Today I caught a bus to a university I didn’t know existed and watched a film about a group of people who would not be considered a specific minority in my own country.
The ‘caught a bus’ was the most surprising part of that. Buses are terrifying: they have no rails and you pay when you disembark, meaning you have only the laxest of promises regarding location and cost when you irrevocably commit yourself.
But admittedly only slightly relevant to this story.
The film I was heading to see was ‘Hafu’, an independent production exploring the lives of Japanese residents who have one Japanese and one foreign parent. The term ‘hafu’ comes from the English word ‘half’ meaning ‘half-Japanese, half-something else’ and the film focusses on the issues surrounding having a mixed heritage in Japan. The film is currently being shown at various locations both in Japan and abroad, with this particular showing being at Tokai University’s Sapporo campus.
I should probably point out there are spoilers coming up, although since the film is very much a people story, even a direct transcript couldn't convey the full production
Situated on a hill at the southern edge of the city, Tokai University is reached by sailing down to the end of the subway line and then risking all to catch a bus. Once such an endeavour had been successfully undertaken, the location of the screening was well sign posted, leading to hall with twin side-by-side cinema screens. These screens worked independently and both showed the movie, which resulted in the disconcerting phenomenon of seeing a movie called ‘Half' in double.
Before I saw ‘Hafu’, I had two clear preconceptions:
(1) That this was a film that could only exist about Japan. In more multicultural countries, I reasoned people’s looks far more rarely led to preconceptions about their nationalistic identity.
(2) That social difficulties associated with mixed parentage were most prevalent in children, due to school ground bullying typically circulating around any perceived differences.
Both of these were to be blown out of the water, the first within the first 10 seconds of the film.
The film itself is in both Japanese and English, with each person talking in the language they feel most at ease and subtitles providing the alternative translation. This is a particularly powerful use of language since it puts the film’s Japanese and English speaking audience on the same level, with each group hearing their own language half of the time.
The first person we meet in ‘Hafu’ is Sophia, a half-Australian, half-Japanese 27 year old who grew up in Sydney. Visiting Japan only occasionally during her childhood, Sophia spoke only a little Japanese and was anxious to connect with her Asian heritage. The movie opens with her move to Tokyo and plans to learn the language and make Japanese friends. Sophia clearly states that she does not want to be one of the many foreigners living in Japan who only spend time with other foreigners; she wants to be Japanese.
At this declaration, my lips curled. Sophia’s naivety is head-bang-on-desk worthy because I could relate to it so easily. As the film progressed, Sophia realises that foreigners collect together not through a lack of tenacity in the language-learning department, but because to become fluent in a language so exceedingly different from English is hard.
May I just repeat that? Japanese is hard. Its alien grammatical structure and cultural nuances make it a task that amounts to far more than learning a different vocabulary and writing system. Add to that cultural barriers that make it difficult to find a common ground, and Japan presents real challenges for foreigners who wish to integrate. And that applies to ‘hafus’ too.
While this revelation was not surprising, Sophia’s description of her childhood made me take a metaphorical step back. When she first attended school, she brought a bento box for lunch, loaded with her favourite onigiri. A teacher demanded to know what she was eating and when Sophia explained, she was told she should not bring that to school but bring the same as all the other children.
‘You’re in Australia now,' she was told.
She never brought a bento to school again.
This story made me re-evaluate my views of my own country. It is true that in the UK, I would not assume someone was not British because they were not caucasian, but I would be surprised if they were not fluent in English or did not act in a similar manner to myself. This point was also made during a recent chat I had with a Yorkshire midwife who was describing the difficulties with delivering a baby to a woman wearing the full burqa.
“They live in Britain now!” she said in exasperation.
While cultural difficulties can present a real and serious problem when ethical values clash, there can also be a prevailing feeling that if you live in Britain, you should become British: the UK shouldn’t change to become more like you.
The reluctance to change is also very true of Japan, yet the difficulties Hafu face demonstrate the problem is compounded by the view that anyone who does not conform to the most main-stream conception of 'Japanese' is an outsider. This includes people with only a single Japanese parent, who are considered foreigners even if they have lived in Japan their whole lives. The result is an extremely rigid system, catering only to the single type of person who is viewed as 'Japanese'.
Sophia’s problem stemming from the school's teachers, rather than the students, was seen again in Alex’s experiences. A nine year old grade schooler, Alex has a Mexican mother and Japanese father. Aware of the fact that Japanese was a difficult language to learn how to write, Alex’s father wanted his children to attend a Japanese school. However, Alex found an environment not interested in adapting to his home background.
Bullied by the other students for being an ‘English boy', he called upon his teachers for help but they refused to intervene. As Alex’s grades dropped, his teacher informed his parents that Alex was ‘slow’, not considering the fact that a child learning three languages (Alex speaks Japanese, Spanish and English) might be further behind in reading and writing than his peers only battling with one.
Yet, the problems did not diminish at adulthood. Raised in Japan yet not looking entirely Japanese gives many hafus the feeling of being Japanese on the inside but foreign on the outside. David is a striking example of this, with a Japanese father and Ghanaian mother. Brought up in a Japanese orphanage, David is culturally Japanese, a feeling that intensified when he visited Ghana for the first time in his early 20s. Despite this, he struggled to make friends as a child, with the main cause highlighted during a football game when he cut his leg. As the other children ran up, they stopped in stunned surprise:
“You bleed red like us. We thought your blood would be green."
However this feeling of disconnection does not always stem from looks. Fusae grew up believing she was pure Japanese and only discovered otherwise when her High School records showed the Korean decent of her father. Deeply concerned with the bloody history between Japan and Korea, Fusae’s mother had concealed the truth about her child’s heritage to protect her from those who would reject a half-Korean from their social circle. The talk she and Fusae shared upon Fusae’s discovery was so serious Fusae did not tell anyone about her heritage, letting the knowledge gnaw inside of her.
“When you tell you prospective husband that you are half-Korean, you must be prepared for him not wanting to marry you anymore,” her mother told her.
The result was a series of unsuccessful relationships due to Fusae feeling unable to get close to her boyfriend while concealing a secret for which she was sure she would be rejected. It was not until she became involved in ‘Mixed Roots Kansai’, a community for those with mixed heritage, that Fusae felt comfortable with who she was. Despite her current happiness, the fact Fusae felt ashamed of her own origins was one of the most moving points in the film.
The particular community Fusae joined was created by Ed, a half-Venezulean who realised that the growing community of half-Japanese in Japan needed a place where their voices could be heard. Ed himself grew up in Japan but kept his Venezulean citizenship, meaning that he had to apply every three years for a new Japanese visa. The renewal date for this was November, a difficult month due to the school semesters. Ed requested that he renew his visa early, but was told that he either renewed it in November or risked having his residency taken away.
(This stickler for dates is extremely Japanese.)
While Ed could have applied for full Japanese citizenship, he was reluctant to give up his Venezulean passport, feeling this was akin to giving up part of himself. Such a feeling was emphasised by the Japanese directions for those applying for a passport:
“You should make an effort to give up other nationalities."
Assimilation, not combination, is the idea.
It is estimated that 1 in 49 babies born in Japan now have one non-Japanese parent. Hafu’s message is clear: Japan is changing and this growing community is one that is demanding full acceptance, and a home.