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“Hafu” Filmmaker Spotlights Bicultural Japan

The recent film Hafu documents the lives of five bicultural Japanese. spoke to one of the film’s two directors, Nishikura Megumi, to learn more about the film and the motivation behind it.

Nishikura Megumi

Nishikura MegumiFilmmaker. Born in Tokyo in 1980. Lived in Japan until the age of four and subsequently in the Philippines, China, and Hawaii, prior to attending New York University, where she majored in film production. Returned to Japan in 2006 to pursue a master’s degree in peace studies at International Christian University. In 2009 became involved in video production for United Nations University on the topic of Japan’s environmental issues. Around the same time she began shooting the film Hafu together with Takagi Lara. In 2013, the film debuted in the United States (April) and in Japan (October).

The number of Japanese citizens marrying foreign nationals has been increasing at a rapid pace, and every year more than 20,000 children are born in Japan to such international couples. These binational kids have been in the media spotlight lately, with many celebrities from such backgrounds appearing on television. But the image conveyed on the screen does not fully capture the reality.

Unlike many of these TV celebrities, who tend to be children of a Caucasian parent, around three-fourths of all international marriages in Japan involve a partner from another Asian country, most notably China, South Korea, and the Philippines (according to 2007 data from the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare). So many of the children of these marriages do not superficially resemble what most people view as a binational—or hafu, as they are called in Japanese (from the English word “half”—as in “half-Japanese”).

The recently released film Hafu, co-produced by filmmaker Nishikura Megumi, follows the lives of five hafu raised in a bicultural environment. met up with Nishikura to learn more about the film and her own experiences as a bicultural person.

A Search for Identity

Nishikura’s father is Japanese and her mother is an American of Irish descent. Ever since nursery school, she had the feeling that she was a bit different from other Japanese: “I remember the kids in my neighborhood calling me gaijin [foreigner]. I have many happy memories from my days at Japanese elementary school, but I do remember the teacher singling me out for being able to speak English. When I moved to Hawaii and attended high school there, I became completely integrated and did not really think about being hafu or Japanese at all.”

Nishikura says her dream of becoming a film director dates back to middle school. While attending the American School in Japan, she joined the school’s video club and got involved in making documentaries and news programs. Later she majored in film production at New York University and after graduating produced a number of documentaries dealing with peacebuilding and other global issues. Her interest in her own identity as a hafu emerged after she returned to Japan at the age of 26 to pursue a master’s degree in peace studies at International Christian University in Tokyo.

It was Nishikura’s own experiences that led her to explore the question of binational identity: “In Japan, people often ask me ‘What country are you from?’ or ‘Why do you look the way you do with a Japanese name?’ After being asked these questions repeatedly, I started to realize that in Japan, Japanese people don’t see me as Japanese even though I was born and raised here. My secure identity started to waver—‘Am I really Japanese?’ I would ask myself. In order to answer this question, I began going to hafu gatherings. These are often drinking parties for young hafus in their 20s, but many of them were also searching for answers.”

It was through these gatherings that Nishikura became aware of the Hafu Project, which was started in London in 2009. The project was the brainchild of two hafus—a photographer and a researcher—who wanted to shed light on the current situation for hafus through photographs, interviews, and surveys. Nishikura became involved in showcasing the project through her own activities as a filmmaker. She shot two videos chronicling the activities of project members who came to Japan but eventually decided on the idea of creating a full-length film for a general audience in Japan on the hafu theme.

For the film, she teamed up with another director, Takagi Lara, a filmmaker who shared the same interest in bringing this theme to the big screen, based on her own background as a person of Japanese and Spanish descent.

A Diversity of Experiences

The film Hafu, produced in cooperation with participants from the Hafu Project, sheds light on the diverse situations for hafus today, looking at the quite different experiences of five different hafus featured.

There is Sophia, who was raised in Australia but comes to live in Japan to explore her Japanese roots. Another hafu in the film is David, who was raised in an orphanage along with his older and younger brother and had to overcome the pain of people not viewing him as Japanese. He was reunited eventually with his mother in Ghana. And then there is Fusae, who did not know until she was in high school that her father was Korean. Another hafu featured is Ed, who is considering giving up his Venezuelan citizenship in order to become a Japanese citizen. Finally, the film introduces the audience to Alex, who was bullied in Japan and decided on his own, as a third-grader, to visit his relatives in Mexico. What the five have in common is that they searched for—and found—their own identity and sense of home out of the two cultures of their parents.

“Through Alex’s family story,” explains Nishikura, “we wanted to explore issues of raising multicultural children and educational choices that parents have to make. We never imagined covering the issue of bullying in schools, but through Alex’s story we were able to. And I am glad that we were able to explore that, as it is a huge problem in Japan, and not just for hafus.

“In Ed’s story, we were originally going to focus mainly on his process of naturalizing to become a Japanese citizen, but we soon realized how long the process takes. So we also included another important theme, and that was Ed’s search for community. I think that is something many hafus can relate to. So in these ways, new developments to the story happened while we were filming.”

  • [2013.12.27]
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