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25 April 2008


What do you do when your small, poverty-stricken town where the major industry is coal mining, is headed for financial disaster as the coal mines slowly close down?

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, one town had the answer. They opened the Joban Hawaiian Center in January 1961. It was the first resort facility and theme park to open in Japan and it strove to bring the image of "The Dream Island, Hawaii" to the local people for an admission fee of 350 yen. Aloha shirts and muumuus were an additional 300 yen each.

Utilizing the hot springs from the mines, they were able to grow palm trees and banana trees in a 7,000 m giant dome, quite exotic for Japan, especially in the north. In the first year, they had 2,000-3,000 visitors on weekdays and 10,000 on Sundays. About 1.2 million visitors came during their first fiscal year.

Now called the Spa Resort Hawaiians, the center has a golf course, spas and a technical school for flamenco and Polynesian dance. Opening in 1965 by the governor of Fukushima, it cultivates dancers for the stage of the center.

According to the current director of Joban Kosan, Yukio Sakamoto,

Former President [Yutaka] Nakamura traveled to mining countries around the world--including Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States--looking for ideas about new businesses, but he found nothing promising. He made two tours, following almost the same route, but in the end his efforts were nearly in vain. As he made his way back to Japan with a sense of dejection, he stopped in Hawaii to take a rest, where he got a big hint. In an instant, the wonderful spaciousness and warmth of Hawaii and the rhythm of percussion instruments that reminded him of a village shrine festival gave him the idea of creating a Hawaii in Japan using Joban's geothermal heat and hot springs. This is what I was told.

Instead of outsourcing and hiring professional dancers, he had a professional dancer trained miners' daughters and eventually, whole families would work--at reception, in the restaurants and in the souvenir shops and on stage. This was part of the "One Mountain, One Family" creed of the Joban management because "if this project does not succeed, there will be no tomorrow for Joban."

Sang-il Lee's 2006 movie "Hula Girls" is a fictional story based on the inception of this resort. At the Japanese Academy Awards, the movie won for best film, best director, best screenplay and best supporting actress.

The movie centers on two friends, Sanae (Etsushi Toyokawa) and Kimiko (Yu Aoi) who persevere after the first disastrous meeting with the teacher, Madoko Hirayama (Yasuko Matsuyuki) whose career has been a string of failures. Sanae's mother has died, leaving her father to support four children. As the eldest, Sanae feels responsible for her family. Kimiko's mother, Chiyo (Junko Fuji), opposes the whole enterprise, thinking dancing is not respectable enough for her daughter.

This is, at its heart, about family. There are no samurai in disguise. There are no supernatural beings. Sanae and Kimiko both choose family in different ways and take on adult responsibilities. Sanae will leave to follow her father who has been laid off as he moves to another mine so that she can care for her siblings. Kimiko will lead through her dedication and quiet continued opposition to her mother, choosing her new family of hula dancers as well as the larger family--the whole village that can only survive through the success of this new enterprise.

An unabashed tear-jerker, this movie will perhaps be classified as a chick flick, but this is really a film for anyone who has been courageous enough to take up dance and stick with it past the awkward stages, had disastrous recital nights and been lucky enough to bond with others who have the same passion. And in a time when American and Japanese companies are outsourcing jobs to China, India, Southeast Asia, this movie is a comforting realization that business success can also save and build a healthy community.

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