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A mission to capture the full range of half-Japanese experience — in 192 photos

by

Contributing Writer

The son of a Japanese father and Belgian mother, photographer Tetsuro Miyazaki grew up in a multilingual and multicultural environment.

“My younger sister and I were raised in Dutch-French-bilingual Brussels, where our dad would speak Japanese to us, our mom would speak Dutch, and they would communicate in French between themselves,” says Miyazaki, now 39. Annual summer vacations spent in Japan and Saturday school helped him connect further with his father’s culture.

Reflection on his own cultural heritage was a catalyst for the “Hafu2Hafu” project, a collection of portraits of other bicultural Japanese people.

“As a half-Japanese photographer, living in Amsterdam at that time, I wanted to take on a personal project that would force me to pick up my camera and meet people,” Miyazaki says.

He began by speaking with Dutch hāfu.

“During these interviews, the last thing I would ask was: ‘What question would you like to ask other half-Japanese people?’ Very soon, I figured out that was the one thing I wanted to share, along with a portrait of them.”

Miyazaki recalls casual soccer games from his childhood, when everyone would pick a country to represent, whereas he was told, “You can’t pick Belgium — you’re Japanese!” He now uses this as an example when explaining the relevance of his photo project to those without mixed roots.

“Most of my Belgian and Dutch friends have never been doubted about their loyalty to one football team. Those from mixed roots, however, always have to think about the right answer to this question,” Miyazaki explains. “It may not be a big deal, but we are aware of this choice we are forced to defend and argue about much of the time.”

After interest in his initial sessions with Dutch hāfu led to invitations to present his work at symposiums overseas, Miyazaki came up with an ambitious plan to photograph a hāfu person with one parent from every other nation in the world.

“Since there are 193 sovereign countries, there are 192 possible different combinations. The idea behind this is that I want to show how diverse being half-Japanese can be and I want to understand the different aspects of it. What influences the way we experience the ‘half-Japanese’ side of our identity?”

Miyazaki says he has been humbled by the willingness of his subjects to open up and talk about their personal feelings. While each one has a unique story, some common themes have emerged.

“One topic that always comes up is about the sense of belonging,” he notes. “What also struck me is that most hāfu people find themselves to be quite empathic. While I can’t say for sure, I believe it has a lot to do with having to interpret two different languages, the corresponding nonverbal communication, cultural backgrounds and, sometimes, religious differences.”

Miyazaki’s interviews with participants who grew up in Japan reveal the sometimes ambivalent attitudes that bicultural people may encounter in this traditionally homogenic society.

“Both those raised abroad and those raised in Japan want to ‘belong’ to Japan more than most of them do. But this is more ‘painful’ when one is living in Japan. Even if you understand the Japanese language or the customs very well, you may not be considered Japanese and often do not get treated as such,” Miyazaki points out.

“Another difference is what ‘the other half’ is. There are Western hāfu, hāfu with African heritage or a Latin parent and then Asian hāfu. They all have very different experiences, both in Japan and abroad,” he says.

Some foreign parents of bicultural Japanese kids dislike the connotation of the label “half” and advocate for such people to be called “double.” Based on his interviews so far, however, Miyazaki says that most bicultural adults do not share this view.

“Although some dislike the label half/hāfu, most of them embrace it. It has also struck me that the dislike comes from the parents, who do not want to refer to their child as ‘half.'”

The half vs. double question has come up in his project and the ensuing discussion can be viewed here.

As well as collecting 192 portraits and questions from every possible combination of countries with Japan, Miyazaki hopes his “Hafu2Hafu” project can give hāfu people all over the world a voice and promote conversations, between hāfu themselves, their families and friends.

“I also want Japanese people who don’t have mixed heritage to look at the questions and connect with the hāfu in the project, or to the hāfu they know personally,” he says.

Miyazaki is visiting Japan this month and is still looking for participants representing many countries.

“I will be there from Oct. 12th to 24th to interview and photograph as many hāfu as possible. There is a link to a participation form on the website, which also includes a list of the countries I have covered so far.” Alternatively, any interested readers based in Europe are invited to email Miyazaki at info@hafu2hafu.org.

Miyazaki will be giving a presentation about his project and hosting a workshop about mixed-roots identity on Sunday, Oct. 15, at Sophia University in Tokyo, open to anybody aged 12 and up. Presentations will be in English but some translation will be available in Japanese. The event is in co-operation with SIETAR, an organization that promotes international and intercultural communication through the promotion of education, training and research. The fee for nonmembers is ¥2,000 (half-price for students). To make reservations or inquiries, email programs@sietar-japan.org.

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