Japan - Hawaii Socio-Economic Innovation: Collaborations to advance economic development and climate resilience

Date October 31, 2022
Speaker Denise Eby KONAN (Dean, College of Social Sciences University of Hawaii at Mānoa)
Commentator TANABE Yasuo (Consulting Fellow, RIETI / Managing Director, EU-Japan Centre for Industrial Cooperation)
Moderator WATANABE Tetsuya (Vice President, RIETI)

Japan and Hawaii have strong historical, geopolitical, and business ties. This has led to strong collaborations in areas such as decarbonization, tourism, and disaster management, and widespread cultural exchange. Hawaii has set ambitious goals in terms of climate and digital technology and is of great importance to regional relations in the Asia Pacific, especially between the United States and Japan. In the age of the digital economy, what kind of socio-economic innovation is happening in Hawaii, and what role does collaboration with Japan play in advancing mutual economic development and climate resilience, both today and in the future?


Ties between Japan and Hawaii

The ties between Japan and Hawaii have strong historic foundations that long precede Hawaii becoming a U.S. state. The earliest Japanese arrived in the Hawaiian Islands by shipwreck in 1806, and King David Kalãkaua’s visit to the new emperor Meiji in 1881, forged immigration relations between Japan and Hawaii that celebrated their 150th anniversary in 1985. The Japanese population has grown to be the third largest ethnic group in Hawaii, with strong cultural ties between the two, illustrated by the many sister-city and state relationships across the islands, including ancestral linkages with Hiroshima, Yamaguchi, Kumamoto, Okinawa, and Fukuoka. The Hawaiian governor, who is the first governor of Okinawan descent in the United States, is forging government-level partnerships toward business, educational and other exchanges across Japan and the Hawaiian Islands. The University of Hawaii at Mānoa, in partnership with the Council for Better Corporate Citizenship (CBCC) an affiliated organization of the Keidanren, has also launched a socio-economic initiative of the College of Social Sciences, to allow Japanese residents and corporations to make donations and contributions to the University of Hawaii that are eligible for tax incentives in Japan. Through initiatives like this, the university aims to forge even closer Japan-Hawaii relations and integrate Nikkei perspectives with Hawaiian and other cultural perspectives to become an innovative platform that gathers mutually beneficial academic research and discovery for international collaborations. This includes dialogues such as those with RIETI, educational activities, efforts around sustainable tourism and various projects concerning risk resilience and sustainability.

Japan and Hawaii have many business ties, with Japanese businesses employing more than 17,000 people in the Hawaiian Islands and investing over $400 million since 1984. Hawaii also serves as a hub for U.S.-Japan geopolitical relationships and alliances, having a unique role within the United States in terms of global economic integration, due to its ties with Japan, Northeast Asia, and the wider Asia Pacific. Hawaii hopes to coordinate with these dynamic economies facing many changes, around key topics for collaboration, through a whole of society approach involving universities, business, government, and civil society. Mutually important topics include energy system transformations to decarbonize and move towards carbon neutrality, opportunities for new understandings and governance processes in the digital economy, cybersecurity, and smart cities. Hawaii is taking inspiration from Japan's efforts towards developing smart cities for potential developments in Hawaii and the U.S. Other areas of collaboration include advanced geopolitical alliances towards a peaceful and secure system for open and free oceans in Asia and the Pacific, coordination in the tourism sector, and a focus on resilient systems that are responsive and adaptive to climate change and natural disasters.

In terms of climate goals, Hawaii has been at the forefront of the U.S. efforts since 2007, with its ambitious goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020, and this was achieved through bold innovation. Hawaii is also the first state in the United States to declare an intention to eliminate carbon from the state electrical grid, through its 2015 announcement to turn to a 100% renewable energy portfolio standard by 2045. As an island economy, Hawaii is especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and so we declared a state of climate emergency, calling for a statewide commitment to decarbonization through Concurrent Resolution 44 in 2021. Japan has helped Hawaiian efforts to decarbonize through collaborations involving Hitachi and support from the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization Japan, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and Okinawa, which involved collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy to provide more battery assisted stabilization of intermittent photovoltaic renewable power for islands such as Maui via smart grid approaches.

