Experiences of the mixed race (hafu) in Japan

Posted by James, 10 Oct 14

Marcus James who is half Australian/half Japanese virtually felt obliged to watch the film Hafu. It was as if he had some responsibility to cultivate his 'neglected' side of his background; his Japanese side.

Hafu – the mixed race experience of Japan is a documentary which follows the lives of young mixed race Japanese living in Japan. The University of Sydney screened the Australian premiere of this film which is presented under the tag “Japan is changing”.

After watching the film however, James didn’t feel any more Japanese. In fact, the film didn’t give him the motivation to explore that part of his cultural heritage. The only thing that came from watching it was the realization of his identity as a Hafu or "halfie" as Australians would call them saying: “The individuals in Hafu were like me. They were my people.” He identified with them.

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James admits that the connection he felt to Hafu had everything to do with race saying:

“The unfortunate fact is that racial categorisation has shaped the experiences I share with the hafus in the film, particularly the sense of exclusion and discrimination from the different sides to my background and the resulting ambiguity in navigating my position in this.

One of the hafus documented in the film was 27 year old born and bred Sydney-sider, Sophia. In a poignant interview she recalls opening up her o-bento lunchbox prepared by her Japanese mother, only to be derided by schoolmates and have a teacher tell her, “you’re in Australia now”. As a schoolkid growing up in the Northern Beaches I had identical experiences, and just as Sophia recalled her mother’s censure, my own mother packed Nutella sandwiches to stop me getting bullied."

According to James, much as he and Sophia are half white, to White Australia, they are “Other”. But he feels that “Other” doesn’t fit either.

“I might look Asian, but really I am not… My allegiance to being white or yellow was the topic of speculation, and one student pointed out that I belonged to neither and that I was a 'dirty half-blood'”, says James.

In a bid to reconnect with her Japanese culture, in the film, Sophia decides to live in Japan for a year and learns Japanese all the while trying to piece together her confusing identity as a hafu. While there she is faced with the stigma of being mixed race in Japan: They are either respected as models and TV stars or relegated from the majority; whether or not they are Japanese or foreigners.

James also recalls his memory of being in Japan: “…two locals watched me as the butt of their joke. One would say “Nihonjin” (Japanese) while the other said “Gaijin” (foreigner), and they repeated this exchange until I walked past speaking English to my friend. Upon hearing me, the man saying “Gaijin” shouted it out and laughed at the other in victory.”

Yes, James identifies as Australian and lucky for him, he rarely experiences racial discrimination. Yet he admits that the hafu experience is different:

“It is where both sides of your background expect and frame you to be the other. Where does that place you? Nowhere, really. This is no longer the case for me, but I have experienced a sense of disillusionment as a result of being excluded from both ‘sides’ of me. It is precisely because of this that I so enjoyed watching Hafu and also why I have raised the issue faced by mixed-race people.”

James believes it is crucial to understand the experiences of mixed race individuals since there will be more of them in future. However James was quite shocked at the small number of young people at the Hafu’s screening… in fact there were no mixed race individuals but him. He wonders in conclusion:

“Is it because we don’t care enough? Or is it because we are educated and moral enough to accept people for who they are and not expect a person of mixed-race to ‘pick sides’? I hope it’s the latter.”

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