Astronomer exchanges kanji greetings with Hawaiian Language students

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Date: Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Contact: Alyson Kakugawa-Leong, (808) 974-7642

For Immediate Release

Dr. Keiichi Kodaira of the Subaru Telescope Project delivered a written greeting in Japanese kanji characters to students during an assembly today at the University of Hawaii at Hilo Hawaiian immersion laboratory school, Nawahiokalani’opu’u. But what he got in return proved that sometimes the teacher can learn a thing or two from the students.

The entire school turned out to greet Dr. Kodaira and read out loud a projection of their own message. To his surprise, the language spelled out in the greeting was not Japanese, but Hawaiian -- something Kodaira had never seen.

The greeting was authored by Miki Kawachi, a Japanese national who studied Hawaiian at UH Hilo. Kawachi played a key role in developing the system of writing Hawaiian in kanji and taught it to many students at the school before returning to Japan two years ago.

Staff from the Hawaiian language organization, ‘Aha Punana Leo, who sailed aboard Hokule’a, joined Kodaira in a presentation of the canoe’s voyage to Japan. Kanji letters from Nawahiokalani’opu’u were among the gifts from Hokule’a’s crew to the Japanese school children.

The Punana Leo Hawaiian language revitalization movement is known to many school children in Japan since it is a featured element of the government’s approved school curriculum. Hawaiian language college faculty at UH Hilo have led the way in developing schools run entirely through Hawaiian from the Punana Leo preschool age up to the doctorate. The best practices are employed at Nawahiokalani’opu’u, which has produced a 100% high school graduation rate and approximately 80% college attendance.

“When we first began teaching through Hawaiian, some people said we should be teaching a more economically useful language such as Japanese or Chinese,” said Kauanoe Kamana, the director of the school. “Ironically, Nawahiokalani’opu’u today has one of the most developed elementary school Asian language programs in Hawai’i.”

All first through sixth graders at the school spend an hour each week studying kanji in Hawaiian and another hour studying Japanese. As early as third grade, they can read books written in Hawaiian using kanji, including one that recounts the travels of King Kalakaua to Japan. The focus of the kanji messages carried aboard Hokule’a was aloha to the ancestral land of those in the school who are part Japanese.

Nawahiokalani’opu’u teaches all subjects through Hawaiian language and values, such as honoring one’s ancestors. Students honor their Japanese, Chinese, Okinawan, and Korean ancestors by learning the Chinese characters, or kanji, in which those East Asian languages are traditionally written. European ancestors are honored by studying Latin in the upper grades.

The system of writing Hawaiian in kanji was developed as a project by Dr. Pila Wilson with support from Kawachi and Ms. Wen Chi. Unlike English, kanji can be written in Hawaiian due to certain structural features it shares with East Asian languages. Wilson says there are additional academic advantages to writing Hawaiian in kanji.

“Kanji reinforces reading by syllables and whole words, which helps you to read in any language,” Wilson said. “The stroke order and distinctive positioning of kanji on the page also strengthens artistic and mathematical skills.”

Kodaira said he was honored to deliver the Japanese school children’s response to the students. He noted that the word Subaru derived from an old Japanese word for unity and that writing Hawaiian in kanji reinforces the historical and ancestral ties that unify the people of Japan and Hawai’i. For more information on kanji and the Hawaiian language, visit

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