Another collaboration has come in the form of a contract between NEC and the Hawaii Department of Transportation, for installation of thermal temperature screening and facial imaging in Hawaii's major airports to identify passengers that require further medical screening. NEC is also considering high potential areas for collaboration in the intelligence and cybersecurity fields as Hawaii moves to a digital economy using artificial intelligence and other technologies. The digital economy is also highly present in Hawaii’s first ever rail project, in which Hitachi is providing the first driverless rail transit system in the United States, to link rural areas of Oahu to the urban center, with opportunities to use AI for better understanding of how to operate the system. Hawaii is also looking at smart city approaches used in Japan, such as for the Kashiwa-no-ha smart city, a transit solution designed with the University of Tokyo that mixes multi-generational considerations with innovation through A.I., urban design, and mixed use. These models have high potential in Hawaii for transit-oriented development and other opportunities, and Japan and Hawaii can learn and share best practices with each other. Cyber innovation is also a high priority for Hawaii. Oahu is being developed as a cyber security Silicon Valley, based on its proximity to the University of Hawaii and various industries. Hawaii is also prioritizing the creation of a secure data enclave for the many different U.S. security operations located on the islands. These include the National Security Agency, the Hawaii Joint Intelligence Operations Center of the Pacific, and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. Hawaii is also pivotal in disaster resilience, through the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center as a data hub for the Asia Pacific.

Future collaboration

Taking into account these long-standing relations between the U.S. and Japan, Hawaii would like to expand this geopolitical alliance as it looks towards the Pacific region with a pivot towards Asia in terms of the future goals in the United States. In 2011, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation conference was held in Honolulu, symbolizing the city’s importance to regional relations. The islands also host important U.S. organizations like the East-West Center, the Hawaii Asia Pacific Institute, the Daniel Inouye Asia-Pacific Institute for Security Studies. Hawaii plays an important role in facilitating relations between U.S., Japan, and the Asia-Pacific region, which can expand to opportunities for economic collaboration, and provides a neutral environment for regional discussions around peace and economic cooperation through the Northeast Asia Economic Forum. This nonprofit organization has worked in cooperation with institutions throughout Asia and the Pacific for over 30 years to enable regional discussions between government and private sector leaders and also emerging leaders. The organization’s Emerging Leaders Program brings together leaders from the U.S., Japan, China, Korea, Mongolia, Russia, and Taiwan, in Hawaii or around the Asia Pacific, to work together on economic problems and form life-long relationships. Oahu’s welcoming and respectful indigenous Hawaiian values of Aloha ʻāina, help facilitate efforts for solutions and collaboration across national boundaries in areas such as future-building, tourism, digital economy, and other topics. Leaders also visit the local community firsthand to engage in local-level discussion. These people-to-people relations are important for the economic and regional security of the Northeast Asian region in the future.

Japanese students also represent the leading group of international students who come to Hawaii. During COVID, exchange activities expanded to include virtual classrooms and virtual study abroad, in addition to joint curriculum opportunities with universities and schools in Japan. The University of Hawaii is a top 1% internationally ranked research university, and was founded in 1907, and pioneered the very first Japanese studies program in the United States in 1920. Since then, over 16,000 Hawaiian students have studied the Japanese language. The university has a strong Japanese student presence, and over 35 international exchange partnerships with top Japanese universities. The university is always seeking new ways to collaborate and strengthen these international ties, for example by offering more short-term experiences, where Japanese students from partner universities can come from a few weeks to a year, in a way that coordinates with their Japanese academic experiences. This gives them the opportunity to learn the true culture and history of traditions such as hula, and to see the importance of Japan's presence in the Hawaiian Islands, while mainly studying academic subjects like Economics, English, and other areas. The university also partners with the Japan American Society of Hawaii (JASH), which is comprised of corporations and individuals that are committed to expanding the exchange between Hawaii and Japan and training the next generation of leaders with diverse perspectives. JASH are developing a Nichi-Bei internship program for Japanese students to come to the University of Hawaii and also participate in internships with American companies that have relationships with Japan, to gain both an American business experience and academic training, and bring new global perspectives and appreciation for the Hawaiian Islands back to Japan.

The relationship between Japan and Hawaii is very strong in the visitor sector, with Japan sending the highest number of international tourists to Hawaii. Pre-2020, Japanese visitors, who tended to visit multiple times, brought about $2 billion a year into the state of Hawaii through the visitor experience. However, during the pandemic there was a sudden drop in visitors from Japan due to strict Hawaiian entry controls and travel difficulties, and visitor numbers are yet to recover. The closure of the islands to tourism has restored some of the natural and cultural environments in a new way, with previously unseen restoration of sea life. Based on this, Hawaii seeks to enhance the visitor industry through more educational dialogue and opportunities to promote more responsible, resilient, and regenerative tourism, and is reopening with a sense of “Mālama Hawai'i,” which is the responsibility of caring for oceans, wildlife, forests, and people that the renewed tourism industry wants to foster for Hawaii. Rather than inviting the previous mass tourism that caused strain to the islands, the reopening is focused on ways to improve the visitor experience through visitors volunteering, giving back, and learning about culture and how to protect the natural resources, and we have entered into dialogue with Kyoto, which has also seen the strains that mass tourism can place on a culture.

