FILM: Mixed-Race People Tell Their Stories in ‘Hafu’

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From left: Interviewee Edward Sumoto and filmmakers Lara Perez Takagi and Megumi Nishikura. (Photo by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

 By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

“Hafu,” a new documentary about mixed-race people in Japan, will be screened Wednesday, May 8, at 7:30 p.m. at the Japanese American National Museum, First and Central in Little Tokyo, as part of the 29th L.A. Asian Pacific Film Fest.

Directed by Lara Perez Takagi and Megumi Nishikura, the film had its Los Angeles premiere on April 5 at JANM during the Hapa Japan Conference. The Bay Area premiere was on April 7 at UC Berkeley.

The title, the Japanese pronunciation of “half,” is the most common term in Japan for people who are half Japanese. It is similar to the Hawaiian word “hapa,” which originally meant someone half Native Hawaiian and half Caucasian.

The film focuses on five stories that reflect the diversity of the Hafu experience:

• David Yano, 28, was born in Ghana to a Ghanaian mother and a Japanese father. After six years in Ghana, the family moved to Tokyo, but his parents separated when he was 10 and he spent eight years in an orphanage with his two brothers. After he revisited his native country in his early 20s, he dedicated himself to raising funds through a Japanese non-profit organization to build schools in Ghana.

• Sophia Fukunishi, 27, is half Caucasian and grew up in Sydney, Australia with occasional visits to relatives in Japan. As a child, she didn’t like being different from her schoolmates, but as an adult, she decided to live in Tokyo to explore her Japanese heritage and to attempt to learn the language.

• The Oi family consists of Tetsuya, 41, from Japan and Gabriela, 37, from Mexico, who met in the U.S., married and moved to Nagoya; their son, Alex, 9; and their daughter, Sara, 7. Japanese, Spanish and English are spoken at home. At a Japanese elementary school, Alex was teased for being Hafu; his parents later sent him to an international school, where he was much happier.

• Edward Sumoto, 28, is half Venezuelan and was raised by his mother in Kobe. He was educated in the international school system and attended a university in the U.S. After returning to Japan to care for his mother, he formed Mixed Roots Kansai, which is dedicated to raising multiracial and multicultural awareness. Sumoto attended the film’s L.A. premiere.

• Fusae Miyako, 35, is Korean on her father’s side and was born and raised in Kobe. Until she was 15, she thought she was entirely Japanese. When she discovered her true ethnic identity, she was warned not to reveal it to anyone for fear that she would be ostracized. Now active with Mixed Roots Kansai and married to a man from Cameroon, she encourages young people to be proud of their mixed identities.

The Japanese-Mexican Oi family: Tetsuya and Gabriela and their children, Alex and Sara.

To put these experiences into a larger context, the film includes infographics with statistics about marriages between Japanese and non-Japanese. Examples:

• The government recorded only 5,545 international marriages in 1980, but the figure increased to 12,181 in 1985, 25,626 in 1990, and 39,727 in 2001.

• The 39,511 international marriages in 2004 accounted for about 5.5% of all marriages in Japan. The majority were marriages with Chinese, Filipino and Korean individuals, suggesting that “visible Hafu” are a minority.

• According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, one in 49 babies born in Japan today are born into families with one non-Japanese parent.

David Yano is of Ghanaian and Japanese descent.

At the L.A. premiere, Koji Sakai of JANM noted the connections between “Hafu” and the museum’s ongoing exhibition “Visible & Invisible: A Hapa Japanese American History”: “In a lot of ways the community, or people in general, think of Hapa as a new phenomenon, but in reality Hapas have been there from the very beginning in our community, and it’s time we acknowledge and support that.”

Duncan Ryuken Williams, co-director of the USC Center for Japanese Religions and Cultures, convener of Hapa Japan 2013, and co-curator of “Visible & Invisible,” had high praise for “Hafu”: “It’s a really thoughtful and inspirational film … The film directors did a great job of picking these five individuals. I think you’ll agree they represent the spectrum, the range of possible people in this Hafu experience … I’ve followed the making of this film and I know it’s a major labor of love for the two film directors. They put a lot into making this happen with the help of dozens of people who volunteered their time, most of whom were Hafu individuals.”

