Jeff Chiba Stearns: adding to the big hapa family
Released in 2010, Jeff Chiba Stearns’ feature-length documentary One Big Hapa Family examines the 95% Japanese Canadian intermarriage rate and how the wartime mass incarceration and dispersal of an entire community played a role in the scattering that community across the country. The intermarriage rate has also given rise to a new generation, or generations, of hapa – people of mixed Japanese/other ancestry.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of One Big Hapa Family, Jeff is assembling a special program, Hapas, Hafus and the future of Japanese-Canadian Identity – One Big Hapa Family: Special 10 year Anniversary Screening & Discussion, which will take place at the Nikkei Museum and Cultural Centre on Saturday, March 14. In addition to the screening, a panel will discuss the future of Japanese Canadian identity, hapa and hafu identity, with some of the family members featured in the film.
Although best known as a filmmaker/animator and activist, Jeff has had a life-long love of drawing and illustrating. His first book, Mixed Critters, was published in 2018 and is being followed up with a new book, Nori and His Delicious Dreams. Gorgeously illustrated, the book tells the tale of Nori, a hapa boy with an incredible appetite who dreams of sleeping on beds made of delectable dishes.
I talked to Jeff about both projects following the release of his new book.
Bulletin Interview: Jeff Chiba Stearns
Let’s start with One Big Hapa Family. You had been working in the realm of hapa-awareness previously, starting with What Are You Anyways?, but you really went all-in with this feature-film-length production. Can you reflect on its impact?
What Are You Anyways? was released back in 2005 and it was the first animated film to address hapa (mixed Asian) identity. The film soon began resonating with mixed people around the world and I found myself becoming a spokesperson for hapa identity in the media and at universities. Although, it took me some time to fully understand what it meant to be a hapa advocate considering that I had only really learned about this Hawaiian word and its new usage to describe mixed Asians a few years earlier from an article published in The Bulletin.
Knowing that there was a huge thirst for mixed race subject matter back then, I wanted to continue exploring this topic and create something longer. So in 2006, I began production on One Big Hapa Family. Four years later, the film was completed and released in 2010!
It all started at my Japanese-Canadian mother’s family reunion. I began looking around and realized that everyone after my grandparents generation had intermarried. All of my cousins were mixed Japanese. I soon learned that this was reflective of most Japanese Canadian families where there was a 95% intermarraige rate within the community. I knew I had to make a documentary exploring this and so I started conducting interviews with many of my family members. This was the first time we had ever discussed intermarriage and hapa identity and it was eye opening to me.
Since its release, the film has had a lot of reach broadcasting in Canada on the Knowledge Network and CBC Documentary and in the US on PBS. The film has been out for 10 years now and I still get people telling me how much the film means to them and their family. I’ve had people tell me that their Japanese-Canadian family watches the film every Christmas. The Knowledge Network has renewed the broadcast license for a third time which is very rare. It feels great when people come up to me and tell me that they’ve seen the film and it had an impact on them and their family. So many Japanese Canadians tell me that my family is exactly like their family: diverse, mixed and blended!
I had a lot of Japanese Canadian parents tell me that the film helped them talk to their hapa kids about their identities for the first time. To me that is everything and the reason why I made the film. Now a decade later, we’re seeing more and more hapas having children. I think it’s a great time to revisit how we are self identifying as Japanese Canadians, especially when all our children look less Japanese. This is why I think it’s so important to look back at the film ten years later and have a discussion on how things have changed, morphed and evolved within our community and our families. I really feel that One Big Hapa Family is even more relevant today than it was ten years ago!
The whole mixed-race experience is so difficult to pigeonhole, just by its very nature. Our backstories are all so different, as are our experiences. Which is part of what’s so amazing about it – but it doesn’t necessarily make for a cohesive community. What is your perception of the hapa community, if there is in fact one?
Yes, hapas are a very diverse group. Although, the one common thread that unites us is that we all have mixed ancestry which shapes and defines our identities. I think this is why it was so important for us to create Canada’s only festival celebrating mixed roots arts and culture, Hapa-palooza, back in 2011. As a co-founder of the Hapa-palooza Festival, we were able to celebrate the many parts of us that make us whole through art, music, literature, film and food! It was a way we could try to bring together a community of mixed people in Vancouver and from around the world. We had such a great response from people who attended even if they didn’t self identity as mixed or hapa. Hapa-palooza is the festival we wished we had when we were children. It’s important to celebrate our differences but at the same time constantly be questioning who we are to better understand our history and heritage. I think this is what unites the mixed community and all of humanity.