One last major area of Japan-Hawaii collaboration is disaster management in the areas of risk, resilience, and sustainability. Since the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami, the University of Hawaii has collaborated with Tohoku University regarding climate change and other kinds of risks. Hawaii and Japan can learn and share experiences that can also apply to insurance, banking, medicine etc. The university is promoting risk resilience and sustainability through workshops and collaborations with organizations like Tohoku University and the Association of Pacific Rim Universities, and with partnerships with companies such as Tokyo Marine based on a shared commitment to reducing risk in the Asia Pacific region. We are very committed to our collaborations to date and also hope to welcome future partnerships and collaborations between Japanese and Hawaiian universities, businesses, and organizations such as RIETI.



I couldn't agree more with Denise about the importance of the Japan-Hawaii relationship in terms of society, economy, and geopolitics, and also its importance to the Asia Pacific region. I have several questions to ask; the first is regarding the Society of Hawaii. Hawaii is famous as the home of Japanese American Nikkeijin such as late Senator Daniel Inouye. What kind of roles have Japanese Americans had so far, and what role can they play in the future of Hawaii’s economy and society. Question number two, Hawaii is famous for its commitment on decarbonization. I commend Hawaii's initiative in leading decarbonization efforts in this field. How far has Hawaii come toward its goal of net zero by 2045 Where are you now, and what are the challenges ahead Hawaii has a lot of renewable solar, wind, and geothermal resources, while Japan, other Asian countries, Europe, and the United States are now making efforts to pursue hydrogen. Do you have any plan to introduce hydrogen production or usage

Denise KONAN:

These are both very important questions. Hawaii is a multicultural environment with the highest rate of intermarriage between different ethnic groups in the United States. Citizens of Japanese heritage are one of the most prominent populations in Hawaii and these citizens are showing a lot of leadership nationally. Hawaii recently hosted the U.S.-Japan Council conference, with 700 participants from the U.S. and Japan. Around half the of the attendees were from the U.S, and many from Hawaii, which reflects how prominent the Hawaiian population is in terms of driving Japanese American experiences. Japanese culture has also been infused into Hawaiian culture, and Hawaiian children celebrate Japanese cultural events like Boys’ Day, Girls’ Day, enjoy Bon dance, and learn about Japanese customs and traditions. This can extend to the Japanese Language and value system, as Japanese values blend easily with native Hawaiian traditions. These similarities help to support Japan-Hawaii relations, and Hawaii’s Japanese Americans are very keen to learn more about Japan. The University of Hawaii encourages this through educational opportunities and cultural exchanges between Hawaiian students and Japanese exchange students.

Carbon neutrality is an important goal for our whole world. Hawaii is facing climate change challenges, including more frequent storms, fires, and many other of its damaging aspects, such as the direct influence of sea level rise on beach erosion and storm surges causing damage to beaches and homes. This underpins our high priority on setting an example for carbon neutrality. Hawaii has made substantial progress in terms of reduced reliance on fossil fuels, but it is easier for some locations than others, which is one obstacle. For example, Maui and the Big Island may reach carbon neutrality quicker than other places based on their smaller populations and abundant natural resources. Hawaii has the highest rate of solar penetration in the U.S. as well as wind power. But for places like the Big Island, we're able to tap the geothermal energy that comes from the live volcanic activity, albeit in a careful and culturally sensitive way that respects the challenges of proximity to an active volcano. We are also starting to explore hydrogen-based options, and the potential to link hydrogen to geothermal energy or make it into a stable energy source for the Big Island, however this is very new and experimental, and the costs must be considered. A location such as the Big Island could serve as an ideal experimental environment.


You talked about climate mitigation measures, such as greenhouse gas reduction and decarbonization. But looking at the Hawaii situation, there may be an urgent need for adaptation in response to climate change. So, what kind of adaptation efforts are you making in Hawaii, including disaster prevention issues you spoke about. My next question is regarding digital technology. Digital technology is the key for economic social innovation all over the world. How is digital tech applicable in daily life in Hawaii and are there many startups in the tech sector How is digital tech taught at schools to make children more aware about its importance My last question is regarding sustainable tourism. You mentioned Hawaii has been attracting huge numbers of visitors, however since the COVID pandemic some areas have limited or restricted numbers of incoming tourists. How does Hawaii reconcile the quantitative economy with the quality of the environment and society

Denise KONAN:

