“Ms. Miyamoto said it was a personal loss that motivated her to join the Miss Universe competition last year. She said one of her friends, a half-white American who was born and raised in Japan, hanged himself because he was tired of being mocked for being unable to speak English despite having non-Japanese features.”

 – New York Times, Biracial Beauty Queen Challenges Japan’s Self-Image


Hafu: The Mixed Race Experience in Japan documents several contemporary stories of half-Japanese people who live in (or who come to) Japan. David, one of the subjects, is half-Ghanaian. Walking around in Tokyo, he “reads” black, and consequently he’s constantly made to feel like a foreigner no matter how perfectly he speaks the language, no matter how typically Japanese he acts (and the way he moves – his small repeated bows when thanking a donor to the charity he founded, for example – is very Japanese). Another subject of the documentary, Alex, is a boy of ten who is born in a trilingual household to a Japanese father and a Mexican mother. He’s teased in school, and this stress begins to manifest physical symptoms – he stutters when he speaks Japanese, but not in Spanish or English – and his parents wrestle with how to balance equipping him with the tools he needs to live and work in Japanese society versus giving him an environment where he feels more comfortable, more at home.

Then there’s Sophia, who grew up in Australia, and who opens the film describing not liking being half-Japanese as a child. She recalls how a teacher’s careless comment at school led her to reject the onigiri and bento box lunches her parents would make for her. I think nearly everyone who grew up participating in multiple cultures remembers a moment like this, where conspicuous vestiges of the home culture become unwelcome and unwanted because of school, where conformity is one of the requirements to avoid being bullied and ostracized. Sophia tells us that she is moving to Japan to discover the other side of her heritage and to learn Japanese. She’s always felt somewhat ashamed that she can’t speak Japanese, especially because people often assume she can due to her background. She doesn’t want to be one of those gaijin who goes to Japan and only ever hangs out with other gaijin, she says. She wants to make actual Japanese friends.

It doesn’t take intimate knowledge of Japan to predict how this goes. Sophia’s attempts to learn the language hit headwinds, and she ends up spending much more time with English-speaking expatriates than she originally hoped. Eventually she begins a relationship with a white man, and after about a year of living in Tokyo, she moves back to Australia with him in tow.

It would be easy, I think, to see Sophia as something of a flake in her commitment to understanding the “real” Japan, but I found myself connecting with her story as the only subject of the film who grew up primarily in a Western country, and to whom a lot of what is Japanese is more or less forever inaccessible. Sophia may have been idealistic about the degree to which Japan would accept her and the ease with which she would absorb its language and culture, but she did make more of an attempt than many do and seemed to learn something about herself in the process.

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At the center of the film is the question of what it means to be Japanese. At one point a young woman introduces herself (in Japanese) as half-Ryukyuan and half-American, adding, “I’d like to be Japanese, but I don’t think I can be.” To American ears, this may sound devastatingly fatalistic: after all, the United States was built not only on immigration but also on the historical concept of assimilation – the idea that one can eventually become American if one follows the rules and fits into a certain ideal of behavior. 

For most Japanese, however, there is little distinction between being racially Japanese and being nationally Japanese. There are plenty of gaijin who manage to out-do the Japanese in what you might call various forms of Japaneseness – they’ve lived there for decades, learned more kanji than anyone else, and can do typically Japanese things like calligraphy or flower arrangement better than most natives. That might earn some respect, but those aren’t vectors towards “becoming” Japanese, because that just isn’t possible. Assimilation in the sense of that historic American ideal never existed in Japan.

That sense is strong enough that even for Japanese people, leaving the country for a significant amount of time can pose a challenge to the idea of being Japanese. The longer a person stays away, the more of Japan they are giving up, to the point where Japan’s migrant communities around the world, some of which are now in their fifth generation, are not really seen as Japanese anymore by people in the homeland. I once watched a documentary about Japanese-Americans produced by NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster; in it, the family names of the Japanese-Americans were spelled out in katakana, the alphabet used for foreign words. It was sad to see someone with a real Japanese name, say a Mr. Kawaguchi, likely 川口, displayed as カワグチ. It felt like a cutting-off – a rebuke.

However society as a whole sees and treats them, though, the most important decision in Hafu for each of the subjects is how they choose to see and describe themselves. Experiencing, and to some extent confronting, both sides of themselves is what allows them to settle on an answer: David’s first trip to Ghana is how he realizes he thinks of himself as Japanese, and Sophia’s year in Tokyo helps her learn that she is more comfortable thinking of herself as an Australian. Alex is shown doing much better in international school, where the language of record is English – though he is still young, and has plenty time to decide on his answer to the question that anyone of mixed race has faced at one point or another, whether it comes from their own thoughts or from a fascinated stranger: “What are you?”

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To bring this around to games for a bit: you don’t play (or make) games for long without some part of Japan and its culture touching you in a significant way. The landscape of today’s industry has been shaped in part by a profoundly international cross-pollination as inspirations bounced back and forth across the oceans over the last few decades; you could say with some poetic license that games themselves are a mixed child. A small but significant number of people in the West were sufficiently inspired by Japanese-made games, consoles, and other cultural products to relocate to the country, and many of them now have Japanese partners and are old enough to be raising families of their own.

I’ll never forget the time I was introduced to a coworker who had recently come back to the States from a stint working at the company’s Japan office and who had returned with a Japanese wife. When I explained my own parentage he stopped for a moment and inadvertently smiled. I think for that brief instant I inspired a vision for him, a flash forward of his own, as-yet unconceived children. So to the not-insignificant number of people reading this who are, who have, or who will have mixed-race progeny, this film shows us how we grow from those roots and discover who we are.

At the same time, though, it feels like most people in games in the West still think of Japan and its people as either as a series of mysteries in need of constant explanation, or else a place completely beyond Western understanding. The country is often reduced to a perennial source of “wackiness” for others to consume, a place characterized by inexplicable cultural products and exasperating societal norms. “Oh, Japan!” is the phrase – as if we were talking about an eccentric family member in a way that is simultaneously over-familiar (as though we could all know Japan) and distancing (we don’t approve but it can’t be helped). What is that attitude but the mark of a kind of short-circuiting of the mind that precludes deeper thought? How is that interjection, no matter how inoffensively meant, any different than the smug, presumptuous knowingness of an anime fan who’s only too happy to inaccurately explain a fine point of “Japanese culture” to the other members of their forum? The need to button up Japan in a few strong words, or in straightforward dictionary definitions gleaned from encyclopedias and travel guides, is as dangerous an impulse as it is to assume it can never be understood at all.

People of mixed race are uniquely positioned in this respect. Near the end of the film, David mentions he feels it’s his destiny as a hafu to build mutual understanding and respect between the cultures of his heritage. That doesn’t mean he’s there to explain Ghana to Japan, or explain Japan to Ghana. He is not a device. He is a human being. He embodies a connection between those two cultures through his very presence and his lived experience. That’s why I think anyone of a mixed race or multicultural background would find this documentary worth viewing, as would anyone who’s interested in Japanese society and its future in general. The stories in Hafu are personal but they are also about where Japan, and the world, is going in the long term. Pluralities of being is our modern mode.