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.

Not only is arts education a key predictor of adults’ attendance patterns; it has an even stronger relationship with adults’ levels of personal art creation or performance.
– National Endowment for the Arts Research Note #101 (February 2011)

I’ve lost count of how many Bound in Japan workshop participants told me that they can’t remember the last time they made something with their hands. And my heart nearly broke when one young woman confided that she had once wanted to be an artist but didn’t think it was possible. Instead, she studied law.

The above statement is from a recent research digest of three monographs on arts participation by the National Endowment for the Arts. The research was conducted in the United States, but the patterns discerned about individuals and their arts participation most likely hold true in many other countries. If someone was never introduced to the joy of creative expression as a child, how likely is that person to take the initiative to engage in such activities later in life?

The mission of Bound in Japan is based on two tenets: the importance of diversity outreach and the importance of arts outreach. The results of the diversity outreach aspect are more difficult to evaluate, but I can say with full confidence that as an arts outreach project, Bound in Japan was a success.

All the workshop participants clearly enjoyed themselves. You could see their eyes light up, the doors of possibilities opening in their minds. Part of it was due to the fact that they were making something with their own hands that was a form of personal expression. Part of it was due to their introduction to book art — an art form in which the art objects are intimately familiar and yet fascinatingly different.

And it wasn’t just the workshop participants. Traveling around Japan, I met a lot of people. Of course everyone wanted to know what I was doing in Japan so the conversation always turned to Bound in Japan and book art. I usually pulled out my copy of 500 Handmade Books and the other samples I carried with me because showing is much more effective than explaining. Once people understood what book art is, many of them expressed the desire to try their hand at it. Those are the kind of moments I live for — to inspire another individual.

My only regret is that I wasn’t able to reach out to more people. Initially, all the workshops were intended to be free to participants. It was a difficult decision to make. The majority of the immigrant population in Japan is employed in jobs with low wages; spending money on an art activity, no matter how appealing, is a luxury that few of them can afford. On the other hand, a “free” opportunity often leads to a lack of commitment and unreliable attendance. If you have to pay for something, it instantly becomes more valuable, more significant. If you pay for a class, you’re more likely to show up for it.

In the end, I did charge a nominal materials fee for the workshops. The amount was less than $10USD, but even that small amount was enough to discourage some people from participating. I saw that firsthand in Okayama where there are large Chinese and Brazilian communities.

Most of them are factory workers. Some of them might have thought that the Bound in Japan workshop was a worthy investment, but their irregular working schedules usually made it impossible to attend. If I had been able to remain in Okayama for longer, I would have liked to work with those interested to arrange a workshop that fits their schedule.

Because of such challenges, the actual participation by non-native residents did not accurately reflect the demographics of the immigrant population. In that respect, the project was not as successful. However, the positive results of Bound in Japan far outweigh any shortcomings.

During the past three years, I have often asked myself the question: Why am I doing this? There are as many reasons not to do such a project as there are reasons in favor of it. But I always come to the same conclusion: Action is better than inaction. Who would possibly complain that there are too many arts activities? In fact, I think that there are not enough.