Hafu: the mixed race experience in Japan
A recent article in uk.news.yahoo.com looks at “the changing DNA of Japanese pop culture” through fashion icons like Rola, a model of Bengali, Japanese and Russian descent. The piece points to a shifting landscape that has had a positive effect on Japan, although there are intimations that the embracing of mixed-race models may be a fad. As the piece points out, of the 127million people living in Japan, less than two percent are non-Japanese, with an even smaller percentage being of mixed-heritage.
Hafu – the mixed-race experience in Japan, a new documentary film by Lara Perez Takagi and Megumi Nishikura, looks at this minority group within a minority group with the aim, says Takagi, “to create awareness of the diversity that exists in Japan, and also start a dialogue about what it means to be Japanese today.”
To that end, Hafu focuses on five stories that reflect the diversity of the hafu experience. While here in Vancouver we tend to look at hafus or hapas (as they are more commonly known here) as being of mixed European/Japanese descent, the truth is that there are as many permutations as there are ethnicities on the planet. It is also the case that while in Vancouver, at least, the female side of the couple tends to be Japanese, that reality is not reflected in Japan. According to Nishikura, “There is a common perception that the greatest number of international-marriages in Japan are of a western Caucasian man and a Japanese woman. However, demographics show otherwise. The highest numbers of marriages are between a Japanese man and a woman from Asian country such as Korea, China and the Philippines.”
The film, funded in part through an indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, sprang out of the Hafu Project (www.hafujapanese.org), “an ongoing initiative that creates a dialogue about being a hafu in Japan.”
Completed in April of 2013, the film has been screened at independent cinemas everywhere from Madrid to Tokyo.
Asked about the reception the film has received, Takagi, says, “Both in and outside of Japan, people have reacted very positively. Despite some of the sad truths our participants face in some of the stories, the film is very positive. Hafu or not, many people were able to relate to the film somehow: those who once felt lost and went on their own journey of self discovery; those who had felt like they needed to find a community of their own; or those who feel the need to visit the country where their family came from.”
Asked about the popularity of hafu models, Nishikura responds, “One thing that is clear to me is that despite the popularity of hafu models and this so called ‘hafu boom’ we are in, there is still a huge disconnect with the images we see on TV and how it relates to the experiences of ever day hafus. I thought that with all these hafu faces visible that looking mixed-Japanese would become more recognizable but in my personal experience it hardly seems like anything has changed.
“This is one of the reasons why we made this film because despite this ‘boom,’ there seems to be very little understanding of the hafu experience. The popular models and celebrity tend to cement a stereotype of hafus – that they are all model beautiful, mixed with a caucasian, and are bicultural. One of the things we wanted to covey through the film is the diverse backgrounds of hafus and their experiences. There is no one hafu experience.”
Hafu website www.hafufilm.com
Hafu Project www.hafujapanese.org
Mixed Roots Kansai www.mixroots.jp
Interview: Megumi Nishikura + Lara Perez Takagi
Both of you are of mixed descent – can you briefly talk about yourselves?
Megumi Nishikura My father is Japanese. My mother is Irish-American. I was born in Tokyo and lived there for eight years as a child. I attended 1st and 2nd Grade at a Japanese elementary school and then switched to an international school from 3rd grade onward. My experiences are similar to that of Alex in the film. At the age of 15, I moved to the US and there I graduated high school and attended college.
I returned to Japan at the age of 26 to attend graduate school. I lived there for the next seven years and have recently moved to New York.
Lara Perez Tagaki I was born in Tokyo, to a Japanese mother and a Spanish father from Madrid. One year after that, my family moved to the US where I spent four years of my life, followed by two years in Canada. The first language I learnt was Japanese, then I somehow adapted to learn English, I also had to learn French in Canada, and as for Spanish, I could understand most of it, but struggled to speak it. After Canada we moved to Spain where we spent 13 years, this is where I became proficient with my Spanish and had to work on my Japanese by attending Japanese Saturday school and going to Japan for summer every two years. Before completing high school, I moved to Australia for a year and a half, and then went back to Spain for university. I completed a five-year bachelors degree in media studies, and then decided to move to Japan on a two-year government scholarship to do a masters in multimedia science and arts and experience living in Japan on my own. Once graduated, I stayed in Tokyo for another four extra years, moved to Singapore for a year and I am currently living in Montreal.
Were there negative experiences around your heritage and experiences that prompted you to make this film?
