About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at jokamura@civilbeat.org.

As a group, haoles are not viewed as local by locals, but many are in Hawaii because they love the islands and its people.

I was planning to write a column on local identity sometime this year, but the recent essay by fellow columnist Ben Lowenthal, “Hawaii’s Local Identity Is Distinctive But Hard To Pin Down,” led me to move it up.

I agree that local identity is distinctive, but it’s not necessarily difficult to define, at least not for myself because I’ve been researching and writing about local identity for 40 years. My interest in the notion of local resulted from my return to Hawaii 50 years ago to begin my dissertation research on Filipino immigrants, and the term “local Filipinos” was often used in distinction to them.

Thinking about how local identity has changed over the decades has led me now to view it as no longer serving to bring Hawaii’s people together, which it did after World War II in the International Longshore And Warehouse Union and the Democratic Party.

In an article I wrote 30 years ago with the facetious title, “Why There Are No Asian Americans in Hawaii: The Continuing Significance of Local Identity,” I did argue that local referred to the common identity of people in Hawaii who have an appreciation of and an attachment to the land, peoples and cultures of Hawaii.

Note that my conception of local identity is not race-based. Unlike most people in Hawaii, I don’t consider the term “local haole” an oxymoron because I know many haoles I consider local. 

Those individuals may not speak pidgin English or eat rice regularly, but they love Hawaii and its people, and that’s why they’re here. But I concede that, as a group, haoles are not viewed as local by local people.

My view of local identity also does not emphasize culture, although I don’t deny that a local culture with its attendant symbols, meanings and values exists and is practiced by local people. However, cultural notions of local identity, especially in the popular media, often invoke trivial aspects, such as eating shave ice or wearing rubber slippers, which anyone can do, including tourists. 

Clipping showing the heavily racial overtones of the 1932 Massie Affair.
Newspaper coverage of the 1932 Massie trial highlighted the class and racial differences between local people and their white accusers from the mainland. It can be argued that the case was also a marker in the development of notions of local identity.(Screenshot: Newspapers.com)

Before discussing contemporary notions and manifestations of local identity, I’ll begin with its origins more than 90 years ago during the well-known Massie-Kahahawai case. In 1931, Joe Kahahawai and four young friends of his — another Native Hawaiian, a Chinese-Hawaiian, and two nisei Japanese — were charged with raping Thalia Massie, the 20-year-old wife of a U.S. Navy lieutenant stationed at Pearl Harbor. 

Honolulu newspaper accounts of the case and trial referred to the five accused youths, all from the working-class Kauluwela area of Honolulu, as “local” in distinction to their white, military accusers from the continental United States. This initial differentiation between locals and haoles had obvious class and racial components.

However, over the decades, the class dimension of local identity (although not the racial) has declined in relevance insofar as being local is no longer limited to the working class, as initially exemplified by the five young men. Even upper-middle class individuals can be considered and consider themselves as local. 

This transformation in local identity highlights one of its primary features, which applies to every identity — that identities can change in their meaning, significance and expression over time. The first major change in the importance and meaning of local identity resulted from several external economic and social forces that began in the 1960s, which were viewed by local people as detrimental to their quality of life.

They included the expansion of tourism as it became the dominant industry in Hawaii, the arrival of newcomers from the continent after statehood such that whites became the largest group in the islands, and greatly increased immigration of Filipinos and Koreans following passage of the 1965 Immigration Act.

Screenshot of Obama Local Style Surf Shave Ice Slippers Crazy T-Shirts
Cultural notions of local identity, especially in the popular media, often invoke trivial aspects, such as eating shave ice or wearing rubber slippers, which anyone can do, including tourists. (Screenshot: Obama Local Style Surf Shave Ice Slippers Crazy Shirts 2009.)

Consequently in the 1970s, local identity evolved to organize and represent the efforts of local people to maintain control of the political and economic future of Hawaii from those outside forces. This new meaning of local was evident in community struggles against development initiatives, such as in Kalama Valley and Waiahole and Waikane Valleys and, as Ben Lowenthal notes, in the notion of Palaka Power at the 1978 Constitutional Convention.

