Explorations into being Hafu: Megumi Nishikura at TEDxKyoto 2013

by Robert Moorehead

In September, filmmaker Megumi Nishikura gave a powerful, moving, and extremely personal presentation at TEDxKyoto. Her film, Hafu, is showing in theaters around the world, and offers an insightful look into the experiences of five hafu in Japan. The film opens in Kobe on November 23, and I can’t wait to see it.


14 thoughts on “Explorations into being Hafu: Megumi Nishikura at TEDxKyoto 2013

  1. As much as I’d like to embrace a project like this the filmmakers seem trapped in the discourse of pure races. Revealingly, the speaker here implies that mixed-race people are disadvantaged in the US too, which gives the false impression that all countries are equally invested in homogeneity myths as Japan is. It’s a wasted opportunity for real racial education, which would be questioning not just Japanese society’s acceptance of self-admitting impure elements, but the supposed purity of the dominant group and its need to maintain that status.

    • I think the idea that the filmmakers are claiming “all countries are equally invested in homogeneity myths as Japan is” is a quite a leap. Megumi discusses her experiences growing up in Japan and the US, and the film focuses on the experiences of Hafu in Japan. Have you seen the film? If not, calling it a wasted opportunity seems unfair.

    • Keep in mind that this is just a 10-minute presentation on Megumi’s experiences and her film. The time limits of a TED presentation make discussing broader issues difficult. The full film, and the Hafu Project of which the film forms a part, provide a broader discussion, including myths of Japanese homogeneity and shifts in notions of Japanese national identity.

      • No, I’m talking about the presentation; sorry for the misunderstanding, but the “it’s” in “it’s a wasted…” refers to the speech. The speech, being an introduction to the movie of course, implies that the movie will take a similar stance, although I hope not. If you’ve seen it and you say it doesn’t, then that’s a good thing. But this speech as a bit of promotion for the movie actually makes me less inclined to see it because of its invocation of the trope of biracials being a kind of ethnic homeless.
        By the way, I said it “gives the false impression”, not “claimed”. People assume that other societies are analogous to their own in a variety of ways. Before I came to Japan I assumed it had a legalistic definition of citizenship similar to that of the US, and many of my students assume the reverse, that the US has a blood-and-soil definition of citizenship similar to Japan’s. By placing side by side not being singled out in Japanese schools and envying her friends’ blonde pigtails she’s inviting her audience to assume that not being white in the US is analogous to not being “pure Yamato” in Japan, and that biracials don’t fit in no matter where they go. That and the whole section starting about 2:00 goes very close to saying that explicitly.

      • I haven’t seen the entire film, but … I know Megumi, and I’ve talked with her about the film. She has also spoken in some of my university classes. I’ve also had the founders of the Hafu Project in my classes, and I know several people who are featured in the film. Based on that, I think I can safely say that the film does not invoke a trope of mixed race people as ethnic homeless. Such a trope does not fit the range of experiences of the people in the film. Instead, the film focuses on the Japanese side, on the challenges that mixed race people face in integrating into Japanese society. If there’s any homelessness involved, it’s on the Japanese side, not globally. If that issue doesn’t interest you, then you might not enjoy the film. But it’s an issue that’s come up repeatedly in research, popular literature, and people’s own narratives about their experiences in Japan. You can find some short interviews they did a few years back on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/HafuProject

        The film has been part of a broader conversation regarding mixed race people in many countries. For example, they showed the film at the Hapa Japan festival at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles last summer. Connecting the experiences of hafu to people who self-identify as hapa, nikkei, mixed race, multiracial, etc., is part of a process of finding commonalities and differences. It’s the beginning of the conversation, not the end.

    • I share Mark’s disappointment with this project, as represented by the speech.
      Nishikura’s premise here is false and demeaning. It is neither necessary nor good for bi-nationals to be accepted in Japanese society as a Japanese person.
      Such acceptance is instead a burden and the freedom from that burden is one reason “hafu,” as a group, enjoy well-above-average success in and out of Japan.
      Being half Japanese is an advantage within Japan over non-Japanese, who typically lack hafu’s legal standing, family connections and complete fluency in the language. It is also an advantage over “full” Japanese because hafu are freed from many of the suffocating social obligations and expectations imposed on “full” Japanese as the price of their full acceptance into Japan’s closed and, in many ways, fettered, society.
      In those senses, hafu get the best of both worlds.
      How ironic that Nishikura’s premise is itself drawn from the fundamentally conservative Japanese notion that an individual’s identity is defined by acceptance into the group.
      If we reject the small-minded idea that anyone outside the in-group is lesser or unworthy in some way, Nishikura’s complaint becomes absurd.
      Americans celebrate difference, so it seems a shame that Nishikura takes such a traditionally Japanese view of the hafu experience.
      This could have and should have been a celebration of the unique freedom hafu experience and all the wonderful, broadening experiences hafu have in and out of Japan.
      The ethnic grievance template just doesn’t work here, so Nishikura and her colleagues have missed an opportunity to showcase and interesting, positive phenomenon outside that template.