MN I feel very lucky in that I was never bullied as a child. However, at the same time I was always made to feel like I was different. My teacher at my Japanese elementary school would single me out and call on me in class to speak in English in front of everyone. As an adult, I have actually found it more challenging because I interacted with and met new people all the time. I constantly had to explain my background – i.e. why I have a full Japanese name and look the way I do. This got to be tiresome. I wanted to just be treated like anyone else. In Japan, I was constantly aware that I was half-Japanese while in comparison when I am in the United States I feel I give very little thought to my racial and cultural background.
My desire to find others who had an understanding of my experience drove me to go to hafu gatherings and eventually meet Lara and Marcia Yumi Lise and Natalie Mfaume, the founders of the Hafu Project. We teamed up to make the film back in 2010.
LPT I wouldn’t say that the reason why I made this film was prompted by negative experiences around my heritage. It was more because of how enlightened I felt when I came back to Japan and met other hafu like myself, exchanged experiences and found so many immediate commonalities with people I had never met before. It was a strange feeling but at the same time delightful as I had always felt different to the rest of the people, I am a rare mix (well maybe not so rare nowadays) of strong cultures both in opposite sides of the world. The idea to make the film came about when I was trying to promote my first film, 「MADRID x 東京」(Madrid x Tokyo), a film about cross culture, exploration, values and life in two cities I consider my home. I wanted my next film to be about the experience of being “half Japanese” and coincidentally a friend of mine sent me a link to an article in the Japan Times about the Hafu-Japanese Project and their activities in London. Curious about their photography-interview project, I browsed their website and saw that they were going to come to Japan. So I emailed them, took part in their project and offered to collaborate with my filming skills. This is when I asked if they would be interested in making a documentary about being half Japanese.
Japan, at least on the surface, is a very homogeneous country, with strict codes of conduct and hierarchy, and an expectation that everyone “fit in.” Do you think the existence of hafu messes with this self-view that Japanese have?
MN I would certainly say the growing numbers of hafus challenge the image of homogenous Japan. With ethnic minorities such as the Ainu or the Ryuku, Japan has never been 100% homogenous but certainly with globalization and the increase in numbers of children born between international unions, Japan is more diverse than it has ever been.
LPT I’m not sure if the existence of hafu messes with this self-view of the Japanese. The truth is, we have been part of the society since the very first merchants from abroad came into Japan. We have been around for a long time. It just feels like its only now that people are finally recognizing the diversity that exists within the country. There are many mixed Asian, Nikkei, Zainichi, kikokushijou living there. Some of them, thanks to their physical appearance and as long as they behave and live along side everyone else following “the Japanese way,” have been able to blend in 100% and are not considered different from the rest. But the truth is that Japan is an aging society, and there is room for change and adaption. Our film follows the mixed race experience of Japan today, with the hope of eliminating stereotypes and preparing society for the coming years.
Your film follows four individuals and one family – how did you select them for inclusion in the film?
MN Based on the research conducted by Marcia Yumi Lise of the Hafu Project, we carefully considered what types of mixes and experiences we wanted to include in the film. The individuals who’s stories we filmed came to us in a number of ways, through interviews Marcia previously conducted for her research, through reaching out through social media and parenting groups. For us, the most important thing we were looking at was how being hafu was central to their experience and daily life.
LPT Each of these stories came to us in a different manner. David and Fusae were introduced to us by our thematic advisor Marcia Yumi Lise. As part of her research for the Hafu Japanese Project, she had already interviewed them and felt their stories that should be shared on the screen. In Sophia’s case, we found her after she responded to a posting we made online looking for hafus who grew up outside of Japan. She contacted us three days before she arrived to Japan. The day of her arrival, I jumped in a car at 4am and started her story as she came through the gates of Narita airport. We found the Oi Famliy when we contacted various international family groups about featuring a family going through the challenges and joys of raising multicultural children. Ed approached us and proposed to be part of the film.
What are your hopes with this film?
MN I believe we are entering an increasingly global world where our age old definitions of nationality, culture and race are having to be reworked. My hope is that this film becomes a vehicle in which people can be more fluid and flexible with these concepts and ultimately respect each individual for who they are and not by the color of their skin or the cover of their passport.
LPT We hope that this film will be seen by as many people as possible, both in and outside of Japan. For those outside of Japan, we hope they will be able to reflect upon what the mixed-race experience like in their own country. As the world is diversifying faster than even before, we need to start asking ourselves what changes are needed so that multiracial/multicultural children can grow up with confidence rather than with the fear of being different. We will be happy if our film can even make a small contribution towards that.