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The shaka could become an official state gesture for Hawaii


Over the years, the shaka has become ubiquitous in surfing communities and pop culture. It's a symbol, a visual cue to hang loose. Take it easy. Well, there are competing origin stories about the shaka. And now lawmakers in Hawaii want to set the record straight. A pair of bills is making its way through the legislature to declare the shaka Hawaii's official gesture and to establish the state as its birthplace. Ryan Ozawa is a Hawaiian journalist based in Honolulu County, Hawaii. He's with us now. Hey, Ryan.

RYAN OZAWA: Aloha. Good to be here.

KELLY: Aloha to you, too. OK. Important business first. Instruct me. The proper way to make a shaka is...

OZAWA: Well, that's a complicated question in many ways. But the simplest way is you make a fist, and you stick out your thumb and your pinky as straight as you can.

KELLY: And I gather there is some controversy over whether I then hold this still or shake it.

OZAWA: Yeah. It's sort of like the Coke or Pepsi or the do you put your toilet paper over or under? It's - you shake it or you hold it still when you throw it.

KELLY: Over, obviously.

OZAWA: Yeah. Of course. We're not animals.

KELLY: Talk to me about what this means in Hawaii. These bills that would make the shaka Hawaii's official state gesture, which I gather might be a first. No other U.S. state has an official state gesture. Why? Like, when do you use it in Hawaii?

OZAWA: The shaka is a sign of friendliness, of compassion, of warmth, but it doesn't really translate directly to a single or even three or four simple words. And I think, whether it's just saying hello to someone who's across the street or thanking somebody for letting you in while you're driving, it's deployed in as many possible places where you want to say something nice.

KELLY: OK. You're working on a new documentary that investigates this question of the origin. What have you found?

OZAWA: Well, as with anything that's as pervasive as a simple hand gesture, origin stories are many. And we even changed the name of the film to "A Story Of Aloha" instead of the story of aloha because even we aren't going to make a solid declaration as to where it comes from. But there's a Hawaiian fisherman called Hamana Kalili, and he is in Laie or was in Laie. And he actually lost those middle three fingers in an industrial accident. And when he would wave at people passing by, he would be throwing the shaka without having to do anything different with his hand. That's probably the earliest example that we have.

KELLY: I am told that the word is actually Japanese. So where does Japan fit into this picture?

OZAWA: Well, Hawaii is a incredible melting pot of cultures, thanks to certainly the pineapple and sugar cane plantations bringing immigrants in to work and being in the middle of the Pacific and a place where people cross over. And so there's parts of the shaka story that touched different cultures, whether it's Japanese or Chinese or Filipino. And in the case of the word shaka, it actually comes from the phrase shakamuni-butsu (ph), which is kind of like the invocation of the Buddha's name itself. So shakamuni-butsu gets us to shaka, and that's somehow how the name of the gesture came about.

KELLY: It's so fascinating. And listening to you, it sounds clear you embrace that the shaka is loved and used by communities, by cultures all around the world. Is there popular support for this in Hawaii for these bills? Are people following the debate?

OZAWA: Absolutely. The bill has passed both chambers with 100% support from the legislators. This is an example of embracing the multicultural melting pot that we are and specifically the aloha spirit. But we continue to want to embrace and, you know, perpetuate as kind of the guiding principle of everybody in Hawaii, no matter their background or culture.

KELLY: Well, in the aloha spirit of warmth, I will say thank you.

OZAWA: Mahalo.

KELLY: Ryan Ozawa, Hawaiian journalist based in Honolulu County, Hawaii. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Kathryn Fink
Kathryn Fink is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.