      • Thanks for the comment. Your comments remind me of the writing of UC Berkeley sociologist John Lie:

        “That questions of identity may be irresolvable may merely make them all the more urgent, and they are especially pressing for people whose place in society is challenged and whose belonging is unsettled. The soul frets in the shadow as it struggles to recognize itself and to be recognized by others. The self invokes collective categories and public discourses even if its ultimate task is to express the private. In the age of modern peoplehood—when membership in an ethnonational group is at once legally mandated and emotionally indispensable—it is not surprising that extant nations should be the principal predicates of identity claims.”

        As for whether hafu should/not seek recognition and inclusion as Japanese, it sounds like you’re saying they shouldn’t want to be accepted as Japanese in the first place. I think their identities are best left to each individual, and not dictated to them by others. It seems reasonable for people who have experienced exclusion and marginalization in their home society, to seek greater inclusion in that society. While you define Japan as “fettered” and “suffocating,” to many people it is home. Seeking acceptance in that home is about seeking to be a full member of the society in which you live.

        The American celebration of difference you describe is a relatively recent construction, achieved through collective action to challenge the dominant model of Anglo conformity that defined immigrant incorporation for most of US history. For example, Asians were ineligible for naturalization in the US until 1952. However, people pushed for change, demanded a seat at the table while retaining ethnic distinctiveness, redefining an American identity to be more inclusive. As Lie writes, “Engagement was necessary for acknowledgment: to shift the cruel radiance of mutual neglect to the warm glow of mutual recognition.”

        This is fundamentally what Megumi Nishikura, others at the Hafu Project, and people in many other groups across Japan, are doing: redefining what it means to be Japanese to be more inclusive and to celebrate difference. In that sense, it is far from a fundamentally conservative Japanese notion. (And the notion that the definition of the self comes from the groups to which one belongs has also been a key concept in Western sociology for 100 years.)

        Generalizing the experiences of hafu as having the best of both worlds, well-above-average success, complete fluency, and legal status misses the diversity of experiences of people of mixed ancestry in Japan. For example, which hafu are the ones with such success? The ones on TV, or the ones from Brazil and Peru working in factories? Which hafu are the ones with complete fluency? While being able to step outside the expected behavior of those seen as Japanese might have its moments of freedom, there are also moments of exclusion, of being told to use a foreign name because you don’t look Japanese enough, of landlords not wanting to rent to you, of employers not wanting to hire you or give you a promotion, of being bullied at school for being different, and so on. Full membership in a society means taking on both the rights and responsibilities. A celebration of the unique freedom that some hafu experience only tells one part of the story.

  2. As the Head Curator for TEDxKyoto, I would like to emphasize the intent and structure of TEDx and TED talks. TEDx and TED Talks are designed to offer speakers and performers a way to share their unique ideas and passions with their community and the world. Within the brief 10-18 minutes each speaker/performer is given, they have to find a way to connect with their audience and hopefully inspire their listeners to want to learn more. TEDx and TED talks are not meant to be academic lectures, but rather a platform for innovative and inspiring people to tell their unique and often very personal stories. If Megumi’s TEDxKyoto talk inspired you to take the time to respond on this blog, then it has made an impact, and I encourage you to explore Megumi’s work, and that of the Hafu Project further.

  3. Thanks for the response Robert. I feel strongly about this issue, so I am pleased to see that you do too.
    “I think their identities are best left to each individual, and not dictated to them by others.’’
    Exactly. That’s why Nishikura’s quest to be selected by others – indeed by ALL Japanese – for acceptance is so misguided. Hafu are in an especially good position to recognize just how chimerical basing individual identity on total group membership is. So it’s disappointing to hear Nishikura reject the opportunity to embrace her identity as an individual.

    “It seems reasonable for people who have experienced exclusion and marginalization in their home society, to seek greater inclusion in that society.’’
    I’m pretty sure you don’t really believe hafu are “marginalized” in Japanese society. I am certain that is not the case and nothing said in Nishikura’s speech showed that to be the case. Rather, her complaint is that the acceptance of hafu is incomplete. There remain some Japanese who do not perceive hafu as fully Japanese. Fortunately, those Japanese do not make the laws or, even, dictate the customs of Japanese society, which, on the whole, embraces hafu. I would say the same for exclusion. There is simply no evidence that whatever exclusion hafu do experience goes beyond the ordinary chance events that affect virtually all people of all types at one time or another.
    Contrary to your assertion, it is not necessarily reasonable for an excluded person to seek inclusion. It is reasonable to embrace exclusion from some enfeebling aspects of Japanese culture, including the mindset (and Nishikura’s central premise) that deems group acceptance as essential to identity.

