Archives for category: Spotlight

We learn from stories, and everyone has a story to share. This is the premise of the Human Library Project, which aims to promote dialogue, reduce prejudices, and encourage understanding by providing “people on loan” or “living books.” You come in, take a look at the catalog, and request a living book with whom you can chat or interview. The list of living books includes titles such as homeless, lesbian, politician, graffiti artist, refugee, and so on.

The Human Library Project began in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2000. Since then, human libraries have been introduced in over 45 countries, providing opportunities for visitors to interact with individuals of diverse backgrounds and histories. Read more about their mission and activities on the Human Library website.

Libraries have always been centers of knowledge, education, and community, and human libraries are offering a unique service. In a time and age when people no longer know their neighbors and more communication is conducted via cyberspace than face to face, encouraging more personal dialogue and interaction is more important than ever.

How often have you looked at someone and wondered what his or her story is? Exercising your imagination is a wonderful thing of course, but the truth may be even more interesting than you could have ever imagined. All you have to do is introduce yourself and ask.

Image by Voula Monoholias, first seen here.

This is the best equation I have ever learned. As an undergrad, I took a course on the literature of the Chinese diaspora, and during one particular session our professor opened the discussion with this equation.

Growing up in the United States, I often heard people refer to themselves as half-Korean, a quarter Norwegian, an eighth German, and so on. People acknowledge their heritage by identifying themselves as an XX American. I myself am Vietnamese American.

Both of my parents are Vietnamese, but I was born and raised in the United States. Am I Vietnamese because my parents are Vietnamese? Or am I American because I was born and raised here? Well, I’m both and those parts of me are indivisible.


When I first heard this equation, it was an epiphany. I didn’t have to choose. I didn’t have to straddle some strange divide. And no matter how many 1’s are in the equation, the answer will always remain the same. Each 1 simply adds another facet, another layer of depth to my identity.

Bound in Japan is about diversity, and essentially, any discourse on diversity is a discourse on identity. What does it mean to be Vietnamese American? What does it mean to be American? Or Japanese? Or half-Japanese?

In 2008, even as I was developing the idea for Bound in Japan, another project was kicking off halfway around the world — the Hafu Project. Combining the photography of Natalie Maya Willer and the research of Marcia Yumi Lise, the Hafu Project is a “visual and sociological study of the so called ‘hafu’ group.”

Hafus talk about being half-Japanese

The term “hafu” refers to someone who is half-Japanese. The other half could be any other nationality, and thus even within this group there is wide diversity. To get a sense of the complexity of being a multicultural and multiracial person, and especially of being a hafu, read the following statement from the Hafu Project website.

While being a Hafu is often seen as something desirable in Japan, it is true that some Hafus are largely regarded as non-Japanese in Japan due to their non-Japanese appearance and blood line. The Japanese society is obsessed with collectivism and conformity. While on the legal level, nationality defines who belongs and does not belong to a nation, on a social level, people of mixed heritage are often subjected to ethnic and racial hurdles….

In reality identity assertion varies depending on individual circumstances. Those who look somewhat Japanese may pass themselves off as Japanese. On the other hand, those who cannot pass as members of the Japanese and who choose to embrace their non-Japanese heritage can either have a negative discriminatory impact or, on the contrary, provide an advantageous platform for their success. Some may even choose their identity to suit their needs in different circumstances, becoming Japanese when it’s advantageous or passing as a foreigner if that brings advantages. There are various factors that affect the Hafu sense of belongingness and identity assertion; relationship to family and friends, education, where and how they were raised, personal characteristics, and very importantly the ways in which they have been projected by the surrounded society which is often based on physical qualities.

The Hafu Project aims to open dialogue about the concepts of identity, culture, race, and nationality, and it has expanded to include an upcoming documentary by Lara Perez Takagi and Megumi Nishikura called Hafu. “By looking at the everyday lives of five hafus [living in Japan], the film will explore what it means to be multicultural/multiracial in a country that has long considered itself homogenous.”

It is exactly because Japan “has long considered itself homogenous” — even though it is not — and it is exactly because this group of multicultural/multiracial people are increasing that a project like this is very timely and relevant. What does it mean to be Japanese? There are a lot of people who identify with “being Japanese,” and it doesn’t necessarily mean looking, acting, or feeling Japanese. So let’s talk about it more.

I’m looking forward to seeing the progress of the Hafu Project and the Hafu film.

If you would like to support the production of the Hafu film, check out their IndieGoGo campaign which runs through December 12.