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Emperor Akihito, Empress Michiko of Japan visit the Big Island


Video by Dave Corrigan/Big Island Video News and Baron Sekiya/Hawaii247.com
Photography by Baron Sekiya/Hawaii247.com

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan arrival at Kona International Airport Thursday morning (July 16).

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan arrival at Kona International Airport Thursday morning (July 16).

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Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko shake hands with Big Islanders at the airport.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko shake hands with Big Islanders at the airport.

Empress Michiko waves to the crowd of supporters at Kona International Airport as they board their motorcade to the Mauna Kea Beach Resort.

Empress Michiko waves to the crowd of supporters at Kona International Airport as they board their motorcade to the Mauna Kea Beach Resort.

Royal visit thrills Big Island

Story by Karin Stanton

A touch of royalty swept across the Big Island for five hours Thursday.

Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko made two stops during their quick visit to the island on their way home, including receptions at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and Parker Ranch’s Smart residence.

The imperial visit began with a gala greeting at Kona International Airport, with Mayor Billy Kenoi and his wife Takako.

As they exited their specially equipped Boeing 747, the couple was serenaded with a chant written for the occasion by Kekuhi Kealiikanakaolehaililani, granddaughter of Edith Kanakaole. The chant is called “Welcoming the Rising Sun.”

About 150 invited guests looked on as 60 children from five charter schools performed a hula. The keiki came from Kona, Ka‘u, Puna, Hilo, Hamakua and Kohala.

The guests were mostly people of Japanese ancestry and groups represented included the Kona Japanese Civic Association, Hiroshima, Kumamoto, Yamaguchi and Fukuoka Kenjin clubs, Mutsumi Kai, Daughters of Hawaii, Kona Lion’s Club, Kona Historical Society, Urasenke Club, and Kona Saga Goryu Ikebana.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan greet well wishers from the east side of the Big Island at the Mauna Kea Beach Resort. Photo by Laura Shimabuku

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan greet well wishers from at the Mauna Kea Beach Resort. (Photo by Laura Shimabuku/Stephens Media)

Kenoi presented the emperor and empress a gift of a framed photograph by Jack Jeffrey of the iiwi bird feeding on the endangered oha wai plant, which is found only on the Big Island. A second gift – a purse that Kenoi’s wife said was specially crafted for the empress – had been sent ahead to Honolulu.

Takako Kenoi, who was born and raised in Japan, said it was especially thrilling to see the empress carrying it during her Big Island visit.

At the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, about 130 well-wishers represented such groups as the Japanese Community Association, East Hawaii Hiroshima Kenjinkai, Hui Okinawa, Urasenke Hilo Association, and Kumamoto Doshi Kai.

Honored Guests

Their final stop was a reception hosted by the Honolulu-based Consul General Toshio Kunikata and Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki, who traveled from the Washington, D.C. embassy. At the 162-year-old home of late ranch owner Richard Smart, the couple was greeted by Warren Haruki, Tim Johns and Pete Moynahan, trustees of the Parker Ranch Foundation Trust.

The couple then met with about 60 invited guests, including County Council members J Yoshimoto, Emily Naeole, Donald Ikeda and Kelly Greenwell.

Among the guests was Yasuo Kuwaye, 87, of Hilo. Kuwaye is the recipient of the Order of the Sacred Treasure, an imperial award recognizing his efforts in forging relations between Hawaii and Japan’s Oshima Island.

Kuwaye said he was surprised to have been honored with the medal and still has no idea who nominated him. He was especially proud to be wearing the medal Thursday for his audience with the emperor and empress.

Another guest was Norman Sakata, president of the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival and a member of Lion’s Club since 1959.

“My life is fulfilled now,” he said. “My father is turning over in his grave, knowing that his son has met the emperor. For me, it’s a dream come true.”

Sakata said he met Akihito when he was crown prince and once heard the previous emperor, Akihito’s late father, speak at a Lion’s Club convention, but this was the first time meeting a sitting emperor.

“I was so impressed by how humble and gracious they are,” he said.

They chatted about Hawaii’s astronaut Ellison Onizuka, who lost his life in the Challenger shuttle explosion in 1986, and about Japan’s influence on Hawaii history.

“The emperor expressed it best when he said he’s so proud to see how the people from Japan came here, established themselves and really contributed to make Hawaii what it is,” Sakata said.

