Searching for connections drives young documentarian

Peace activist Megumi Nishikura seeks common humanity in all races


Special To The Japan Times

Megumi Nishikura, a young documentary filmmaker in Tokyo, consolidates her goals under one main theme: “I want to remind us of our common humanity, to remember that we are all humans with the same hopes and desires and we all deserve to be respected.

“All of our global issues — whether it’s environmental, war, poverty — stem from the same root cause. We feel that we are separate and disconnected from each other. The reason we have environmental problems, for example, is that we humans feel we are separate from nature, so we continue with unsustainable development over preserving our biodiversity. Whether it is on a person-to-person level or nation to nation, I want to make films that remind us of our interconnectedness.”

Nishikura’s beliefs are tied to her international upbringing, an upbringing that gave her connections throughout Asia and America. Her Japanese father, working in Tokyo for Kyodo News when she was born in 1980, moved the family often in his role as foreign correspondent, and her American mother brought the family along.

Nishikura’s education alternated between an international kindergarten in the Philippines and then a Japanese elementary school in the country. A few years back in Japan at schools in Chiba Prefecture, and her parents reconsidered their priority for academic language development for their child.

“It was a decision my parents had to really think about, but they decided, with my father’s work, that we would be traveling a lot, and having English as my main language would be the priority.”

Nishikura says maintaining two strong academic languages was difficult. “It seems as if I was always playing catch up with both languages. Japanese was initially stronger than English, and then when I started to improve my English, my Japanese fell behind.” The family decided to try an international school in Tokyo, and when the family moved again, this time to Beijing, Nishikura continued with an international school there.

When the family returned to Tokyo a few years later, Nishikura entered the American School in Japan, where she took a few television production courses, in which she edited and made videos. By the age of 13, she says she knew she wanted to be a filmmaker and that there was no turning back. “My teacher at ASIJ really encouraged me at that time,” she says.

A year later, she moved once again and ended up getting her high school diploma in the United States. “My mother wanted to change careers and pursue Oriental medicine, so we moved to Hawaii for her to study acupuncture,” Nishikura explains. “She also wanted me to experience living in America, so the move had two purposes.”

Hawaii highlighted Nishikura’s growing beliefs in connections, and provided the seed for her later purpose in filmmaking. “In Japan I never had any traumatic experiences being half-American, but I definitely stood out. Not so much in Japanese school, but on trips sometimes, a large group of Japanese school kids would gather around me and point and cry ‘foreigner, foreigner.’ I was just always aware that I was not 100 percent Japanese.

“Hawaii, on the other hand, was the perfect paradise to assimilate into the United States. There are so many mixed people in Hawaii. I feel so lucky to have that part of my life, and I hope to live there again someday,” she says.

What Nishikura gradually took for granted in Hawaii — that all people are a mix with the common element being humanity, not one’s race or belief system — drives her filmmaking today. Other forces confirmed this idea.

After graduating from Hawaii’s Punahou High School in 1998, Nishikura attended New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of Arts in Film and Television Production. “The most remarkable thing about Tisch is I received such a great education. I met a lot of inspiring people who are working in the film industry today,” she says.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Nishikura was newly arrived in London from New York to start a study-abroad internship with the BBC. News of the tragedy was announced in her classroom, but she didn’t hear the details until later. “I felt I couldn’t go back and live the same life I did,” Nishikura recalls. “I had always wanted to change the world, but my life seemed so trivial. It’s like ‘what can I do? How can I keep on doing the same things that I’ve always done?’ “

Nishikura returned to New York at the beginning of 2002, and after graduation, looked for concrete ways to work for peace. She moved to Los Angeles to work as an assistant director on a number of human rights-related documentaries; she turned her lens to the American activists opposing the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nishikura also spent time working for the nonprofit organization California Peace Action.

“CAPA is a peace and justice-lobbying group whose work is mostly for antinuclear proliferation. I worked for them as a grassroots organizer-canvasser. And so three times a week I spent about four hours a night knocking on doors throughout various neighborhoods in Los Angeles looking for people who hold similar views on issues of nuclear nonproliferation, missile defense and the occupation in Iraq.”

With her growing experiences in peace activism, Nishikura realized, however, that she needed more skills and connections to make concrete her abstract beliefs. She found the chance through the Rotary World Peace Fellowship, which was awarded in 2006.

“I wanted to merge my passion for peace with my filmmaking. I wanted to go to grad school because if I were to make films on the subject, I had to know more about the world and what I was talking about.”

Part of the agreement with Rotary Foundation was that it would choose her graduate school for further study, and in an unexpected twist of fate the foundation sent her back to Japan, to International Christian University’s Peace and Conflict Studies Graduate Program.

“It is still a process of self-discovery for me, but when I left for the U.S. at the age of 15 I never thought I would come back to live in Japan again. I wanted to be a filmmaker, and the world’s major film industry and Hollywood were in the U.S., so that’s where I saw myself living in the future. Perhaps as a child I had always unconsciously felt like I didn’t fit into Japan, and so I had never pictured myself living here again.”

Living in Japan again, however, was “a good chance” as it also forced Nishikura to explore personal issues on humanity and connections.

“I started questioning my identity — what does it mean to be Japanese? Am I Japanese, and if so, where do I fit in, into Japan?”

Her questions led her to others with similar backgrounds, and Nishikura discovered the Hafu Project, a 2008 visual and sociological study of “half-Japanese, half-other” started by two women of mixed Japanese heritage based in London: Natalie Maya Willer and Marcia Yumi Lise.

At the same time, Nishikura delved into her own identity and explored wider considerations of humanity and peace through graduate school projects. She traveled to Cambodia and Thailand, and she began work on videos for various NGOs and foundations.

Graduating from ICU in 2006, Nishikura began work at United Nations University in its Media Center department, making documentaries about environmental issues such as climate change.

She also pursued her interest in identity and culture by joining the Hafu Project to create a documentary on five different people of mixed race and their lives. Together with her filmmaking partner, Lara Perez Takagi, a mixed Japanese from Spain, Nishikura has entered the final stages of editing for the documentary.

“Our goal is to get it aired on television in Japan in order to really reach out to the Japanese public. For 90 minutes, we want our audience to walk in the shoes of five different people’s experiences and come away with a greater understanding of what it is like to be half-Japanese living in Japan today.”

With final editing expected to finish up early next year, Nishikura and Takagi plan promotional tours throughout Japan next summer.

For Nishikura, motivation comes from the same source as her other projects as a peace activist or working on environmental issues for the United Nations.

“We are creating a dialogue about what it means to be Japanese, but really it is a broader issue. It is about looking beyond our differences. If we can see beyond the labels that we have put upon each other, labels such as ‘hafu’ or ‘Japanese,’ and start seeing each other as simply human, then I believe on some level we are working towards peace.”

For more information on Hafu, see