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Special to Kalamalama by Casper Dahl, of Danish Dynamite

The sun had now gone down below the Waianae Range, painting the mountains and the clouds above in red and orange. The canoes turned outward toward the sea, preparing to launch the first lanterns.

The act of setting lanterns afloat to sea originates from a Japanese Buddhist rite with the purpose of honoring and remembering one’s ancestors and deceased loved ones. Their names and prayers were written on the rice paper covering the lantern’s candlelight. The lanterns drifting off to sea symbolizes, in a beautiful way, the relieved spirits of the deceased leaving earthly shores, sailing peacefully towards the distant shores of the afterlife.

Held in Hawai‘i for the eighth time, sponsored by Na Lei Aloha Foundation and the Shinnyo-en Hawai‘i Buddhist organization, the Lantern Floating ceremony, or Toro Nagashi in Japanese, has become an annual gathering on the American Memorial Day. By transcending religion, ethnicity, and culture, 20,000 people are united in a common prayer for deceased loved one’s and world peace. Among these were more than 2,000 people from Japan, and more than 1,000 members of Shinnyo-en Hawai‘i. The head of the Shinnyo-en, Bishop Shinso Ito, graced the ceremony with her presence, underscoring the significance of the Hawai‘i Lantern Floating ceremony for the local Buddhist community.

A total of 1,150 lanterns were launched: 700 from double-hulled canoes, 200 by volunteers lined up along the shore, and for the first time, 250 people from the crowd were allowed to launch their own individual lanterns. On Magic Island, volunteers carried six larger parent lanterns in parade, with general dedications to world peace and remembrance of victims of war and natural disasters. Two HPU volunteers were given the honor to carry one of these parent lanterns, having trained and rehearsed the carrying procedure for weeks in advance.

“ We did devote a lot of time to this. However, this has without a doubt, been the best and most interesting community service I’ve participated in” said the new president of Danish Dynamite, Mickey Kromann-Jensen. He and new advisor Christian Friis carried the parent lanterns on and off stage.

“ It was a noble experience, being a part of this ceremony gathering multiple cultures with the sole purpose of remembering our ancestors. It certainly is a human thing” said Friis.

Another four HPU volunteers launched lanterns from the shore. HPU’s International Vocal Ensemble also contributed to the ceremony with their beautiful voices.

By the time the lanterns were launched, Magic Island glowed with entertainment for hours. Performances were given by Kanilau, ‘ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, singers Nalani Olds and Amy Hanaiali’i Gilliom with Halau O Ka Hanu Lehua, along with University of Hawai‘i Orchestra and Shomyo Choir. Both the entertainment on stage at Magic Island and the launching of the lanterns were broadcasted on a 50-foot large screen, as well as transmitted to Japan and the U.S. mainland.
In more than one way, the lantern floating ceremony illustrates the nature of Hawai‘i as a religious, ethnic, and cultural melting pot. Not only is the ceremony an original Buddhist tradition held on the American Memorial Day, the imagined course of the lanterns–were they not collected afterwards for environmental reasons – also illustrates the composition of modern Hawai‘i as a an East-West-Pacific mix: They could sail into the West as the Elven ships leaving Middle Earth in J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic tales, but they could also sail towards the East, a course just as likely. They could also sail south, towards the Polynesian archipelago of the southern Pacific.

The atmosphere in Ala Moana Beach Park on the evening of Memorial Day, May 29, was indeed one of uniting across cultures for a common act of thought, prayer, and remembrance.



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