I think for hapas with Japanese Canadian heritage, it’s important that we continue to participate in the community. We are the future, even though we may not look as “Japanese” as our parents or grandparents. We can still self identify as Japanese Canadian and that is important for hapa kids to know! I find that with this new generation of hapas, they are more curious about the small part of them that makes them unique which is great because I see more and more of these kids want to learn about their Japanese roots and be more involved in the Japanese Canadian community. I think it’s also the parents’ role to involve their children in more events and activities within the community to help spark that interest!
On March 14 you’re screening the film at the Nikkei Centre along with a panel discussion that you’re calling Hapas, Hafus and the future of Japanese-Canadian Identity.
I’m really looking forward to this upcoming screening. I have spent the last three years promoting and touring my last feature length documentary, Mixed Match, that it’s kind of refreshing to revisit One Big Hapa Family again after all these years. The film is very dear to my heart. I’ve invited my family members who live in the lower mainland to join us. We’ll have my mother’s cousin, David Koga and his wife Heather joining us. We’ll also be joined by a couple of their hapa kids who were just children when we shot the film but now ten years later they are young adults.
It’s wild to watch the film today and see all the kids grown up now. I’ve also invited some of my aunts, uncles and cousins from Maple Ridge to join the panel. It will be a fun discussion and I’m curious how we will reflect on these topics addressed in the film a decade later. Have our thoughts on family changed now that our children are older?
I want this to be an interactive experience with the audience so I’m looking forward to having a discussion with everyone about their thoughts on community and identity within their own families. I very much want to involve everyone in the conversation. Although, the sad thing is that many of the elders who are featured in the film such as my grandfather, Roy Inouye and my uncle Suey Koga have passed on. It would have been wonderful to be able to hear their thoughts since first being interviewed all those years ago.
The film was centred around your large extended family – I’m thinking of that extraordinary family photo – but I imagine you have expanded your hapa family through your work within the community following the release of the film. What are some of the connections you have made over the past ten years?
It is extraordinary to think about all the connections that I’ve made after the film was released in 2010. We screened the film at over 30 film festivals across North America and reached so many audiences. I’ve also connected with many amazing mixed race organizations and attended many mixed race festivals and conferences including the Hapa Japan Festival, Loving Day and the Critical Mixed Race Studies Conference. There are many academics and scholars who have supported my work and I’ve had the fortunate pleasure of presenting One Big Hapa Family at dozens of universities around the world including Harvard, Yale, Cornell and Kyoto to name a few. Even today I get requests to screen the film. Many of these universities have mixed or hapa student clubs and it’s been wonderful to be able to connect with these students about the film.
Whenever I get back from festivals like the Hapa Japan Festival in California, I feel like I’ve found my tribe. It’s a week of hanging out and attending events with other mixed Japanese from around the world. We screened One Big Hapa Family at the festival in 2010 to great reception and now I’m on their advisory board. We’re actually looking at ways of bringing the festival to Vancouver for the first time in the next couple of years to coincide with a hafu exhibit I’m helping organize with the Nikkei National Museum in Burnaby.
I’ve also been fortunate that my work has connected me with many other artists, authors and musicians around the world. This has been great for programming our Hapa-palooza Festival events. This year I’ll be working with the Powell Street Festival to bring Hapa Japan founder and author of American Sutra, Duncan Ryūken Williams to the present on hafu identity and Japanese American history. I am truly grateful and blessed for all the amazing relationships One Big Hapa Family has helped me establish over the last decade.
Do you have any other plans in the works centred around the tenth anniversary of the film?
We have confirmed that we’ll be hosting a screening event and panel in Kamloops with the Kamloops Japanese Canadian Association on Saturday, May 9 at the The Kamloops Film Society Paramount Theatre. We are also in the planning stages of a screening event in Victoria with the Victoria Nikkei Cultural Society and Whitehorse with the Japanese Canadian Association of Yukon. We are also working with the Japanese Canadian Associations in Vernon, Calgary, Regina, Hamilton, Thunder Bay, Toronto and Edmonton to plan screening events later this year if all goes well. I’m hoping to also attend all the screenings in person and moderate the panel discussions. We’re always looking for societies and associations to host a screening so please get in touch if you’re interested. Also, please follow One Big Hapa Family on Facebook for updates on these future screening events. facebook.com/onebighapafamily
You’ve been doing your part in adding to the hapa family yourself. You and your wife Jen have two kids yourselves. Has having kids of your own shifted your perception of identity in any way?
Yes, Jen and I have two amazing children, Yuki and Takashi. Yuki is four-years-old now and Taka is a little over one-year-old. Jen is also mixed Japanese so we joke and say our children are hapa 2.0 or super hapas! Yuki is very artistic and we draw a lot together. She’s also a great age where she wants to help out with everything. She’s been a great big sister for Taka and we’re very lucky we have two great kids!