Mayor’s Nerves

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan bid aloha to Mayor Billy Kenoi and his wife Takako at Kona International Airport.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan bid aloha to Mayor Billy Kenoi and his wife Takako at Kona International Airport.

Mayor Kenoi said he was delighted to show off the Big Island to the imperial couple, but admitted to some anxiety about having to tie the lei around their necks as protocol discourages placing anything over their heads.

“I was very nervous. I practiced on all my staff this morning,” Kenoi said. “Meeting them was a great honor. It’s definitely a big moment in Hawaii Island’s history.”

Kenoi and his wife said it also was a memorable family moment, as his children were on hand to see the couple arrive in Kona.

“It’s beyond a lifetime experience,” she said.

Paniolo Prowess and a Rogue Calf

Before they left Parker Ranch, the emperor and empress were treated to exhibitions of paniolo prowess including calf roping and a demonstration of the poo wai u, which is found only at Hawaiian rodeos and involves roping a steer and tying it to a Y-shaped post in the middle of the arena.

Apparently, nobody briefed the calves on royal protocol, as one of little guys decided to hop over the rock wall and make a break for it across the Waimea pastures. The paniolo won out, eventually bringing it back into line.

The royal family has lengthy ties to Parker Ranch. Members of the imperial palace riding club purchased Parker Ranch thoroughbreds through the 1960s and two vases are displayed at the Smart residence — gifts from  the royal family more than 100 years ago.

As a farewell at the airport, hula halau Na Lei O Kaholoku from Kohala performed with the Lim family presenting “I Makana Nau Ia Aloha,” which was written by King David Kalakaua for his wife while he was visiting Yokohama in 1881.

Visit Benefits

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan bid aloha to the Big Island at Kona International Airport.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan prepare to leave and wave to the crowd at Kona International Airport.

Accompanying the imperial couple were nearly three dozen television and print journalists from Japan. Their coverage of the country’s leaders likely will throw a positive spotlight on Hawaii, which has seen a double-digit dip in visitors from Japan.

The depressed global economy, the H1N1 flu and fears about North Korean sabre-rattling have made Japanese vacation travelers skittish.

“This is big. It’s huge,” Big Island Visitors Bureau executive director George Applegate said. “This visit will negate all the bad news about H1N1. This is a great thing for Hawaii, definitely.”

Kenoi said he hopes the visit results in “incredible benefits beyond today,” as the coverage in Japan will show Hawaii as a place deserving of a royal visit.

Diane Quitiquit, Parker Ranch vice president, said the royal visit will have an impact in Japan and on the Big Island.

“It’s a tremendous boost. It’ll be great for Hawaii to be showcased like this, absolutely,” she said. “For people to see – especially with the fear of H1N1 – that the emperor and empress visited Hawaii is positive, especially for anyone who might have had any hesitation about coming here.”

Quitiquit said she has great admiration for the couple, who are hugely popular in Japan.

“I heard one story about an 81-year-old lady from Japan who is visiting Hawaii. She has lived her whole life in Japan and never seen the emperor, but she was at Kapiolani Park and got to see her emperor for the first time in her life,” Quitiquit said. “I love that story. And, of course, it’s also great for people here to be able to just see them. It’s a real treat.”

Honolulu Visit

Emperor Akihito of Japan is entertained with hula and music during the departure ceremony at Kona International Airport.

Emperor Akihito of Japan is entertained with hula and music during the departure ceremony at Kona International Airport.

Following an 11-day trip to Canada, the royal couple spent two days in Honolulu, where they returned to Kapiolani Park to see a rainbow shower tree he planted 49 years ago as the then-crown prince, attended a wreath-laying ceremony at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, and were the guests of honor at a 1,500-person banquet to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship Foundation.

The scholarship was established in 1959 to commemorate the wedding of then-Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko. The scholarship is awarded annually to two Japanese graduate students in Japan for study at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, and to two American graduate students from UH-Manoa for study in Japan.

The royal couple last visited Hawaii 15 years ago and returned to Japan after their Big Island tour.

Akihito, 75, is the 125th emperor of Japan. He acceded to the throne in 1989, following the death of his father.

One Response to “Emperor Akihito, Empress Michiko of Japan visit the Big Island”

  1. L. Chock says:

    Thanks for a very informative article & beautiful photos! We were stuck in traffic in Waimea and were serendipitously able to see the motorcade pass by from Mamalahoa Hwy to Kawaihae Road. What an honor to have the Emperor & Empress visit Kamuela!

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