The whole story on being 'hafu'

The whole story on being 'hafu'

The movie 'Hafu' explores the limbo world of people who are half-Japanese and half something else, as they try to find their place in society

What does it mean to be half-Japanese in 21st-century Japan?

This is what filmmakers Megumi Nishikura and Lara Takagi set out to explore in their documentary film, "Hafu," of which they showed a preview screening last month at the Kansai Franco-Japanese Institute in Kyoto.

The film, which is not yet completed, is an offshoot of the Hafu Project, which was set up in London two years ago by sociologist Marcia Yume Lise and photographer Natalie Maya Willer, both half-Japanese.

The project profiles hafus with photos and interviews that shed light on the experience of living between two cultures.

"We wanted to create an opportunity to discuss contemporary Japan through the lens of half Japanese," says Lise.

mixed race Japanese hafuDavid Yano, a Ghanaian-Japanese who is one of the subjects of the film.

Breaking the homogeny 

In the summer of 2009, Lise and Willer brought the project to Tokyo. Nishikura, a Japanese-American, and Takagi, who is Japanese-Spanish, met at one of the photo shoots.

Inspired by the Hafu Project, which went to the core of their own bicultural and biracial identities, they teamed up with Lise, who would serve in an advisory capacity. Filming got underway a year ago. 

Nishikura and Takagi expect to finish by late 2011, after which they aim to have it aired on Japanese television, shown at international film festivals and distributed on DVD.

"We want to show that Japanese society is not homogenous," says Takagi, who hopes to awaken Japanese to the diversity within their own country.

That diversity includes not only hafus, but minorities such as Zainichi, native Okinawan and Ainu, who struggle to find a place in the culture, as well.

Statistics cited in the film say that one out of 30 babies in Japan are born to a family where at least one of the parents is not Japanese and one out of 18 marriages are mixed, rising to one out of 10 in Tokyo. 

mixed race Japanese hafuJapan's hafu community stick together.

Gaining respect 

Despite shifting demographics, hafus who have grown up in Japan as native Japanese speakers are still considered foreign by many, even if they have a Japanese passport.

For children, this can be tough, as is the case with Alex, a boy in the film who starts getting bullied in kindergarten. 

In recent years, however, there has been something of a "hafu boom" in entertainment and media. 

The look has gotten popular, and hafus such as Kaela Kimura, Angela Aki and Erika Sawajiri can be seen in magazines and on TV. Those with more foreign features are in particular demand. 

Nevertheless, being seen as outsiders in their own culture can add an extra layer of frustration to the daily life of hafus in group-oriented Japan. 

"I would like to see a deeper understanding of the hafu experience," says Nishikura, explaining the impact she hopes the film will have in Japan. "And a greater awareness that these people identify themselves as Japanese and want to be respected and treated equally as Japanese."

The film tracks the day-to-day lives of five hafus, each illuminating another angle on what it's like to be a hafu in Japan and the role that their hafu-ness plays at a turning point in each character's life. 

One especially poignant story is that of David Yano, a 29-year-old Ghanaian-Japanese who has taken it upon himself to raise money to build schools in Ghana, which he visits for the first time as an adult. 

Unlike Japanese, who may struggle to understand foreign cultures, Yano felt his non-Japanese half was beckoning.

Now his effort to help impoverished children on the other side of the planet is helping him arrive at a deeper sense of his own identity.

mixed race Japanese hafuHafu co-directors, Megumi Nishikura and Lara Takagi, answer audience questions at a preview of the film shown in Kyoto last month.

Internet communities

The film speaks for a growing community that has come together over the past decade thanks largely to the Internet.

One group, called Halvsie, bills itself as "the landing page for all things half-Japanese."

Founded in 2001, the site hosts a 1,600 member forum on which hafus can discuss what it's like to be half-Japanese or meet up if they're in the same city.

Postings with questions such as, "Is there such a thing as a stereotypical Halvsie? If so, what's the stereotype?" and "How are you usually identified?" get thousands of views and hundreds of replies. 

Half Japanese, another popular group on the networking site Mixi, has nearly 4,000 members, and Hapa Japan more than 1,000 who participate in forums. 

Building on the momentum of the last decade, the film is the culmination of this movement, which remains barely understood in mainstream Japanese culture.

To tell their story, the filmmakers have ventured out onto the fringe of society to bring back small heroic tales of daily life that would otherwise be untold. And in the telling, the half-Japanese experience finds expression.

Ultimately, says Lise, "It's about giving a voice to hafus."

The Hafu Project will have an exhibit at the Kobe Center for Overseas Migration and Cultural Interaction from November 27-December 5 (closed on Monday).

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Daniel Krieger writes features about Japanese culture and personal essays. He is based in Osaka. 

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