Haari Boat Festival History

By James Arakaki
The beginning of haari boat races in Hawaii started with a dream when members of the United Okinawan Association(UOA – now HUOA – Hawaii United Okinawa Association) went to Okinawa on a study tour and paddled in the Itoman Haari Boat race in 1986. On April 9, 1986 the Hawaii County Council approved a sister city resolution between Nago City and Hawaii County. On June 13, 1986 a delegation from Hilo Joined the UOA tour to Nago to attend the sister city ceremony in Nago City. Ironically, Mayor Toguchi who started the sister city movement was replaced by Mayor Tetsuya Higa.

John Tasato, who paddled in Okinaw never forgot his experience in Itoman and when he became chairman of the 90th Okinawan immigration celebration, he said, “Hilo should be the host city of a haari festival.” John suggested that James Arakaki go to Nago City and ask Mayor Higa to donate three sabani boats for this festival. In early 1989 Mel Kaneshiro and Arakaki joined Tasato to visit Mayor Higa to ask for the boats. Much to their surprise Mayor Higa asked how many boats they wanted. Arakaki replied that three were desired and Mayor Higa quickly agreed, much to the astonishment of Arakaki. Mayor Higa commissioned master boat builder, Renichi Oshiro, to build the boats with new lumber imported from mainland Japan. In mid 1989, they went to Okinawa again to arrange the shipment of the sabani boats on the Kaiho Maru, captained by Captain Shimoji, The Kaiho Maru sailed into Honolulu harbor on Sunday January 7, 1990, after a rough winter crossing of the Pacific. Captain Shimoji went to the hospital to check o his ulcers which flared up over his concern for the sabani boats. Captain Shimoji said he felt that he couldn’t return to Okinawa if anything happened to the boats because he was sent to deliver the boats by Governor Nishime. On Tuesday, January 9, 1990 the Kaiho Maru entered Hilo Harbor and on Wednesday January 10, Mayor Higa of Nago city, flew in special to present the three sabani boats to Mayor Bernard Akana of Hawaii Island. Governor Nishime of Okinawe sent a message and a flag of Okinawa. The boats were unloaded with much care to the relief of Captain Shimoji. On May 19, 1990 the sabani boats were first launched at Wailoa River and all Hui Okinawa members were invited to try it out. On August 18, 1990 the first Haari Boat race was held at Wailoa River. Mayor Higa sent his champion men and women teams along with talented youth sanshin and koto performers. The first haari festival was a blast with boats going around in circles because of the inexperience of the steersmen. The fun never ended as the party started before and after the races just like they do in Okinawa.

The sabani boat house was completed by the County in 1991 at the Liliuokalani Park and dedicated by Mayor Higa and Mayor Lorraine Inouye. Morris Nakaishi designed the plaque and became the loving care taker of the boats. The plaque appropriately describes the friendship and value of the boats in our sister city relationship: “On January 10, 1990 these sabani boats were given as a gift from the people of Nago City, Okinawa, whose Mayor was Tetsuya Higa, to the people of Hilo whose Mayor was Bernard Akana. May these sabani boats bridge our friendship between two seaside cities: Nago City and Hilo City. May the people of Hilo enjoy the safety from the sea and it’s bountiful harvest.”

Editor;s Note: The article was originally published in the Hui Okinawa 50th Anniversary booklet.

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