The Making of ‘Hafu’

Filmmakers Takagi and Nishikura, who are Hafu themselves, came from Japan for the L.A. premiere.

“The whole idea started when Megumi and I took part in the Hafu Project, which was originally a photography and interview project that was started by our thematic advisor and researcher (Marcia Yumi Lise),” said Takagi. “They started in London. They did an exhibition (and) little gatherings of half-Japanese people, and they decided to broaden the project and bring it to Japan and photograph more people … Both of us as filmmakers thought it was … such a great idea that we wanted to offer our expertise in filmmaking to collaborate with them.”

Sophia Fukunishi moved from Australia to Japan to discover her roots.

Nishikura said of Lise, “She had interviewed over 70 Hafus about their identity, their upbringing, many different experiences that they had, and she definitely guided us in terms of what kind of general themes that most often come up in the Hafu experience. We wanted to take those themes and try to find them in the stories that we wanted to portray … We wanted somebody who was half black, somebody who was half Asian, somebody who’d never lived in Japan before. Some of them we knew already or we were introduced through friends. For some of them we went online and went on Facebook …

“In Sophia’s case, we had been looking for a few months and she literally emailed us three days before. She said, ‘I’m coming on Sunday.’ And Lara got up at 6 a.m. to be at the airport to film her coming through the gates … It was a total risk with her to see what her life and story would be like.”

One interviewee had to be left out of the final cut, Takagi said. “We had one woman … we were filming originally who was half Taiwanese. She actually left Japan after the (2011) earthquake … We were really in a panic. Do we find another person, or do we just say it’s four people’s stories? Luckily, we had met Fusae before and she ended up being fantastic.”

Takagi, whose father is Spanish, discussed her own background: “I was born in Japan, my parents lived in Japan, but one and a half years after I was born … I moved to the U.S., spent four years there, went to Canada, two years there, went to Spain, 12 years there, went to Australia, came back to Spain. And when I finally finished my college film studies, I decided to go to Japan to actually live there as an adult and experience it. So I had a very multicultural upbringing.”

Nishikura said, “I was born in Tokyo … My father is a journalist, so I grew up in Asia for the first 15 years of my life. I lived in Thailand and the Philippines as well as Japan and I moved to Hawaii when I was 15 … I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker since I was 13, and I thought once I left Japan, that was it, I’m not coming back … I think on an unconscious level there was this feeling that I don’t quite fit into Japan. That’s why if I don’t ever come back, it’s okay … I wanted to go to graduate school and applied for a scholarship, and the scholarship decided where I would go, and they picked Japan for me.”

Though she was reluctant to return to Japan, “it was a great experience and I’m still living there.” At the same time, there are still identity issues. “I have a fully Japanese name but I don’t look fully Japanese, so I’m constantly questioned. Every day of my life I am half Japanese in Japan. In America I can just be American and it’s not about being half Japanese, but in Japan I am half Japanese. So that became such a big part of my life that I had to explore it, had to find a community like the Hafu Project.”

Takagi added, “When I went to Japan to do my postgraduate studies, I just wanted to do a documentary about Japanese youth and fashion … I thought it was going to be easy, I’m going to blend in … That did not happen at all. I had to actually work my way through a lot of barriers that I had never experienced before in order to feel a little more comfortable every day living in Japan. The film that I was going to make … became a film about self-exploration of my own experience living in Tokyo, and having spent a lot of time in Madrid as well.”

The resulting film, “Madrid x Tokyo,” was screened in Japan and Spain.

As she became more curious about the Hafu experience, Takagi explored online communities and met the Hapa Project team when they came to Japan. “When I met them, it just clicked … I met all these super-cool people and they were all half Japanese, which was a really weird experience for me … I was never surrounded by so many half-Japanese people and I never had all these conversations about similar experiences, so that was very eye-opening for me.”

Nishikura described “Hafu” as “the film that I would have wanted to watch when I was growing up … to feel accepted, to not feel alone … Each one of us at some point in our lives, we feel like … ‘I’m the only person in this room who doesn’t know where they belong’ … Actually, that’s not true. There’s a lot of people like us out there.”

