By BRETT FUJIOKA
Is a ship the same if you take it apart piece by piece and replace its frame? No simple answer exists, as anyone who has tackled this philosophical Rubik’s cube knows.
The ethno-national equivalent to this riddle grows exceedingly more complicated with the swelling number of international unions each year. Statistics in 2004 chart that 1 in 15 marriages in Japan were international and that 1 in 30 children born there possesses a parent of non-Japanese descent. Japan’s ethnic constituency is rapidly changing and its people may need to rethink what it means to be Japanese in a country where blood and national identity are considered one and the same.
The same applies for the hafu (mixed Japanese) community. The lives for each individual half-Japanese vary from person to person and the filmmakers for the upcoming documentary “Hafu” and their subjects best represent this.
“Hafu” is the tentative title for a film following the lives of several half-Japanese individuals in Japan as they explore their identities.
Both Megumi Nishikura and Lara Perez Takagi spent most of their lives away from Japan. Takagi is half Spanish and stayed in Madrid, Sydney, Washington D.C., and Ottawa due to her diplomat father’s itinerant career. She eventually completed her higher education at the Francisco de Vitoria, Complutense and Waseda universities before finally returning to Japan.
Nishikura, likewise, lived her childhood spread throughout the world. She stayed in Beijing, Manila, Honolulu, D.C., Berlin, London, and Los Angeles and graduated from New York University.
“Lara and I have unusual stories and come from international backgrounds,” said Nishikura in an interview with the Rafu. “I don’t know if that’s representative of a lot of the mixed Japanese community.”
There’s a reason why they’re so hesitant to pinpoint a grand narrative for the hafu experience. There is no all-encompassing hafu story and the eclectic subjects of the documentary are indicative of this.
David Yano, “the poster child” of the documentary, is of Japanese-Ghanaian descent. Other individuals include the Mexican-Japanese Oi family, Venezuelan Japanese “Mixed Roots” founder Edward Sumoto, and an unannounced Japanese American girl visiting Japan for the first time. The distinction they each share is that they bear one, sole Japanese parent.
They took into account during the recruitment process that there’s something of a “Hafu Wave” in the Japanese entertainment industry. Musicians, models, sports stars, actors, and even adult film stars of half-Japanese descent maintain a distinguishable mark on television. This may have made Japanese audiences more acquainted with biracial children in the modern world, but also introduced a set of stereotypes both filmmakers aspire to break.
“It’s on a superficial side,” Nishikura said on their presence in the media. “It’s like: ‘Oh, they’re so cute. Wow, they’re so talented.’ It’s a motivation on our part to break the stereotype that there might be that all hafu are mixed with a Caucasian, bilingual, or model-perfect beautiful,” said Nishikura.
“It’s impossible to make the perfect combination and address all the possible factors [in being hafu],” she continued. She listed several possibilities to prove this point: “Is your mother or father Japanese? What other nationality are you mixed with? Did you grow up in Japan? Did you grow up abroad? Did you go through the Japanese school system? Did you go through the international school system?”
The “ hafu experience” is extensive to the point that they acknowledge that they’re overlooking recurrent tales from this demographic like the children of American servicemen or military brats. “People want this seminal piece on the hafu experience,” said Nishikura. “And we have to address every single question and every single type of hafu. That isn’t very realistic.”
In fact, the same could also be said for Japan as a nation. The predominant philosophy in the country is that it’s a nation under one — not just one ideology and rule, but one race and creed functioning in perfect harmony within society. Former Prime Minister Taro Aso echoed such sentiments on Oct. 15, 2005 at the opening ceremony for the Kyushu National Museum. “[We are] one culture, one civilization, one language, and one ethnic group,” Aso said. He further opined that it was the only country where that was the case. This failed to bear in mind that hafu, indigenous Ainu, Okinawans, and other multigenerational non-Japanese immigrants are residents of the country.
This viewpoint carries its own set of ignored consequences, including the bullying epidemic in Japanese schools. The Japanese Ministry of Education reported over 125,000 cases of bullying in the 2006-07 school year.
Alex Oi, one of the children documented, is of Japanese/Mexican descent and got bullied at school due to his grammatical struggles in juggling a multilingual repertoire of Spanish, Japanese, and English. Nishikura and Takagi told similar stories of getting teased in school for their alien appearance, but were reluctant to describe it as a general occurrence for hafu.
They did, however, invoke the suicide of a half-Filipino girl as an example to how far it can go. On Oct. 23, 2010, 12-year-old Akiko Uemura hanged herself at her family’s home. Her father, Ryota Uemura, reported that her Filipino mother sat in on an observation day. That’s when the bullying began.
“Like Alex was being bullied, it’ll show that it’s happening and its part of his story,” said Nishikura. “I think it’s good to show that it’s not the first time that it’s happened where kids are being bullied for not looking entirely Japanese.”
Perhaps with Japan’s evolving social constituency, these isolated stories may someday become a thing of the past. Each filmmaker denies that being hafu is the remedy to current prejudices or Japan’s economic woes as Masaru Tamamoto implied in an op-ed for the New York Times, “Japan’s Crisis of the Mind,” on March 1, 2009.
“We’re not trying to make a specific comment about this being the future and if everybody mixes Japan will be saved,” said Nishikura. “I think that’s stretching it too far.”
Despite the reality of hafu diversity, they still strive to discover a consistent thread in these stories to develop common themes in their lives and garner support from their viewership. At the same time, they dream of a place where children are free of the schoolyard taunts of yesteryear. Where multiculturalism is more commonplace to the extent that it’s readily accepted.
“I think that’s a Japan I would like to live in,” Nishikura said. “Where it’s assumed that you’re Japanese first before something else.”
“Hafu Film” is planned for completion later in 2011. For more information, visit hafufilm.com.