By Aoife Wilkinson

On Friday 18 November 2022, Dr Timothy Kazuo Steains and I held a film screening of the short film Whole (2019, dir. Bilal Kawazoe) at the University of Sydney. Whole is about two young men, Makoto (played by Usman Kawazoe) and Haruki (played by Kai Hoshino Sandy), navigating what it means to be mixed Japanese. Although Makoto and Haruki are total opposites in their personalities and socioeconomic backgrounds, they share similar pressures in managing their relationships with friends and family, and in finding direction in their mixed Japanese identities.

Aoife Wilkinson and Tim Steains at the screening of Whole, Sydney University. Photo by Masako Fukui

After the screening, we hosted a panel discussion about the mixed-race experience in Australia and Japan. Panellists included Iori Forsyth and Joe Flynn from popular YouTube channel 大家族フォーサイス家, and PhD candidate and dance practitioner Reina Takeuchi.

I first watched Whole last year after it was recommended by a friend. The film resonated deeply with me. For my PhD research project, I am investigating the identities and experiences of mixed Japanese youth in Australia (children of one ethnically Japanese and one non-Japanese parent). As part of my research, I question whether a sense of ‘multiculturalism’ in Australia or Japan can affect how someone of a mixed background identifies. By the term ‘mixed’, I am referring not only to their racial and ethnic background, but also other factors including gender, age, international mobility, and so forth, which can influence one’s identity.

I became interested in this topic after completing my honours thesis, which looked at how mixed Japanese youth in Australia navigate Japan’s nationality law (dual nationals are required to give up one nationality by the age of 22). My research found that many try to keep their dual nationality so that they can maintain ties to Japan and their Japanese identity. The most famous example of this being tennis player Naomi Osaka’s decision to forfeit her Japanese nationality and the public debate that followed. While conducting interviews for my honours, one respondent told me they felt a stronger sense of belonging in Australia because it was multicultural. This raised further questions – what makes Australia ‘multicultural’ to them, and why does a ‘multicultural’ Australia evoke a sense of belonging? Do others of mixed Japanese backgrounds in Australia feel this way, and possibly those in Japan as well? Furthermore, what consequences may this have on decisions regarding their future migration, careers or families?

I currently work in the School of Languages and Cultures at the University of Queensland as a PhD candidate and casual tutor. Due to pandemic–related restrictions, I had to move my research and methods to the digital space. However, I have been fortunate enough to connect with many different mixed Japanese communities and scholar spaces across Japan and Australia. So far, I have interviewed more than 30 participants who live in Japan and Australia. I hope to submit my dissertation by the end of 2023.

My interest in Japan goes back to my childhood. My grandparents travelled frequently to Japan for business. As a kid, I always looked forward to the omiyage and pen pal letters they would bring back from their trips. I became obsessed with Japanese tea ceremony, video games, anime, and Japanese rock music. I studied Japanese as a language from primary school through to university, and later visited Japan on three occasions. In 2018, I finally moved to Japan and lived in Saitama prefecture on a university semester exchange program. In the liberal arts program at Rikkyo University, I met students of different backgrounds – Brazilian Japanese, American Japanese, and kikokushijo (or ‘returnee children’, the children of Japanese expatriates who return to Japan). It was from them I learnt about Japan’s nationality law, and the stress they’d experienced trying to decide which of their nationalities to forfeit. Hearing their stories made me curious as to whether others of mixed Japanese backgrounds felt the same kind of pressure to forfeit in Australia, and so began my research journey.

I have lived in Japan and speak Japanese, but I am Australian Irish and have no family connections to Japan. I can relate to some of my participants’ experiences by proxy of having family overseas. Whole is an honest showcase of everyday, even mundane, moments: eating alone or with friends, commuting on the train, and coming home to family after a long day of work. Makoto has just finished his shift when a worker introduces himself and asks “where are you from?” Haruki sits down to a meal at an izakaya when another patron comments aloud “there’s a foreigner here today.”  It’s these exact moments that expose just how integral an understanding of ‘identity’ is to our everyday interactions. As the panelists commented, there were many relatable moments in the film that brought forth their own reflections on their experiences. For example, Reina’s experiences of losing some of her Japanese language proficiency contrasted Iori and Joe’s experiences as fluent bilingual speakers of Japanese and English.

Panellists from left to right: Tim Steains, Joe Flynn, Iori Forsyth, Reina Takeuchi, Aoife Wilkinson. Photo by Masako Fukui

During the discussion, Iori emphasized that each individual mixed Japanese experience is relative to personal circumstances. Education pathways, family support, opportunities to live overseas in parents’ home countries – all these experiences constitute new, individual self-expressions. Many of the comments made by the panellists reflect the findings that have surfaced from my interviews with others of mixed Japanese backgrounds. Many harbour anxieties about their identity and future. For example, many expressed concerns regarding their level of English and Japanese language proficiency. Some feel that their lower level of Japanese language proficiency fails to meet the expectations others have of them. Others find it challenging to maintain their language proficiencies as they move across countries, which can sometimes result in changes to their accent or a loss of language knowledge. Moreover, as language is constantly evolving, some find it difficult to keep up with the latest slang. Similarly, in Whole, Makoto is unable to read or speak in English and so faces a language barrier between himself and his estranged father. There are many other concerns that pertain to being mixed; what terms should I use to identify myself? Will I ever ‘belong’ in Australia or Japan?

What has surprised me most in my research is the enthusiasm and eagerness with which participants have shared their stories. Several participants have told me that they felt relieved to finally speak with someone about their identity. One participant said they could never have the same conversation with their friends or family because they would feel too embarrassed. Yet many leave the interview with a new resolution in mind, such as finally getting around to studying Japanese or taking the steps to move overseas.

In the film Whole, Haruki and Makoto connect with one another over their shared experiences of being mixed in Japan, such as being mislabeled as a foreigner, or encountering others who assume they can speak English. Many people of mixed background have a desire to speak in-depth about their identities and experiences, but it can be difficult to know where to start.

A scene from film Whole

In the panel discussion, we stressed the importance of beginning a conversation about identity with family, peers, and community members. Through our discussion with the audience, we found that the places where these discussions of identity can take place, such as Japanese-Australian networks, may not be as visible to some as they are to others. We also discussed a range of other media that may be of interest to those seeking more perspectives, such as the documentary Hāfu: The Mixed Race Experience in Japan and other YouTube channels such as パスカルとサンドラの日本&外国あれこれ.

We hope the film screening and discussion helped facilitate an open conversation about mixed Japanese identities in Australia. Tim Steains and I would like to thank the director Bilal Kawazoe and his film team for their support, and Moeko O’Reilly for her assistance throughout. Thank you also to the School of Humanities at the University of Sydney and Nikkei Australia for their support.

Aoife Wilkinson is a PhD candidate and casual language tutor at the School of Languages and Cultures, University of Queensland.  Her research focuses on young people of mixed Japanese backgrounds who live in and in-between Australia and Japan. She has previously published in The Conversation and New Voices in Japanese Studies. You can follow her latest research and publication news on Twitter @aoifewilkinson (Photo supplied by author)

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