    “While you define Japan as “fettered” and “suffocating,” to many people it is home. Seeking acceptance in that home is about seeking to be a full member of the society in which you live.’’
    Your assertion that “full membership” requires acceptance is without substance. Hafu are by every measure full members of society: legally, economically and socially. The decision of some individual Japanese to perceive them as being less than fully Japanese has no bearing on the “membership” in society.

    “Asians were ineligible for naturalization in the US until 1952.’’
    To suggest that this is analogous to the circumstances of hafu in Japan is without substance.

    “As Lie writes, “Engagement was necessary for acknowledgment: to shift the cruel radiance of mutual neglect to the warm glow of mutual recognition.”
    But there is no “cruel radiance of mutual neglect’’ where hafu are involved. In fact, very many Japanese are envious of hafu. Your attempt to draw a parallel to immigrants in America many years ago has no basis in fact.

    “which hafu are the ones with such success? The ones on TV, or the ones from Brazil and Peru working in factories?’’
    I said on average. I don’t quite understand what you’re trying to get at here. Do you have any data on Brazilian and Peruvian hafu factory workers? I can’t say that I know anything at all about that, but I have no reason to assume they would be any less successful than “full” Japanese at factory work.

    “Which hafu are the ones with complete fluency?’’
    It’s very rare to be raised in Japan and not be fluent. I can’t say it doesn’t happen, but I’ve never known of it to happen that way. And if you’re talking about half Japanese who were raised outside the country and don’t speak Japanese, doesn’t it seem odd to you that they would find grief in being told they’re not Japanese? The same would apply to someone raised in Japan who chooses not to learn the language.

    “being told to use a foreign name because you don’t look Japanese enough, of landlords not wanting to rent to you, of employers not wanting to hire you or give you a promotion, of being bullied at school for being different, and so on.’’
    Except that there is very little evidence that this happens a lot to hafu. None of this has ever happened to any hafu I know, that’s for sure. Japanese landlords and employers are notoriously finicky and that doesn’t just apply to nationality. If there were any evidence whatsoever that hafu were a targeted group in this regard – as Southeast Asian and Africa gaijin most certainly are – I would be very sympathetic. But I’ve never seen any evidence that this is a significant problem for hafu. Of course it happens, but all the evidence I am aware of shows it’s rare, not commonplace.

    “A celebration of the unique freedom that some hafu experience only tells one part of the story.’’
    A part of the story Nishikura sadly leaves out completely.

  4. Pingback: Hurry! Hafu Film Now at Nanagei Cinema in Osaka | JAPANsociology

  5. As someone who is always being otherised as “half” Japanese, I too was disappointed by the stance taken by the filmmakers. Indeed, I think Mark Makino has a point when he says that they are themselves “trapped in the discourse of pure races”.

    The problem with the word “hafu” or “half” is that it buys into the very racial ideology that we are supposedly trying to dismantle; it implies that ‘being Japanese’ is an inherent characteristic that has been genetically diluted or split into two.

    Megumi Nishikura not only embraces this label, she then goes further with this notion by talking about “the parts of us that [are] Japanese, and the parts of us [are] not”, as though one’s identity is a discrete entity to be divided into smaller pieces and parcelled out to various nations.

    Finally, there’s the background on the Hafu Project’s website, which shows the half-faces of a number of (presumably) “hafu” individuals, all with very sterile expressions like exotic specimens.

    Trivial details, you might say. But when viewed collectively, it simply adds to the perception that we are oddities and somehow less Japanese than others, and that to be Japanese means to posses a certain genetic code of which some of us will only ever have exactly half.

    Nishikura may be fine with this kind of self-portrayal. But for the people on whose behalf she now finds herself speaking, this is exactly the kind of objectification that many of them wish to escape.

    So if the filmmakers are going to make a documentary called “Hafu”, they could at the very least do more to explore the superficiality of this racial label and explain why many of us resent it to begin with.

    • Thanks for the comment. The film includes a discussion of the term “hafu” by two people of mixed Japanese ancestry, one of whom is opposed to the term and another who self-identifies as hafu. There are various terms that people prefer, and it’s important to respect people’s preferences. Nishikura and many others self-identity as hafu (the most common term in Japan that people of mixed Japanese ancestry use to refer to themselves), but many use other terms. Some argue that ‘hafu’ as a wasei-eigo (Japanese-English) term has different meanings than the English term ‘half.’