Unfortunately, this vital element of local identity, which might be called local community advocacy, has declined in expression since the 1990s as the external forces of development and change, including foreign investment, have overwhelmed the islands and their people and have been joined by the economic and cultural globalization of Hawaii.

As for other contemporary expressions of local identity, one of the most unfortunate is anti-haole and anti-Micronesian racism and violence.

Some might say that such globalization has a much longer history in Hawaii, but I’m thinking particularly of the arrival of the big-box retail outlets, such as Walmart, Costco, Best Buy and so forth, all of much more recent origin. One can also add the glitzy transformations since the 1990s at Ala Moana Center, which has been globalized by the same upscale department stores and designer boutiques that can be found across urban and suburban America.

Local identity and culture continue as minimal expressions of resistance to the ongoing globalization of Hawaii but, in contrast to the 1970s, is largely unorganized. Instead, driven by an expanding sense of powerlessness to control the economic and political future of the islands and their own fate, local people have been leaving, to the extent that the state population has declined for seven consecutive years

As for other contemporary expressions of local identity, one of the most unfortunate is anti-haole and anti-Micronesian racism and violence. A misguided emphasis on being local, what can be termed local chauvinism, underlies the racist actions and attitudes toward both groups, who are perceived as cultural and social outsiders to Hawaii and hence non-local. 

Rather than being inclusive, as popularly believed, local identity maintains boundaries in relation to non-local groups and forces. The latter include haoles, immigrants, military, tourists, foreign investors, and most recently, globalization. 

Shopping malls like the Ala Moana Center are emblematic of the forces of globalization that arrived in Hawaii via the U.S. mainland and elsewhere. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2025)

A less recent change concerning local identity is the argument advanced by the late sovereignty leader Haunani-Kay Trask that local is an identity embraced by Asian settlers, particularly Japanese and Chinese, to obscure their complicity with haoles in the ongoing oppression of Native Hawaiians. Affirming a shared local identity with kanaka is a means for those two groups to blame haoles alone for the persisting colonial subordination of Native Hawaiians in their homeland. 

While Native Hawaiians are certainly local, many of them and their community as a whole proclaim kanaka maoli as their preferred identity as the Indigenous people of Hawaii to emphasize that critical difference from other local groups. 

This assertion has become necessary as individuals from local and other groups have gone so far as to claim being “Hawaiian” and have legally sought to obtain rights designated for kanaka, such as admission to the Kamehameha Schools, benefits from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and homes from the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. 

Considering factors such as local identity can be divisive, many local people are leaving the islands, and unfettered globalization is increasing inequality in Hawaii, we need another social and cultural basis than local identity and culture to bring people together. I’m not exactly sure what that will be, but it will have to be based on a multiethnic coalition.


Read this next:

Danny De Gracia: Think Carefully Before You Create Property Taxes To Fund Education


Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.

Contribute

About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at jokamura@civilbeat.org.


Latest Comments (0)

Your piece on Hawaii's local identity deeply resonated with me. As a 'haole' committed to this community through volunteering and education, I've strived to respect and contribute to the local culture. Despite efforts to integrate, including learning Hawaiian, I've faced challenges and exclusion. Your insights into the evolving nature of local identity and the impact of globalization echo my experiences. I'm curious about your thoughts on how newcomers can positively contribute to Hawaii's identity in a respectful, inclusive way. Your call for a multiethnic coalition for unity is inspiring and crucial for fostering a community where all contributions are valued. Mahalo for initiating this vital conversation.

HauulaHaole · 2 weeks ago

Isn’t the concept of being "local" just another form of tribalism? People want to be members of groups, and they want their groups to be better than other groups. Punahou graduate. Maui native. Veteran. Nuuanu resident. Zippy’s regular. LDS. And so on.

manoafolk · 3 weeks ago

"Fake Aloha" - Aloha was created to ensure all the so called "local" ethnicities get along… everyone an Auntie or Uncle - hugs & cheek kiss’s in public - then the back biting begins behind closed doors… centuries of cultural wars in Asia transported to Hawaii - even the Polynesian ethnicities - the original arrivals - war’ed with each other… "Fake Aloha" keeps it all together until the doors close… and the real feelings are expressed

pcbroda · 3 weeks ago

Join the conversation

About IDEAS

IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email news@civilbeat.org to submit an idea.

Mahalo!

You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.