For our first question of adaptation, we face a number of different aspects that are significant for Hawaii. One issue is water. As an Island, the potable water supply is critical. Sea level rise is impacting the freshwater lens and can also impact the availability of water, so that is one aspect of climate change that we take quite seriously. Another aspect is the challenges posed by flooding and storm surges. For that, we are looking at some of our nearshore assets in a new way. We project that there will be more storm surges at Waikiki beach, which is adjacent to the Ala Wai Canal and golf course, so we are considering how to manage those resources in new ways to create a beneficial approach to flood management in the event of storm surges through new technologies, while also hoping to create beautiful new locations. In terms of digital technology, this is an area for future growth and opportunity, with many new jobs available. We are reforming the education system to create new big data approaches. While this is a computer science area, it also applies to the social sciences as much of the big data involves social areas of the social sciences. One aspect where we're making a lot of progress is health records. The University of Hawaii is working with the department of Health and our Department of Human Services to collect de-identified data from health records so that we can track patients to look at health issues from a big data perspective, be it for diabetes or other kinds of indicators and see what kinds of underlying socioeconomic conditions or geographic locations contribute to health outcomes. We're putting these techniques in place to use big data to better the quality of life in health for our populations.

For tourism, we've seen massive changes with the visitor sector, especially in the past two years when hotels were completely empty, and tourism shut down in order to preserve the health of our communities. As we started to open up, the secondary learning we gained from that experience helped us approach the visitor sector in a new way that we are calling regenerative tourism. We now understand where large numbers of visitors coming to an area can create a challenge. For example, parking and transportation is a big issue. When tourists rent a car and go on a Circle Island tour to go to some of the most pristine beaches, the traffic and congestion has a negative impact on local communities. Coming up with solutions to address these issues is very important. Another example is how to restrain Airbnbs and tourism in residential neighborhoods. One policy that we've changed is to limit the renting out of rooms in the state, only to visitors who stay for 90 days or more. We don't really have tourism infrastructure in local neighborhoods, so we need to constrain the short-term visitors in those areas. A third is that we're creating visitor experiences that allow visitors to give back to Hawaii and make a positive contribution, and we're finding visitors really want to do this. Visitors can give back to nature through beach restoration projects or plant an indigenous tree that will address the carbon emissions from their flight and let them see that their stay is carbon neutral. This can also lead to the reforestation of our islands. We're creating these kinds of experiences that are not just positive for the nature and community, but also enriching for the visitors themselves who learn about Hawaii in a more authentic, deeper way. They can learn something that becomes a meaningful aspect of their life. That's our goal.



We have questions from the participants. One of them is about COVID-19 and tourism. You already responded to that question. Another question is about points of contact. Hawaii is a wonderful place for Japanese companies to a start pilot projects to go to the U.S. and the world. Who would be the contact point for starting a test project like this in Hawaii Before closing I would like to also have a comment from Professor Tarui.

Denise KONAN:

These are two very important aspects. On the point of COVID and tourism, Hawaii took a stricter a more conservative approach very early on with COVID-19. I think we were able to put this into place because we had familiarity with Japan's approaches to masks and things, and so we were able to control the COVID experience in a much deeper way. In terms of startups and pilot projects. I think this can be an exciting opportunity for Japanese businesses because we have different, characteristic islands with smaller economies, to test out certain things for commercialization in an American setting, but with some familiarity too. It's very conducive to interactions with Japan. There are a number of initiatives aimed at trying to foster Hawaii as a testbed for technology, including for Japanese businesses. There are big Japanese companies running innovative testbed ideas, but we also want to be there for the startups and companies with new ideas that could work in islands like Hawaii or other American areas, as a way to test these things out. The Hawai'i Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, is taking efforts to support tech startups, and we have Elemental Accelerator, which is an organization that supports energy tech startups. There are a number of different efforts and consultants that can help businesses that are considering this. Businesses can even work with a consultant who is Japanese and speaks Japanese and to help them overcome the barriers in Hawaii. This may be something the university can help with, too.

TARUI Nori (Professor, University of Hawaii at Mānoa):

I’d like to add to some of the points that Denise raised about the challenges associated with our clean energy transition. For example, how we can make the process equitable so that low-income households can also benefit from that transition, and what we can do about houses that are subject to sea level rise risk in terms of coastal management and climate change adaptation. What is exciting in Hawaii is that The University of Hawaii has several collaborative projects working with industries such as Hawaiian Electric and state and local governments, and I’d be excited to share what we find through those collaborations, and similarly for smart cities and other areas where we see a lot of success stories in Japan. By working with RIETI and other entities, I think there's much we can learn from Japan’s experiences and exchange what we have learned with each other. That will be an exciting future opportunity.

*This summary was compiled by RIETI Editorial staff.