Kapa haka group finds fans in Japan

The roar of the haka will reverberate throughout stadiums in Japan when the country plays host to the Rugby World Cup later this year. But one group has been showcasing Māori culture in Japan long before the All Blacks’ arrival.

Ngā Hau e Whā is a Māori culture and performance group that was formed in Japan more than 20 years ago. The group uses kapa haka to connect with Japanese audiences, performing at school festivals, charity events, promotional events for companies, and cultural partnership events between New Zealand and Japan.

“Performance is a main part of what we do as it doesn’t require language and everyone loves music,” says Ngā Hau e Whā chair Ngaroma Riley (Te Rarawa and Te Aupōuri), who has been living in Japan since 2007.

The group’s name means “The Four Winds”, which acknowledges their different regional and tribal affiliations in New Zealand, as well how members have been carried to Japan on the North, South, East and West winds with the purpose of sharing their arts and traditions. There are currently 15 active members, many with Māori ancestry.

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“We also have Kiwis of Cook Island, Samoan, Tongan and Indian descent," Riley says.

“We have one member who is Japanese and has just finished high school where she went on student exchange to New Zealand and learned kapa haka.”

Members come from all sorts of occupations, with teachers, sportspeople, an editor, a carpenter and a pilates instructor in the mix. As everyone has full-time jobs, they only tend to get together to rehearse when they have a performance coming up. But it still provides the expats with a comforting link to New Zealand.

“Being a part of the group gives you an instant whānau base while being so far from home.”

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Most people in Japan associate Māori culture with the All Blacks’ haka, Riley says, and the group is already receiving enquiries in the lead-up to the Rugby World Cup.

“We often have people wanting to take photos with us afterwards and tell us of their love of rugby or New Zealand.”

The group has also forged a bond with the Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan, following the International Conference of Indigenous Peoples held in Sapporo in 2008. That meeting led to the formation of the Aotearoa Ainu Exchange Programme, which saw a delegation of Ainu youth travel to New Zealand in 2013.

“Ngā Hau e Whā’s chairperson at the time, Max Aranui, attended the conference with his wife and made connections with Ainu through his high school friend Bentham Ohia who had been working to support indigenous peoples," Riley explains.

“Bentham connected Ainu with Te Ururoa Flavell, who in turn invited a group to New Zealand, and Aotearoa Ainu Exchange Programme was born.”

Riley says that relationship is important as Māori and Ainu have shared similar experiences such as loss of language, land, rights, heritage and identity.

“Statistics show that like Māori, Ainu are usually at the lower end of the economic sector and often don’t advance to tertiary education.

“While there is still a long way to go for Māori, we have made steps to revive our culture and language and there are many examples that Ainu can learn from about these processes. Māori can also learn from Ainu about how they continue to preserve their culture.

“It’s important to learn from and be in solidarity with one another because the journey towards recognition as a minority can be a rough one.”

Images: Supplied by Ngā Hau e Whā

- Asia Media Centre