Recording of Lili'u e by the Moana Glee Club (Yukihiko & Katsuhiko Haida). Note the translation of the words into Japanese.
When Japan opened to the West in the late 1880s after nearly 300 years of isolation it was a poor backward nation. The Meiji Revolution liberated rural Japanese from feudal overlords and many soon went looking for opportunities to better themselves.
Japanese emigration to Hawaii began in 1885 and by 1924 about 200,000 Japanese were there working the sugarcane fields. It was a tough life but dedication and hard work soon allowed most families to provide better lives for their children than they had in Japan. But life in Hawaii wasn't easy for the Japanese and it was difficult for their Japanese-American children to fully integrate into American society. Since Anglos owned most of the property and nearly all the wealth, Japanese-Americans couldn't expect to rise much futher than their parents. So, many Japanese families sent their children back to Japan where they could study formal Japanese and complete their education. Funny thing is, many of those kids carried a ukulele with them!
By the time the first generation of Japanese-American children began returning to Japan in the 1920s the ukulele and Hawaiian music was experiencing a boom on the Mainland. Not surpisingly, the ukulele’s first big wave of popularity in Japan came at just about the same time.
Yukihiko Haida (1909-1986) and his brother Katsuhiko, both nisei (second generation Japanese-Americans), were the first uke ambassadors. Born in Hawaii, they returned to Japan as young men after their father died. Yukihiko is often credited as being the first to popularize the ukulele to Japan when he and Katsuhiko began performing as the Moana Glee Club in 1928. Later Yukihiko established the Nippon Ukulele Association (“NUA”) which played an important role in popularizing the uke and which still holds monthly meetings outside Tokyo.
Another nisei, Buckie Shirakata (1912-1994), born and raised in Honolulu by his immigrant parents, went to Japan in the early 30s where he graduated from Doshisha University, married, and played Hawaiian music. His group, Buckie Shirakata and His Aloha Hawaiians were, with the Haida’s band, among the first wave of performers of Hawaiian music. Best known as a steel guitar player, Buckie also played ukulele which he featured prominently in most of his 200 or so recordings.
The war years were not kind to Hawaiian music or nisei living in Japan. In 1943 playing Western music was banned. Shirakata’s Aloha Hawaiians became “The Music Group”, and Haida’s Moana Glee Club “The Southern Band”. Nisei performers in particular would have had a difficult time whatever they did as they were caught between two cultures for the duration of the war.