Until about 10 years ago, the standard Japanese image of kids of mixed blood was that they were 1) gorgeous, 2) rich and 3) able to live in Japan with none of the kinks and hang out at Azabu clubs when they were 13. In high school, my girlfriends scorned their own Japanese heritage. The common reply to what we wanted to be when we graduated was “gaijin” (foreigner). Failing that, the next best option was to marry a gaijin and bear hāfu (mixed-race) kids, who would then automatically go on to have brilliant careers as newscasters or supermodels.
Megumi Nishikura and Lara Perez Takagi’s documentary “Hafu” shows quite a different picture. “One of the reasons we made this film,” Nishikura tells The Japan Times, “is that the growing number of hāfu here are not celebrities or models. We wanted to put a hole in the stereotype of hāfu — to show that not everyone is Caucasian, well-to-do and beautiful. There are a lot of people who aren’t like that, who are struggling with the language, with life in Japan and with their own identities.”
Both the filmmakers, who each have a background in documentaries, are mixed-race. Perez Takagi was born to a Japanese mother and Spanish father, and her childhood was divided by vacations spent in Japan at her grandmother’s house in Chiba and daily home life in Madrid.
“When I was in Japan visiting relatives, I would have a great time with my friends and family and I found that my language skills would improve, and I loved everything about Japanese culture that I couldn’t have access to at home,” she recalls over an email interview. “I enjoyed Japanese TV, summer festivals, food, fads, fashion, etc. So I always looked forward to going to Japan.”
The experience changed, however, when she and her brother spent time at a summer camp in Japan while still attending grade school in the U.S. For the first time, she encountered bullying from the local kids for being “different” and for not being fluent in Japanese.
“After that I lost interest in Japan and in learning the language,” she says. “But thanks to my mother’s determination that I would learn the language, I attended the Japanese school in Madrid during the summers” — an experience that ultimately informed her outlook as a person of mixed race and a filmmaker.
Despite Nishikura’s very Japanese name, she was born to an Irish-American mother and Japanese father (her first name “Megumi” was handily abbreviated to the more international “Meg”). Her educational background echoes that of 10-year-old Alex in the film, whose experiences in a local elementary school are discouraging to say the least. He winds up moving to an international school, which is a choice made by many multicultural families in Japan.
“I wasn’t bullied,” recalls Nishikura, who had gone to her local school until the age of 8. “But I was different.”
She left Japan when she was 15 and moved to Hawaii, marking the first time she came into contact with a diverse, multi-ethnic culture. “That was when I finally got over my identity issues,” she laughs. “Until then, I wasn’t really sure who I was, or why that mattered so much.”
Nishikura returned to Japan when she was 26 — only to face a new set of issues. “I’m Japanese but I didn’t feel that way,” she muses. “It’s similar to what Fusae was experiencing in the film.”
That feeling of having a pebble in her shoe led Nishikura to meet with other hāfu and listen to their stories. “I was surprised to learn that there were others like me,” she says. “Hāfu who went to the local Japanese schools, and when they got out, couldn’t speak English; or the opposite case where they would go to international school and couldn’t speak Japanese. They grew up living between two worlds, in the space between boundaries, as it were. And they were trying to come to terms with that. As a filmmaker, I wanted to tell their stories.”
“Hafu” shows how some of the stories can be pretty painful, while others are ambiguous — stressing how even the most positive of mixed-race experiences can spawn complex feelings.
That is certainly the case for Sophia, who was brought up in Australia but boarded a plane for Tokyo at the age of 27, to try living in her mother’s country and to get in touch with her Japanese side. At the end of the year she leaves, and though for Sophia the experiment has been a happy one, she knows that it is time to go.
“There are times when you think you just can’t live here,” says Nishikura. “I think most hāfu feel like that at least once in their lives.”
But they sometimes also come back — and these days the number of those who return to work, live and raise families is on the rise.
“There is a sincerity to the Japanese I had not encountered anywhere else in the world,” says Nishikura. “That depth and range of kindness and the willingness to do the best they could — I really admire that about the Japanese.”
Perez Takagi adds that the country has loosened up since she was a child in summer camp, though “there’s plenty of room for change and adaptation, and more understanding of people with diverse backgrounds at home.”
Nishikura’s perspective on the hāfu experience in Japan is that “you have to choose your battles, because you can’t be upset about everything. As for myself, I’m just happy if people ask me, ‘Hāfu desu ka?’ (‘Are you mixed-race?’). It means my Japanese side shows.”