//By Keith Ikoma//
On May 31st, I attended a showing of the film Hafu in Akita City.
Some background about me: I am half-Japanese, and Hafu is about half-Japanese people and their experience in Japan. However, I am from Vancouver, one of the most multicultural cities in the world. There is a significant Asian influence on the city as almost half of residents have some Asian ethnic heritage. It’s a city where everyone is from somewhere. I like to think that at its best, Vancouver is a city where being “Canadian” is simply a matter of deciding that you are one.
Living in Japan is different. There is a much greater sense of “us” and “them.” To be fair, racism and issues of inclusion exist everywhere, but as the film points out, Japan has one of the lowest rates of ethnic diversity of any country. Canada and Japan are near polar opposites when it comes to the issue – and if Japan’s overall rate is low, Akita’s is near zero.
Which brings us to the film. It documents the lives of four individuals who are half-Japanese (ハーフ) and one family with two half-Japanese children. Most of the film consists of interviews and brief glimpses into the lives of these people as they encounter the challenges of living in Japan.
My own experience would be closest to that of Sophia, an Australian in her late 20’s who comes to Japan to live for a year with vague notions of learning about her Japanese heritage. While she has some cultural relics of her Japanese side, such as a darker hair colour and having eaten onigiri as a child, she is Australian first, and half-Japanese second. That would be me, too. I’m fully Canadian, and half-Japanese. She struggles through a year in Japan, eventually gaining some proficiency with the language, but ultimately spending most of her social life with other foreigners.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this has been my experience, but I can understand her feelings. While this is not an unusual experience for foreigners in Japan, the unique element is the feeling that she is both partly Japanese but at the same time will never truly be so; it is a sort of loss of self-identity.
The film is at times overly sentimental; for those of us who have lived as foreigners in Japan, it really is just preaching to the choir. However, while the film may not be groundbreaking, some of the stories are really touching. The little boy Alex who is teased about being the “English-boy” because he is the only non-Japanese person in his class is frustrating, especially because he is ethnically half, and culturally mostly Japanese. It is a powerful example of the challenges Hafus face in Japan. If nothing else, the film gives a human face to the impact of Japan’s past attitude toward non-Japanese people and perspective to current discussions about changing values in this country.