Sterling was raised in Nuuanu. He graduated from Roosevelt High School and later earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University. Sterling now works as a debate coach and lecturer at Hawaii Pacific University. By candlelight, he is finishing his Ph.D. in education at the University of Hawaii Manoa. The author's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Civil Beat.