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‘Hafu’ draws viewers into world of Japanese identity

Participants see themselves as part of emerging community

by Nooshin Navidi

“Hafu,” the Japanese term for people who are half-Japanese, takes on a more intricate meaning through the unfolding of mixed-race Japanese lives in the documentary “Hafu.” Those starring in the film and those behind the project identify themselves as a newly emerging community.

With production in full swing and a target finish date by the end of this year, “Hafu” aims to explore and initiate dialogue on what it means to be multiracial and multicultural in Japan.

Judging by the close to 150 attendees who packed the house at the bohemian-chic venue Las Chicas in Tokyo’s Aoyama district for a sneak peek of the film and fundraiser June 12, a growing number of people are ready to share and discuss, or at least learn more about the many shades of diversity that paint modern day Japan.

“I thought (half-Ghanaian, half-Japanese) David Yano was very charismatic,” raves Aya Porte, of Japanese and French-American ancestry, referring to one of the mixed Japanese in the film. Through a compilation of intimate interviews and footage, the film will feature five personal subjects, including a multicultural family.

“The film hits close to me. I also like how they are looking for other people, like someone who has never lived in Japan. They are giving the full side of the story in the documentary. Not just life inside Japan, but outside and the differences,” adds Porte.

After getting a short glimpse of “Hafu,” many others like Porte could relate on some level to the film. “Some of the feelings that they express in the film I also can understand. Especially the part when the little boy was bullied. I grew up in Mexico and I also had a similar experience so I almost cried,” laughs Sawaka Kawashima, a full Japanese raised in Mexico and the United States who has lived in Japan for the past nine years. “It’s a good thing that people, not just hafus, but Japanese and everybody can see that these people are out there and there is a very diverse Japan now.”

As evident from the preview screening, the film is encouraging a natural discourse on culture, nationhood, race and ethnicity even before its completion. The filmmakers have opened up channels for an ongoing dialogue during the production process by utilizing social media tools and gatherings like the June 12 event to create buzz and engage people along the way.

The film’s codirectors and its adviser shed light on the film’s impetus in an interview prior to the event.

“Part of why we’re doing this event, and why we started a Facebook page, blog and Web site is because we want to build a community around the film and have a community that’s eager and ready to see the film when it’s done. It’s not like when the film’s done you then ask, ‘Now where’s my audience?’ ” says Megumi Nishikura, one of the directors, a mixed Japanese-American filmmaker born in Japan who has lived in locales as exotic as Manila and New York.

“The more people the better. We want those followers to keep adding up on the Facebook fan page,” chimes in Lara Perez Takagi, the other director. She is of Japanese and Spanish descent. “I get excited every day when I open it and see 20 more people are fans. I’m like ‘Oh God! This is really happening!’ That’s also what motivates us to keep on making the film — to see that people are supporting our idea.”

The online outreach, special events and feedback have been more than positive so far.

A wide spectrum of people from musicians to graphic artists, especially half-Japanese, have offered their skills to make the film happen. “I guess they really want to see the film and so the collaboration is really beautiful,” says Marcia Yumi Lise, a researcher of the Hafu Project who has taken an advisory role for the film.

Lise, a Japanese and Italian-American born and raised in Japan, and photographer Natalie Willer, of German and Japanese background, originally conceived the Hafu Project in 2008 while living in London. Lise’s research fit well with Willer’s photography exhibit on half-Japanese people — their collaboration developed into a photo exhibition and dialogue about being part Japanese and in between cultures. The ongoing seminars and workshops finally hit Japan last year.

After reading an article in The Japan Times more than a year ago about the Hafu Project exhibit, emerging filmmaker Takagi contacted Lise to express her desire to get involved. Takagi had recently completed her thesis film, “Madrid × Tokyo,” an identity piece about the two cities that mattered most in her life. Later, “I had this urge to make a documentary about half-Japanese people as the next step. So I remember talking to Marcia about it. . . . “

Last December Nishikura and Lise drew up plans to produce a feature-length, broadcast-ready documentary that they intend to show on television in Japan, at international film festivals and distribute on DVD for educational purposes. Like Nishikura, Takagi was interviewed and photographed for the “Hafu” exhibit but later jumped in when the opportunity emerged to codirect “Hafu.”

Multicultural stories and experiences have long been missing from traditional, mainstream Japanese media. In the past, both filmmakers had to explore their own mixed Japanese identities through independent personal films. “That’s another thing that really motivated me — when I really started to look into what kind of media there was I discovered there was so little. I was like, ‘I’ve always wanted to make this film and there’s nothing being made.’ This is really the story to be told right now!” exclaims Nishikura.

Lise adds, “There are a few TV programs on the older generation of half-Japanese people in Japan who were born as offspring of the Second World War — the American GIs and Japanese, but nothing on recent mixed race half-Japanese people. It’s a really under-discussed area. (This film) would be a really good addition.”

In the eyes of all three — Takagi, Nishikura and Lise — the main target audience is undoubtedly Japanese. They concur there needs to be more discussion going on in Japan. “I feel that Japan has a lot of work to do on expanding the idea of what it is to be Japanese. I don’t think that’s the case with many other places that I’ve been to. I think most of you’d agree that being multicultural in a big city is ordinary say in New York, San Francisco and London,” explains Lise.

Through the power of diverse narratives, the filmmakers also hope to dispel various misconceptions of hafu identity. “(Identity) is really hard to analyze and categorize. That’s why narratives are the best tool to get the stories out, for people to decide for themselves from the ‘real world,’ the people being interviewed,” says Lise.

Nishikura recounts, “Just the other day I met with someone who mentioned that hafus are so common now that it’s no big deal. But I think all of us have some experience that we feel needs to be heard. I don’t personally feel that it’s so common, that it’s totally accepted.”

Nishikura and Takagi aspire to touch as many viewers as possible through the distinct medley of people they film. They would like to add somebody who is an Asian mix that might look completely Japanese to the public eye but may not identify as just Japanese or hafu.

The filmmakers question whether there’s a struggle that most people won’t recognize. They’re also interested in people who identify as mixed Japanese and are coming to Japan for the first time. Nishikura asks: “What are their expectations of Japan? Will their time here live up to them? Will they identify at the end?”

Regarding one of the film’s subjects, a Mexican-Japanese family living in Nagoya, Nishikura and Takagi point out that they didn’t want to focus solely on adult hafus. “Raising a family is such a huge deal — how do you do it? How do you raise multicultural, multilingual children? We’ve all had really interesting experiences, something challenging, something really fun where these two cultures come together,” says Nishikura.

Lise sums up. “It’s so interesting to see that the source of identity is not just being a hafu, but also upbringing, education, religion. . . . As much as the film is going to explore the experience of half-Japanese people, at the same time it’s trying to create a picture that hafus are really diverse.”

Learn more about how you can get involved and support “Hafu” at www.hafufilm.com/ and www.hafujapanese.org