The filmmakers hope to eventually get “Hafu” shown on television in Japan.

For more information, visit http://hafufilm.com or the film’s Facebook page.

The May 8 screening, co-presented by Visual Communications, JANM and the USC Hapa Japan Database Project, is free but RSVPs are required. Go to http://vconline.org/festival.

“Hafu” will also be shown Sunday, May 19, at 12:15 p.m. at Yamaha Music Center, 4620 Barranca Parkway, Irvine, as part of Japan Film Festival Los Angeles. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door. Info: www.jffla.org.

(Note: As indicated by the katakana in the film’s logo above, the correct pronunciation is Hāfu or Haafu, with the vowel lengthened. The filmmakers have simplified the spelling to Hafu, presumably for the benefit of non-Japanese-speaking audiences.)

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4 Comments

  1. keiko amano on

    To editors,

    To write ハーフ, we often omit a long vowel in writing perhaps out of our laziness to look for the correct letter, but it’s more correct to write “hāfu” because “hafu” is ハフ. When “ā” is not available, I would write as “haafu” in this case. But, according to Romaji, we write “haahu.”

    Please let me know if you have any questions.

  2. yamamotojk on

    Thank you for your comment. I am aware of the correct spelling/pronunciation, but followed the style used by the filmmakers and by the Hafu Project. I have added a note at the end of the article for clarification.

  3. “According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, one in 49 babies born in Japan today are born into families with one non-Japanese parent.”

    slightly misleading twisting of the statistics there. I wish the filmmakers would state that a zainchi korean permanent resident in Japan having a child with Japanese citizen would be included in this statistic. If you discount that the stats wouldn’t look as impressive but lets not mention that because it won’t help the case the film is trying to make about the so-called explosion of ‘hafu’ born in ‘changing’ Japan….

    I tried to clarify this and jungle gym agency issue with Megumi Nishikura on the hafu facebook page but she removed the post and blocked me…ouch!

    The filmmakers hope to eventually get “Hafu film” shown on television in Japan?!?
    LOL Maybe if you tried to offer real informative content about mixed race Japanese rather than self congratulatory vanity pieces about “being different” it will get airtime..

    Regarding the film, insightful but ultimately very disappointing borefest following random people doing boring everyday activities.

    The film misses many opportunities to inform the viewer about REAL issues mixed race people in japan experience.
    The film glosses over uncomfortable BUT important issues affecting hafus in Japan TODAY such as children or grown adults caught up in the international husband-wife child custody wars[also called ‘Japan child abduction’] and the emotional torture for all parties involved.
    I constantly see divorced western fathers trying to get his mixed race child[ren] back from Japan going crazy calling Japanese ex evil woman, abductor,kidnapper blogging Japanese child[ren] name+pictures and Japanese family members name/address(with no regard to privacy). My point is the filmmakers in their unique position being hafus themselves could get the Japanese side of the argument and ex wifes view on the abuse she receives from ex husband as well as the child’s opinion and experiences.
    My bad, viewers gain more knowledge knowing that Sophia Fukunishi is ‘different’..

    The filmmakers talk about hafus roots but are totally ignorant and overlook the history of mixed-race people in Japan.
    NOBODY outside of japan gives credit to a kind Japanese woman connected to the Mitsubishi zaibatsu who gave refuge and support to hafu children born in postwar Japan.
    She opened an orphanage almost exclusively for mixed race children born to Japanese women raped by post WWII US occupying forces and women who worked at”comfort stations” [特殊慰安施設協会] serving US troops.
    According to the two filmmakers what david yano had for breakfast is more of an insight to the history of hafus….

    Unfortunately the weak content material and one dimensional idyllic portrayal of hafus by filmmakers Lara Perez Takagi and Megumi Nishikura take priority over real educative insights of ハーフ Japanese.

    HAFU FILM- a missed opportunity to highlight the REAL cultural history and current issues involving mixed race people Japan.

    Thank you for reading Takeshima-UK

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