Talking Race and Identity in Japan with “Hafu”

Screen Shot 2014-04-14 at 11.24.22 AMMore than 200 people gathered for the screening of “Hafu”, a documentary film on mixed race people in Japan. On-cho Ng, director of Asian Studies Program, calls the film, which gives its audience a rare glimpse into race relations in Japan, “eye-opening and educational.”

Who is a Hafu?

Hafu, the Japanese word for multiracial children of a Japanese parent and a foreign one, comes from half, meaning half-Japanese or half-breed. According to the film, which was released in 2013, one in 49 babies born in Japan are of mixed racial heritages.

The film follows four adult Hafus and one Mexican-Japanese couple raising two biracial children. In the film, Hafus talked about their hardships, identity crises and their personal journeys of self-discovery.

Not [Insert Ethnicity] Enough?

Bullying, shame and adjustment issues were common symptoms that these individuals suffered growing up.

David, one of the Hafus starring in the movie, was born in a small village in Ghana to a Ghanaian mother and a Japanese father. He moved to Tokyo when he was a young child and has lived there ever since. He considers himself Japanese but people around him don’t see him as being Japanese because of his skin color.

Another Hafu Alex, is half-Mexican and half-Japanese. For the first part of the movie, he goes to a local public school where he is teased by his classmates and called “slow” by his teacher. His parents decide to enroll him in an international school. Alex, while having no problem making friends, is seen struggling to catch up academically because of a new and unfamiliar American-based curriculum.

Based On Own Experience

Megumi Nishikura, one of the directors of “Hafu”, says she was inspired to make a film about Hafus after seeing a photo project on half-Japanese people in UK.

Nishikura is herself a Hafu of Irish-American and Japanese ancestry. She was born and lived in Japan until she was 15. She moved back to America where she attended high school and college.

Nishikura says she “was constantly reminded of [her] differences” when she returned to Japan for a master’s degree. “[My being a Hafu] was in my face every day,” she says. She says felt the pressure to “behave in a certain way to be seen as Japanese” around her graduate school classmates. “Having to explain, to justify who you are, [it] wears you out,” she says.

A Curse and A Blessing

“I strongly identify as a Hafu, as having both [identities],” she says. “There is definitely a pressure to pick a side [in America]” while in Japan, “[people] only see your foreign traits. You are not Japanese, you are a foreigner,” Nishikura says.

“Defining [yourself] can be a painful process, but once you go down that road and begin to understand yourself, it’s an opportunity to go deeper into yourself. […] here’s a blessing in that,” she says. “There’s something beneficial to being that unique person, to be able to have a foot in both cultures.”

Despite the internal and external cultural clashes she endured, Nishikura remains hopeful for the future of multiracial Japan. She hopes to break the silence on interracial marriages and families in Japan through “Hafu”.

“When I searched for half-Japanese films or Hafu films, there was nothing,” Nishikura says. Being mixed Japanese was an experience that was not part of a public discourse. “It was surprising to me because I see so many of us,” she says. “Why is nobody talking about it?”

A Global Phenomenon

Nishikura says there are similar documentaries being made about mixed-race experiences around the world because people are struggling with the same issues.

“That is, essentially, a society where we create boxes and labels,” she says. “They used to be hard boxes. But we’re starting to break through them. We are something in between. We are trying to redefine nationality, race and identity. All of them need to be reexamined and we need new definitions for them.”

“I loved it,” audience member Fred Jenkins says. “I felt connected to [David, the Ghanaian-Japanese man],” Jenkins, who is of Native American and African American heritage, says. “Because of circumstances, he was forced to identify more as Japanese. I myself was forced to identify more with my African American side. Sometimes it’s hard to get to know the other side of you.”

The Penn State alumnus says he was surprised that “there are more problems for kids” than he expected. “I felt bad for [Alex, the Mexican-Japanese boy]. He had to learn three languages at one point. And he had hard times identifying as Japanese because he wasn’t recognized as Japanese.”

Teng Qin, a senior Asian Studies major, says he had a “good experience.” Qin, who studies Japanese as a minor, says, the struggles of mixed race people in Japan “is kind of the same” as what international students go through in the U.S. “It’s hard when things are new and you don’t know the language,” he says. Qin says it’s important to see past the differences.

“We are the same,” he says. “We are still people.”

Photo provided by Reiko Tachibana