Around one in 49 babies born in Japan today are of mixed heritage. That’s a surprising figure considering that the country was closed off to foreigners for close to three centuries, way back when.

Until about two decades ago ha ̄fu (meaning “half-Japanese”) were viewed with a mixture of awe, envy, a bit of suspicion and a barrage of other emotions, some positive and some not. Now, mixed-race people are no longer that rare, and Japan has become more open about the whole thing. But have things really improved? Megumi Nishikura and Lara Perez Takagi’s documentary “Hafu” takes the bull by the horns and the results are intriguing.

The directors themselves are both of mixed cultures — and together they have a boatload of experience when it comes to looking, acting and feeling different on the archipelago. This is reflected in the questions they put to their subjects, from 10-year-old Alex whose mother is Mexican to 35-year-old Fusae whose Korean mother didn’t tell her daughter about her heritage until she turned 18. Each interviewee has a story to tell, rich with emotion and observation.

Director Megumi Nishikura, Lara Perez Takagi
Run Time 90 minutes
Language Japanese, English (subtitled in both)
Opens Opens Oct. 5, 2013

What they have to say and their respective positions regarding Japanese society are noticeably different from the celebrity ha ̄fu we see on TV. Rola or Anna Tsuchiya seem completely blended into the societal fabric; they have celebrity immunity and are therefore exempt from the hurt and confusion that make up (for better or worse) a significant chunk of the mixed-race experience. But for most kids, the surest way of escape is an international school. Alex transfers to one from his local Japanese elementary school, and it’s a huge step in the direction of non-assimilation. His Mexican mom is supportive but his Japanese dad has apprehensions. “If he’s going to live and work in Japan, he must have the language and school skills,” he murmurs, even though he clearly wants the best for his boy, who has fallen behind and been chided by teachers and classmates alike.

David, whose Ghanaian mother left Tokyo when he was a small child, leaving him and his siblings to tough it out in an orphanage (his Japanese dad took them on weekends), has an aura of quiet endurance. “Nothing is accomplished in Japan if you rush things, or get emotional,” he says in Japanese. He’s now building a school in his mother’s village in Ghana, working with Japanese NPOs.

Or take Sophia, whose Japanese mother and Australian father raised her in Sydney and whose memories of Japan were limited to visits to her grandmother’s house when Sophia was in kindergarten. She takes the leap at 27 to give Tokyo living a try. Though she seems keen to learn the language and to integrate at first, the stress and strain of living here peeks through.

Thoughtful and kindhearted, “Hafu” is never an indictment of Japanese mores and society. But you sense the subjects wishing, in some corner of their minds, that they were a little less “different,” and therefore less inclined to question their identity. “Since the age of 18, I’ve had to live with this,” says Fusae. Her pain is real, but it’s also what makes her strong.

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