The changing face of Japan

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Co-producers and co-directors Megumi Nishikura (right) and Lara Perez Takagi work on the set of “Hafu – the Mixed-Race Experience of Japan.” Photo by Michael Connolly.
Co-producers and co-directors Megumi Nishikura (right) and Lara Perez Takagi work on the set of “Hafu – the Mixed-Race Experience of Japan.” Photo by Michael Connolly.

The changing face of Japan

by: Takahiro Takiguchi | .
Stripes Korea | .
published: October 01, 2013

Japan is changing. You can learn just how much by seeing the film, “Hafu – the Mixed-Race Experience of Japan.” The documentary debuts in Tokyo Oct. 5 and is heralded as Japan’s first feature-length exposé on racially mixed Japanese, and what being mixed means to them and a changing nation. 

Two percent of Japan’s newborns in 2012 were born into families in which one parent was not Japanese, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Many in this newly emerging minority identify themselves as “hafu,” or “half” Japanese. In relatively conservative and homogeneous Japan, they can be subject to discrimination. But they may also spark curiosity or even admiration, as have many biracial celebrities and models in recent years.

The film is motivational, forgoing issues of discrimination to focus on those of identity. By following the day-to-day lives of five biracial people attempting to define themselves in Japanese society, the film explores their joys, sorrows and struggles for acceptance. It also examines some comical cultural misunderstandings and, eventually, the self-empowerment these individuals experience as they come to embrace who they are at their journeys’ end. 

David Yano, for example, was born in a small village in Ghana, to a Ghanaian mother and a Japanese father. At age 6, they moved to Tokyo where, after a series of misfortunes, he grew up in an orphanage. Returning to Ghana as an adult, he was shocked by the disparity between the two countries, gained a deeper appreciation for his life in Japan and was inspired to start raising funds back home to build schools in Ghana.

The film is narrated by the five subjects themselves and uses candid interviews to guide audiences through biracial Japanese experiences of growing up in Japan, family relationships and education, as well as issues surrounding physical appearance.

“I want audiences to walk in the shoes of five hafus and experience firsthand what  is like to be half-Japanese in Japan today,” said Megumi Nishikura, an American Japanese who coproduced and codirected the film with Lara Perez Takagi. She added that the film aims to counter Japan’s media-perpetuated stereotype of the beautiful, perfectly bilingual, Japanese-Caucasian “hafu,” with the reality that biracial Japanese have diverse physical features, national back-grounds and language abilities. “People don’t know what it’s like to be a hafu living a regular everyday life.”

“Hafu” also aims to inspire at a time when more and more biracial Japanese are struggling to come to terms with their racial and ethnic identities – and, at least a certain segment of them, choose to embrace Japan’s emerging hafu identity. It is a reoccurring theme throughout the film, as well as among most of the production staff. 

“I truly feel that I’ve had the best of both worlds,” said Winton Yuichiro White, who composed the film’s score. The Japanese American currently lives in San Francisco but grew up as a military child on Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan. “Every hafu individual has a different view of themselves, which makes it really interesting. Some may feel a little more Japanese than others, but (may be) viewed as not Japanese at all; some may not even feel connected to their Japanese side, but look fully Japanese; others may be 50/50 or 80/20. The variation is endless.”

“Hafu” is not just about biracial people finding and accepting their own divers identities in Japan. With the motto, “Japan is changing,” the film also makes a not-so-subtle nod toward the need for Japanese society to be more accepting of diversity. By the end of their personal journeys, most of the five featured subjects vow to help the nation do so, if not call on other biracial Japanese to do the same.

“Ultimately, my motivation in making this film was to bring greater awareness to the hafu community and show that not only our numbers are increasing, but that we are going to be playing a bigger part in Japanese society in the years to come,” Nishikura said. “I believe that with the changing demographics, Japan is at a turning point. I believe that a more multiracial and multicultural Japan is a good thing – but it is up to the Japanese people to embrace this change, or not. “I do hope people will walk out of the theater feeling that a positive future awaits Japan,” she added.

Commentary: The other 'hafu' of the equation

I must admit that I expected most of the biracial people involved in the film “Hafu –The Mixed-Race Experience of Japan” to look unfavorably on the term “hafu” as a label for biracial Japanese. I would have thought they’d despise it since it is derived from the English word “half” and could be construed to imply someone is not completely Japanese or is of impure blood.

I asked filmmaker Megumi Nishikura, an American Japanese, why she does not prefer another more positive term like “both” or “double,” as some people – especially non-Japanese – might. She explained that such terms put too much of a burden on the individual to have perfect command of two languages and straddle two cultures. She said “hafu” is acceptable because it is a Japanese word that no longer carries the connotation of half of a whole, like its English predecessor. 

I agree. However, I still feel “hafu” inadequately describes mixed-race people in Japan, but for a different reason. As Nishikura also points out, there is a Japanese stereotype of a “hafu” as being a person who is per-fectly bilingual in English and Japanese, and of Japanese and Caucasian descent.  In fact, some Japanese may reserve this label only for people of this specific racial combination.

According to Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare data, of the 1,037,231 newborns in 2012, 20,536 have a non-Japanese parent (10,825 mothers and 9,711 fathers) – about one in 50 were biracial. However, most of these foreign parents were Chinese (4,924), followed by Koreans (4,396) Filipinos (3,983), Americans (1,702), Brazilians (609), Thai (509), British (465) and Peruvian (221). 

The data clearly shows the stereo-type is far from fact. So, I feel that we may need to at least reconsider the definition of “hafu.

My Filipina wife and I have a 20-year-old daughter, so put the hafu question to her. She told me that she hardly felt any different than other Japanese children throughout her school days, as long as she could speak perfect Japanese and have good rapport with the Japanese community. (It is also worth noting that she never really looked different from other Japanese.)

While growing up, it may have occurred to her to wonder why she was born into a mixed family. It may have even been an issue for her at one time, but if it was I never noticed. To me, she has always seemed to accept being biracial as it is, rather than search for a way to define it.

While I think it would be great if she felt blessed with two different racial and cultural assets, my daughter seems to embrace her identity as an individual, apart from the paradigms of nationality, language and race. She told me that being female or an only child are much more significant issues for her than being biracial. For her, it is only one of various attributes such as gender and age.

While some biracial people wish to be defined as “hafu,” question what it means existentially and how it can contribute to our ever-changing society, there are others, like my daughter, who don’t care too much about it. To them, it is only one of the many parts that make up their identities. As the film’s score composer, Winton Yuichiro White, told me, each hafu has a different view of his or her self.

The film “Hafu” says Japan is changing.” The very concept and meaning of “hafu” may be changing as well.

Takiguchi.Takahiro@Stripes.com

“Hafu – The Mixed-Race Experience of Japan”Documentary / 87 minutes / Japanese and English (including subtitles)

Screening kits are available internationally for 15,000-50,000 yen (about $150-$500) depending on the audience size, and will be available domestically after the film completes its a-pan tour. For a list of screening events or to apply for a kit, visit “Screenings & Events” and/or “Organize a Screening” at: hafufilm.com/en

Tokyo screening
Oct. 5 to 18, 1 p.m., 2:45 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Theatre Shibuya UPLINK (Totsune Building, [1F] 37-18 Udagawa-cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo: 10-minute walk from the Hachiko-guchi Exit of JR Shibuya station) Tickets (available at the theater ticket counter): Adults 1,500 yen ($15.25), students 1,200 yen, students (Mon.-Fri.) and seniors 1,000 yen.
For details, call Theatre Shibuya Uplink at 03-6825-5503, or visit: www.uplink.co.jp

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