I often wonder what it would have been like to have parents who also self identified as being mixed. It was something I couldn’t relate to with my parents since my mother is Japanese Canadian and my father is of European descent. With my daughter, she’s old enough now to know that she has Japanese ancestry and we have a friend who reads to her in Japanese.
Today, there are way more resources made by mixed authors and filmmakers for parents who are raising mixed kids. Being someone who has made a career making hapa media and discussing mixed race identity, I am definitely comfortable being able to talk to my children about their own mixed identities. Although, in this day and age and with so many of their classmates and friends also being mixed, they most likely will have a completely different experience growing up in Vancouver than I had when I was growing up in Kelowna in the 80s. What I love most about my childrens’ mixedness is that it has become the inspiration for my switch from film to writing and illustrating children’s books.
You’ve turned your attention to children’s books over the past few years. I suppose it’s not such a big leap, as it’s still a visual medium. What prompted you to make the move?
It’s been a life-long dream to write and illustrate children’s books, and now that I have kids of my own, it made sense to create books that could help inspire them. Because my children are multi-ethnic, I knew it was important to create characters and stories that reflect the diversity in their world, which lead to the inspiration of my first children’s book.
In 2018, I wrote, illustrated and independently published my first children’s book, Mixed Critters, so that Yuki my four-year-old mixed Japanese daughter could see herself reflected in animals like her and be proud of her own multi-ethnic heritage. With multiethnic people becoming the fastest growing demographic in North America and with the extreme lack of media and books exploring mixed race identity, I really felt it was important to create Mixed Critters as a way to introduce children to notions of racial mixing and blending in an accessible and creative way.
For my second children’s book, Nori and His Delicious Dreams, the main character Nori has a Japanese Canadian mother and father who is of European descent which is reflective of my own parents backgrounds. I created the main character, Nori, to inspire my one-year-old son with a character that reflected him!
How did you come up with the story?
The inspiration for Nori and His Delicious Dreams came when I was in high school. I had a friend who kept talking about how comfortable it would be to sleep in a warm chicken sandwich. It sounded strange at the time but the visual never left my imagination. Now twenty years later, dreaming of even more ways to sleep in food would be the inspiration for my second children’s book. Plus, I really love food and sleep!
For the book, I’ve showcased food and dishes from around the world in hopes of introducing kids to the joys of exploring their culinary horizons and trying some new foods from around the world.
I’m committed to creating stories that reflect representation! Since I’m mixed Japanese Canadian it was important to me that Nori was also mixed (he’s kinda me as a kid). I firmly believe that our children need positive role models that reflect the diversity that exists in their world today!
I also want to thank a lot of the Japanese Canadian community for supporting the project early on when I ran a crowdfunding campaign to help fund the printing of the book. The book is independently published and I printed the books in Canada, which was really important to me. Having the community’s support meant so much to me.
The rhymes are really fun – I love the falafel/waffle/donair/chocolate eclair.
When I created Mixed Critters it was an ABC book featuring various mixed up animals. It was a simple book to write because it was more about the illustrations of mashed up animals. This time around, for Nori and His Delicious Dreams, I still wanted to have fun colourful illustrations but include more of a story. I loved Dr. Seuss books as a kid and thought it would be a good challenge to create a rhyming book. It was a lot of fun coming up with foods that rhymed. It was important for me to pick foods from around the world and a pleasant surprise when I could find two foods from two different cultures that rhymed like shumai and pad thai or bánh mì and spaghetti. I’m also very happy to say that I’ve eaten all the foods featured in the book!
What’s next up for you?
I’ll be busy this year promoting Nori and His Delicious Dreams at various children’s festivals and school presentations. I really enjoy educating and spent years teaching animation in high school and college before creating films and children’s books full time. If anyone knows any teacher librarians who would be interested in having me come visit their school for a reading and drawing workshop, please get in touch with me!
Of course I’ll also be promoting the 10th anniversary of One Big Hapa Family with the screening tour. I’ll have copies of the books for sale with me at the screenings so come pick up some copies and say hello!
As far as creative projects, I have a few new documentary ideas in development and I’m working with celebrated Japanese Canadian artist Lillian Michiko Blakey to bring her illustrated book about her grandmother, who was a picture bride from Japan, to life through animation. We’re currently working on finding funding for that project and hope to start production later this year. I also have a few more children’s book ideas up my sleeve and look forward to hopefully releasing another book in 2021 if all goes well!
Copies of Jeff’s books and films including Nori and His Delicious Dreams and One Big Hapa Family can be ordered at www.meditatingbunny.com/store. Please follow his adventures on Instagram @meditatingbunny