Last Hula Dancer from Time of Fukushima Disaster Plans to Exit Stage in Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Aulii Haruna dances at Spa Resort Hawaiians in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, on Dec. 10.

It will be the last dance for the last remaining hula dancer at a Hawaiian-themed leisure complex to experience the chaos of the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011.

Aulii Haruna, whose real name is Haruna Suzuki, will take the stage at the Spa Resort Hawaiians in her hometown of Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, for the last time on Dec. 27, ending a career that lasted nearly a decade aimed at encouraging people affected by the disaster.

As she prepares her grand exit, Haruna sent a message of encouragement to her fellow members of the Hula Girls dance troupe: “I want your presence to lift up spirits in times of distress.”

The Hula Girls were featured in a movie in 2006, and it was seeing the dancing of actress Yu Aoi in the starring role while she was in high school that Haruna became enchanted with the hula. She planned to enroll in the Joban Music and Dance Institute in the city, which trains dancers for Spa Resort Hawaiians, after graduating in the spring.

But before she could start classes, the earthquake hit.

The houses of several Hula Girls were among those swept away by the devastating tsunami caused by the earthquake. Even so, the group formed a caravan to travel around country, performing in school courtyards and other locations to encourage victims who were forced to evacuate from their homes.

In the six months following the disaster, the group performed 247 times in 26 prefectures and South Korea.

At the time, six newcomers, including Haruna, remained back in Fukushima. While frustrating, she put all of her energy into her daily dance lessons leading up to her stage debut in October 2011.

From that time, she became involved in public relations efforts to dispel rumors swirling around the nuclear accident.

In July 2018, torrential rains caused intense flooding in western Japan, and Haruna, as captain of the Hula Girls, thought of ways they could provide support for another disaster-stricken area. “We need to do what we can,” she thought at the time. Recalling her predecessors’ efforts to cheer up the nation, Haruna led the team on a visit to the disaster area.

At a temporary housing complex in Hiroshima at the end of the year, an elderly couple told her, “Someday we will go and see you [in Fukushima].” Later, they did indeed meet again, at Spa Resort Hawaiians.

“It was a real bond,” Haruna said. “I felt the joy of dancing with the support from everyone.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Aulii Haruna dances at Spa Resort Hawaiians in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, on Nov. 12.

In 2019, Haruna organized another nationwide caravan, bringing smiles to 20 locations in 12 prefectures hit by the Kumamoto earthquake and other calamities.

This spring, Spa Resort Hawaiians closed for about three months due to the coronavirus outbreak. After a period of isolation in their homes, the Hula Girls refrained from gathering for full team rehearsals, but managed to prepare for a show. Newcomers this year made their debut in September, at which time Haruna decided it was time to retire.“My role has ended,” she thought.

Spa Resort Hawaiians was opened in 1966 by Joban Kosan Co. as it shifted its business from coal mining to tourism. As a vestige of the coal mining boom era in Iwaki, the resort maintains the spirit of “one mountain, one family,” the motto from those days meaning unity within the company.

The area has had its share of hard times — the closing of the mine, the earthquake and tsunami, now the pandemic. “I want us to work together, as our predecessors did, to overcome hardships,” Haruna said.

After retiring, Haruna plans to remain in the wings, providing support for the next generation of dancers.