Culture //

The ‘Hafu’ experience

By Marcus James.

Quite a while back, the University of Sydney screened the Australian premiere of Hafu – the mixed race experience of Japan. The brainchild of directors Megumi Nishikara and Lara Perez Takagi, this documentary followed the lives of young, mixed race Japanese in the infamously monocultural Japan, presenting the film under the catchphrase “Japan is changing”.

As a half Japanese Australian, I almost felt obliged to watch Hafu as if I had some duty to nurture the more neglected side of my background. Yet after the screening as I walked to a mate’s for the State of Origin, it occurred to me that watching the film had not made me feel any more Japanese nor any more inclined to explore that part of my family and culture. Rather, I realised my identity as a ‘hafu’ or what many in Australia call ‘halfie’. The individuals in Hafu were like me. They were my people.

Now this may seem a predicament –  some warped notion of mongrel nationalism where I parade my Eurasian-ness like a badge of honour. Certainly racial exclusivity should have absolutely no role in modern Australian society. Equally, race should not dictate who I perceive myself to be, and indeed it does not. I am Australian.

But it would be misleading to say that the connection I felt to Hafu has nothing to do with race. I wish it wasn’t. 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. While Australia has progressed far from the 1990s schoolyard, these experiences underline the precarious situation of being mixed-race.

Both Sophia and I are part European. But to Anglo-Australia, we were Other.

Yet that mould of the Other which was designated to us by White Australia did not fit either. I might look Asian, but really I am not. This was made clear to me during high school, where the great majority of the students were from a migrant background. 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”.

So then what about our supposed motherland? In the film, Sophia lives a year in Japan to learn Japanese from scratch, reconnect with her culture, and ultimately try to piece together her conflicted identity as a hafu. While she does not expect to be completely accepted as Japanese, Sophia underestimates the stigma of being of mixed-race in Japan. Almost perversely, hafus in Japan are either revered as models and television stars or simply relegated from mainstream Japan whether or not they are Japanese or foreigners like Sophia and myself.

My most vivid memory of Japan was along the neon-lit, blaring streets of Shibuya, Tokyo, where 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.

Ultimately, I identify as an Australian youth and I am very happy about this. It is extremely rare that I am subject to racial discrimination. Yet the hafu experience is something 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.

Understanding the hafu experience is crucial going forward, especially given Australia’s increasing identification as part of Asia rather than some isolated outpost of the Western world. The utopic, multicultural face of future Australia will be that of a mixed-race child. Is there not then a need to better understand the issues and identity of hafus?

I was somewhat troubled that there were so few young people at Hafu’s screening, let alone any hafus. 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.