      I don’t think the film adds to the perception that people of mixed Japanese ancestry are oddities or are less Japanese. In fact, the film achieves the opposite. It portrays the 5 people in a very humanizing way, without imposing a particular definition of what it means to be hafu or Japanese. The 5 people in the film have had different relationships with Japan over the course of their lives. (There’s also a discussion of the term hafu on the Hafu Project site: http://www.hafujapanese.org/eng/bg02.html)

      As for whether Nishikura is promoting genetic notions racial ideology, I think such a conclusion is reading too much into her comments. If someone grows up in two countries, with families in both countries, isn’t it fair for her to refer to parts of herself that are from one country and parts of herself that are from another? My family is growing up in two countries, and they describe themselves that way–and we don’t have any Japanese ancestry. I think we can have parts of ourselves that are tied to different places without seeing those parts as discrete.

      I find it ironic that work that directly challenges purist notions of what it means to be Japanese, and that instead argues for a broader and more inclusive notion of Japaneseness, repeatedly gets critiqued as upholding such notions. The photographic style of Natalie Maya Willer’s work in the Hafu Project is based on the work of two other artists, including Kip Fulbeck (check out his hapa project at http://seaweedproductions.com/the-hapa-project/). Kip Fulbeck has described this approach to framing the subjects–focusing on head shots on a clear background–as deliberately reproducing the form used in pictures for ID cards to highlight the connection between the diversity of faces and identity claims.

      I encourage you to join the discussion with the people who are part of the Hafu Project and other groups in Japan that provide forums for vibrant discussion and exploring experiences related to our mixed ancestries–in Japan and elsewhere. I just spent a wonderful weekend with Mixed Roots Japan, meeting with an extremely diverse crowd and discussing life in Japan–in our case, we did it in 3 languages simultaneously.

      • Thanks for your reply. If I may clarify what I was trying to say:

        The Hafu Japanese website to which you referred me states that “A Hafu is somebody who is Half Japanese.” Since it is not immediately clear what that actually means, we read on to learn that “The word Hafu comes from the English word ‘half’ indicating half foreignness…[it] highlights the genetic make up of half Japanese people, emphasising the existence of foreign blood.” Again, see the website’s ‘half faces’ background if you have doubts about the 50-50 proportion being implied.

        Significantly, there is no mention of a second citizenship, or of whether one has access to a second culture. Such characteristics may often be present, but they are not essential to the definition. Indeed, one Australian-Japanese woman in the film was categorised as a “hafu” despite never having gotten in touch with her ‘Japanese side’, while another was not aware that she was a “hafu” until she learned of her mixed Japanese-and-Korean blood. The term is primarily a racial one, referring, if you will, to “the part of us that is Japanese and the part of us that is not”.

        Now, as I’m sure you’re aware, the idea of “Japanese” and “foreign” blood has no anthropological basis. So in that regard, the word “hafu” doesn’t even make sense.

        More to the point, however, even if we accept that “Japanese blood” is just a convenient political construction, I put it to you that it is not one that we should be encouraging. To speak as though ‘Japanese-ness’ has biological implications is both unnecessary and isolating for those who do not fit the description. Yet every time a representative stands up and qualifies her origins with that moderating word “half”, she immediately makes people define her (and by association, us) by her ‘unusual’ racial hybridisation – when in reality we’re no different from every other individual on this planet who is a hybrid of his/her ancestors, with many ‘pure’ Japanese people incidentally exhibiting more genetic variation than most “hafu”. Why are we, then, the ones who must promote our special racial label?

        It may be that “hafu” is the most common term of self-identification among such people (although I’d be interested to know how this was determined). But I do wonder: how many of these individuals have seriously thought about the implications of this word, and how many of them are simply accepting a label that has been stuck on them by wider society? And indeed, how many promote it simply for vanity’s sake, in order to enjoy the superficial attention that comes with being an exotic creature?

        That last question was not aimed at anybody in particular. But when I see the kind of mileage that people have gotten out of the “Hafu” brand, I can’t help thinking that we’ve made this too much about ‘us’ when the real problem lies with Japanese (and international) society in general. I appreciate the sincerity of these filmmakers, and I admit that some discussion is better than none. But while it’s all very well to say that identity is a personal issue, the people behind these project must understand that they are already doing an awful lot of talking on behalf of a great many of us, whether they realise it or not.

        When people ask me where I’m from, I just state my nationalities, not that that really says who I am either. But being “half” anything should have nothing to do with it.

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