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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

"Hafu" an AMAZING Start But We Need to Go Deeper

[image from]
About a week ago I had the chance to do something I've been wanting to do (and bugging the filmmakers about for a long time) -- finally go to a local screening of the documentary Hafu, meaning "half," which represents 5 stories of mixed heritage Japanese folks navigating their multi/identities in Japan today. The film was made by a production team of mostly mixed-race Japanese themselves many either having been raised, born and raised, or with very close ties to the country. The movie shares with us the lived lives of: Edward (Venezuelan/Japanese), The Oi Family particularly their son Alex (Mexican/Japanese), David (Ghanaian/Japanese), Fusae (Korean/Japanese), and Sophia (Australian/Japanese).

Even though this is a regionally based conversation about the mixed-race experience, there is still so much here that I expect will resonate with and be familiar to multiracial Asian folks all over the world. Sophia remembers being "devastated" when she brought much beloved onigiri for lunch as a child and her Australian teacher told her, "You shouldn't eat that weird food." 3rd/4th grader Alex, teased so badly at school for being mixed he ends up living with extended family in Mexico, explains to the filmmakers that his Japanese teacher told him to figure it out himself when he asked for help with bullying. "I realized," he says, "I couldn't count on the teachers." Edward relays his journey to Japanese citizenship, how he will be required to renounce his Venezuelan passport, and grappling with the fear of losing an important symbol of and tie to his now deceased Venezuelan father. Through tears, Fusae painfully shares how her mother didn't tell her she was Korean until 16 saying, "I was so worried that being half Korean would be a burden for you," and then even as an adult warning Fusae that a Japanese husband might not want her if he finds out. And David describes how  as a kid once playing soccer with friends, everyone crowded around him after an injury to see what color he bled because they thought it would be green. He recalls, "I was like a space alien to them."

David, Japanese/Ghanaian [image from]
I was like a space alien to them.

I definitely laughed. I cried. I smiled. I shook my head in disbelief and rolled my eyes. I nodded knowingly and felt hugged on the inside. I felt camaraderie and closeness. I felt enveloped and part of something. This film does beautifully and soul-achingly something I am always arguing for -- create a space in which the voices of multiracials themselves can talk about their own experiences in their own words, and be heard. This film also shows how important connection and community are for multi-'s, how there are perhaps universal commonalities inherent in all lives that cross boundaries, and how not only Japan but the whole WORLD is changing and needs to talk about race and race-mixing. A great example of this is the closing series of animated statistical infographics. These center Japan of course but at the same time it's impossible not to also notice how fluid global populations in general are becoming because of technological advances (including the technology that allowed the sleek infographics to be designed in the first place), the Internet, the ability to move around the planet so much more easily, etc:

Overall I think this documentary is a must-see. But (and you knew there was gonna be a "but") -- I would like to see the conversation go deeper. To me it felt like there was the proverbial elephant-in-the-room that never quite got called out. A missing critique of the systems and institutions of state, nation and global race politics that press against mixed heritage peoples, intrude upon, limit, and often direct their ID construction. To be fair these institutions were alluded to: Edward's path to citizenship, Alex's troubles in the school system, or Fusae's attempts to understand the historical tensions between Korea and Japan, etc. But I don't know that these allusions were in the end that critical, subversive, or resistant. For instance, we know Edward is trying to naturalize but the film doesn't explore deeply the government body that pressures him to do so in a certain way, that leaves him in fear he will be evicted from the nation with which he identifies, and which denied him citizenship in the first place because of patrilineal law discriminating against Japanese women for marrying non-Japanese men. Fusae tells us she studied the roots of troubled Korea-Japan relations to make sense of her own internal shame/conflicts but then we don't learn anything about what those histories actually are which include, among other things, the oppressive occupation of Korea by Japan for 35 yrs and the heinous coercion of Korean Comfort Women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Army during WWII; women who are to this day seeking recognition and reparations and receiving a great deal of pushback.

And of course the weightiest, but most invisible, bulk of said elephant remained the ginormous privilege of whiteness. It didn't escape my notice that the only woman who seemed fairly blase about loss of Japanese ID, put forward the least effort to claim it, and who capitulated the most easily into whiteness and erasure of heritage was the Asian/white Sophia. Even though she had suffered discrimination as a child of color in her native Australia, the lightness of her coloring combined with her white heritage seemed to heavily impact her experience in Japan. Whereas all her costars, who were mixes of color, either felt compelled or that they had to work very hard at "race" to exert their identities - the hardest worker of all of course being Black/Asian David. Of all the featured mixes, David is the only one who grew up in an orphanage. As an adult he labors intensively to raise money in Japan for the building of an elementary school in his motherland Ghana. Now while of course we can't help but admire David's courage, commitment, and persistence in being a sort of peace ambassador here, there is no mention of why his mother's village didn't have money to build the school to begin with; how white colonialism and the enslavement of African peoples devastated Africa leaving it to battle centuries of extreme poverty and suffering.

Sophia, Japanese/Australian [image from]
...the weightiest, but most invisible, 
bulk of said elephant remained 
the ginormous privilege of whiteness.

What this absence of systemic-institutional critique resulted in I think was a documentary that celebrated and amplified beautifully the voices of multiracials BUT ultimately also seemed to center the responsibility for movement on individual mixed-race peoples themselves as soldiers of change, bridges between cultures, or harbingers of hope, rather than those in actual power. We can see this not only in the full-length feature but also in Hafu's official trailer which begins with hurt and tears but maybe leaves us with a feeling that in the end it's all going to be okay because mixed-race folk are going to make it better?

Case in point immediately following the screening King 5's Lori Matsukawa, mother of a mixed Asian/white son, got up to speak and told us in typical mixed-race-postrace-Polyanna-style she thought her son growing up in America had had an "easy time of it" and that in her family's Hawaii "everybody wants to be Hafu" to which my Japanese mother-in-law instantly replied her Asian/white children had had an incredibly hard time growing up in a predominantly white American community on the mainland. And then later walking out, my mother-in-law immediately added, "Thousands of years of history are not going to change quick just because mixed children are born...It's not just in Japan. It's the whole world." Amen. I see Hafu as a phenomenal step towards recognition but I would also like to see multiracials construct their identities in a way that challenges the systems pressing against them; IDs that are of course widely varied but that at their core (in addition to being celebratory) remain alert, aware, even subversive and resistant. Ambiguous phenotype alone does not unearth centuries of prejudicial dominant oppression. I think it's a mistake to expect the mere act of birthing mixed-race children in and of itself is the revolution. There is no real change until systems and institutions change. Isn't it alright to expect and demand others in power and those who are not mixed to make space in their world for the stories and needs of everyone? That's the real revolution.


  1. Thank you for sharing Sharon. It's true. We are not going to eliminate racism, segregation and oppression at large just by making mixed babies.

  2. Great critique, Sharon! Especially interesting to note the lack of exploration of institutional barriers and of the fact that not all mixes are treated (or experienced) in the same way. I'm very intrigued and wish the film was showing somewhere near me!
    - Fiona