“HAFU” Special Screening in Fukuoka – Report

On Dec. 15, Fukuoka Now hosted Kyushu’s premiere screening of documentary film, “Hafu – the mixed-race experience in Japan” at KBC Cinema to a sold out audience of 150. The screening was followed by an audience discussion session. Report by Katie Forster for Fukuoka Now.

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Simon Clements has travelled over an hour and a half from Kumamoto to the KBC Cinema near Tenjin to attend the sold out Fukuoka Now screening of Hafu with his Japanese wife and three of their children. “I thought it would be good for them to see what other kids have gone through as ‘half’ – although I don’t like that word” he tells us. They take their seats in the busy cinema, finding their place among the crowd, many of whom are also part of mixed families and relationships.

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Hafu is a documentary which follows the experiences of five young people of mixed heritage, or ‘hafu’ as they are still commonly known in Japanese, in a country where only 2% of the population are foreign, yet mixed marriages are on the increase. The film was inspired by a social research and photography project exploring what it means to be half-Japanese in Japan and around the world.

Since its release earlier this year, Hafu has been shown in various cities worldwide and Fukuoka Now’s event is the first time the film has been shown in Kyushu. All 150 tickets were snapped up before the Sunday afternoon screening and a short survey published on the magazine website prior to the event attracted a range of responses – 72% of respondents say that they have seen, heard or experienced some form of discrimination against those called ‘hafu’.

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This show of interest highlights how this topic interests and affects people living in Japan, whilst it is not necessarily easily discussed in everyday life: “It’s not talked about enough – in fact, it’s almost taboo” says one voice in a huddled group of audience members animatedly discussing their reactions to the film in the lobby.

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The projection is followed by a half-hour open discussion on the situations encountered by the cast of the film, enriched by stories of personal experiences and views on the wider ideas of identity and nationality. A brief show of hands reveals that whilst around a third of the audience have two Japanese parents, there are many foreigners and a substantial number of people of mixed Japanese origin themselves.

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Topics of education strike a chord in the post-film debate. In the film, tri-lingual schoolboy Alex’s Mexican and Japanese parents discuss whether he should continue at his Japanese school, where he is struggling socially and academically, or move to an international school where he may be happier, yet potentially risking his Japanese language level and integration into Japanese culture.

A man who introduces himself as Darren compares Alex’s situation with that of his own son, who attends a Japanese kindergarten. His son has not experienced any racism and is popular in his class, yet he worries that in later years teachers could turn a blind eye to any bullying or discrimination, as happens in the film. He thinks that the film should be shown to teachers around the country. This idea is echoed by Tristan, who I speak with after the show: “I think this is a problem with the teaching community here in general – they have difficulty with all types of difference”.

Japan does not generally accept dual nationality past the age of 20. In the film this law provokes Edward, who is half-Venezuelan, to question his self-identity as he considers giving up his Venezuelan passport. A young member of the audience, who grew up in the UK, thinks that this forced renunciation of Japanese citizenship is the hardest thing she has had to deal with so far. “At 20, I was effectively stricken off my mother’s kokusei certificate. I felt that Japan was rejecting me as a Japanese person. I always used to say that I was Japanese and English, but now I identify more with the UK.’

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The use of the term ‘hafu’, although currently widely accepted in Japan, is also a point of contention at the event and online beforehand: almost half of the responses to our survey say that the term bothered them. The film does not come down strongly on either side of the fence, yet opposing views are raised in the discussion. Akito, from Tasmania, sees the word as useful, as he feels that it is “important people understand that I’m half, both in Australia and Japan”. However, Brian Waters disagrees, stressing that “the word ’hafu’ shouldn’t do anything to define who you are”.

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Alex, from America, thinks that humans use all kinds of words from a young age to separate people. “Half, hybrid, double, gaijin, foreign – all of these labels have baggage” he says. He feels that the documentary’s detailed representation of real-life experience is more effective than simply telling people ‘don’t say half’ and that it is “the kind of movie that everyone should see”.

The feeling of being an outsider is explored in the film through different viewpoints. For Sophie, who comes to Tokyo from Australia to stay in her grandmother’s house and learn Japanese, the language barrier and finding close Japanese friends prove problematic. After her stay, she comments that she feels “not so much a part of Japan, but [that] Japan is a part of me”.

The film features a group called ‘Mixed Roots’, set up to allow people with diverse backgrounds to meet each other. Nobody at the screening knows of a similar organisation in Fukuoka, but a ‘Fukuoka families’ Facebook page is mentioned for anyone interested in connecting with others online. One of the members of the group in the film is Fusae, who is half-Korean but was raised to believe she was fully Japanese, with emotionally painful consequences.

The film’s juxtaposition of Fusae’s experience, in which her background is kept secret, and that of David, whose father is Japanese and mother is from Ghana, shows how much outward discrimination is based on superficial appearance. Despite having grown up in Japan and identifying as Japanese, David says that every day he has to answer questions such as ‘where are you from?’, or ‘what are you?’ However, he decides to continue to explain his background in the hope that this will cultivate understanding and pave the way for the next generation of mixed race children in Japan.

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Before the event, I spoke to Tomo, whose mother is from Japan and father is from New Zealand. She feels that her access to two cultures has opened up a range of opportunities, yet she does acknowledge that assumptions are made about people based on their background, both in Japan and elsewhere in the world. “You do get a lot more comments on who you are”, she says. She hopes that an increase in children from international families can “bring something from their background into Japan. I hope they don’t just try and fit the mould of what is seen as ‘Japanese’, but find a sense of self”.

Tomo believes that today’s Japan is different to that of her parents’ generation, a message that the film is keen to promote. After the discussion, I meet Robert, from Brooklyn, who is half-Japanese, and his son Kevin, who shares his mixed heritage. “I was teased on both sides of the ocean” he says. “However, this has changed – or is changing – for Kevin.” With one in 49 babies born in Japan now from mixed couples, Hafu is a film which highlights this shift in demography and identity, and urges a multicultural Japan to embrace its growing diversity.

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