‘Hafu’ focuses on whole individual

Photographer, sociologist collaborate on project exploring the half-Japanese identity


“I always found it really strange,” says Natalie Maya Willer, 30, a photographer based in London, “how I thought I could spot half-Japanese people in the street. . . . Then at the same time, with me not really looking Japanese, I also wondered if there really isn’t a half-Japanese look after all!”

Willer, whose mother is Japanese and father is German, is explaining the genesis of “Hafu,” an ongoing project about half-Japanese identity, created in collaboration with sociologist Marcia Yumi Lise, 27, who has a Japanese mother and American father.

Juxtaposing Willer’s photography with Lise’s social research, “Hafu” focuses on the physiological features of half-Japanese participants while also delving into their various backgrounds and perspectives. It began last October with an exhibition at the Bodhi Gallery in London, which was followed by seminars, workshops and forums that invited half-Japanese, Japanese and non-Japanese to share their experiences.

“It started it off as a photographic project idea,” Willer explains, “but by itself, it somehow didn’t quite sit right.” Willer originally wanted to create a simple portrait series that would reveal physiological similarities and differences of half-Japanese people. Her exhibited work consisted of huge larger-than-life passport-like portraits of nine half-Japanese people, each Photoshopped smooth of blemishes.

“You could claim that I was trying to beautify these people to show them as particularly good-looking,” Willer says with a laugh. “But actually, I thought that spots and wrinkles were distracting. I wanted people to focus on the subject’s main features — their eyes, nose, jaw, etc. — so I stripped away everything else.”

Without more context on her subjects, however, Willer says such simplicity came off as “really quite flat.” It was not until she met Lise that the “Hafu” project really fell into place.

Lise was already working on a social science research project on Japanese identity when she was introduced to Willer by one of the women being photographed. She brought the depth Willer felt was missing by coaxing personal insights from each of Willer’s subjects, which she compiled from intense three- to four-hour interviews. She also widened the focus of the photographs by bringing some historical context. Over the course of the project, Lise says they found not only a lot of common ground but also many differences in attitudes toward mixed parentage.

“Everyone we interviewed was fully aware of his or her mixed heritage and therefore felt a connection to other hafu,” Lise says. “That feeling is normal because we imagine that our backgrounds are similar and that we have something like a cultural connection. But it’s also simplifying the story by clumping all these people together when they actually come from all parts of the world.” When it came to choosing an identity, Lise points out “they mainly veered to one of the two cultures.”

What makes “Hafu” fascinating are the contradictions that it evokes. Willer looks for commonalities and simplicity; Lise finds differences and complexities. Likewise, the participants in the project group themselves together with the Japanese term “hafu” but in experience and cultural preference, they are as diverse as ever.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Willer and Lise’s divergent approaches to the project stem from their vastly different experiences of growing up with dual heritage. Until Willer moved to London, she was comfortable being identified as German and not particularly interested in the hafu identity. “Because I didn’t look Japanese, there was never a question about me being anything but German. I rebelled against the whole bicultural thing. But when I moved to London, which is so multicultural, I felt that I could be anything.”

Lise, who grew up in Japan, however, was treated there as an “other” — “like a foreigner” — when she switched from the multicultural environment of a Montessori school to the monocultural setting of a Japanese high school. “I became more aware of how much I stood out,” she recalls. “It wasn’t a big problem, but it did make me think about these issues from a young age.”

There were expectations of Lise being able to speak fluent English and people were often surprised when she spoke perfect Japanese. When she modeled part time in high school, she was identified as a hafu model, a classification that she thinks reduces the complexity of being half-Japanese to something superficial. “It’s a bit like ‘Oh you’re hafu, so you’re cute,’ ” she says, rolling her eyes. As with Willer, her move to London gave her a new perspective. “Part of me wanted to leave Japan because I wanted to experience something more inclusive.”

Having no cultural connection to either of the women, London provided a neutral space in which they could explore their identities. “You need that distance, and on a geographical level,” says Willer. “Otherwise, it becomes really difficult to understand one culture when you’re already immersed in the other.”

While the experiences of project participants varied widely, Willer says she was surprised by the fact that all of them had given much thought to their dual heritage, regardless of whether it affected their day-to-day life. One or two of the participants, though appreciating their cultural backgrounds, preferred not to give an answer in terms of cultural identity. “One participant was raised in Britain, France, then Japan, and then Britain again. He said he didn’t feel a strong sense of national identity,” Lise says.

“He wasn’t unhappy about it, though,” Willer adds. “He just didn’t want to pin himself down, and why should he, when it didn’t bother him?”

Lise sees this ambivalence to national identity as a positive thing, but not necessarily the goal of the “Hafu” project. “What we are doing is a result of how Natalie and I were treated in society and the assumptions made about us based on our ethnic or racial background,” she explains. “But what we really need to do is move away from classifying people by their racial backgrounds and roots.”

When it comes to discussing the loaded title of their exhibition, Willer simply notes that compared to “double,” which she can’t relate to at all, she is “fine with the term/label ‘hafu.’ “

Lise, however, is more analytical and offers a brief history of several of the words used to describe dual heritage before making her point that since people can grow up in more than one place, embrace more than one culture and be of dual or even triple nationality, classification becomes less relevant. Her acceptance of the term “hafu,” she says, only comes from the need to discuss and analyze it as a classification before it can be removed from society.

In London, it became clear that people were ready for this discussion. The exhibition was well attended and the workshops and seminars proved popular. “We were actually told by Birkbeck University of London, where we gave a lecture about our work, that it was one of the highest attended talks,” says Willer.

While the project was welcome in England, the question remains as to how “Hafu” would be received in Japan. “There’s so much history attached to half-Japanese people living in Japan,” Lise says, acknowledging that the public reaction would likely be very different. “There are older terms to describe them, like ‘ainoko,’ ‘kongetsugi’ and various other derogatory terms, and I think some of this negativity has inevitably been carried into present time.”

She adds that unlike in Europe, where race and ethnicity are considered separate things, in Japan they are considered as a single entity, “and that is your nationality, the ‘jin’ in ‘Nihon-jin,’ “ she says. “For half-Japanese people, where there is no ‘jin,’ that label became ‘hafu.’ “

Willer also points out that the project is meant to educate and to further dialogue, and believes that in Japan it will deepen the understanding of half-Japanese. “That’s why it was not just an exhibition, but the creation of ‘happenings’ and events that included inviting speakers and asking visitors to participate.”

It shouldn’t be long before we find out how the Japanese public will react to “Hafu,” as Willer and Lise are already making plans to bring the project to Japan in 2010. “We are planning a number of photo shoots and interviews this summer in Tokyo and Osaka, where we would like to exhibit our work,” Lise says.

The relocation of the project to a less multicultural setting is sure to bring about new discussion and dialogue, as does the move from Europe to Asia, where there are more half-Japanese with Korean, Chinese and other Asian parentage. Visually and sociologically, Willer and Lise’s project in Japan could well offer a fuller picture of what it means to be hafu.

For more information about this project or if you are interested in taking part, please visit www.hafujapanese.org