Japan is one of the most highly developed countries in the world. It is also one of the most technologically innovative, with an international reputation for advanced electronics, automotive tech and even robotics. It is steeped in history and culture, ranging from sushi, samurai and anime. To the outsider, more so to a non-Asian, Japan has a highly homogeneous culture, where everyone shares the same language, national identity and ethnic background. Surprisingly, however, these differences exist in Japan as in all societies. But despite these differences, what makes a Japanese person Japanese? It is the question the film "Being Japanese" hopes to answer.
Filmmaker Greg Lam's feature-length documentary dives deep into what it means to be Japanese through the stories of different groups of Japanese people. Beyond the obvious that one is "Japanese" if they have Japanese citizenship, Lam asks if it's the literal blood in their veins or if one or both parents are Japanese or is it how one acts or speaks which determines how Japanese they are. As he makes his way throughout Japan, there doesn't seem to be an easy answer.
We soon see that the amount of diversity in Japan is surprising and, simultaneously, a bit of a shock for those unaware of Japanese culture. Compared to racial diversity in Western countries such as the USA, the UK and Canada, Japanese diversity looks and feels "different" because they look like a homogeneous group of people. There are no significant differences in skin or hair or eye color yet vast differences in their dialects and cultures, even if they mostly have their roots dating thousands of years back within the Japanese archipelago.
There are the Ainu people, the original aboriginal people from the Northern island of Hokkaido. Then in Okinawa down south, the Ryukyuan and ethnic Okinawans are further set apart by the presence of American military bases on the island. Due to the migration of Japanese coffee farmers in the early 1900s to Brazil, there is now a group of Japanese people called Nikkei-Brazilians, with a highly Japanese appearance and heritage but are culturally very Brazilian. They don't speak Japanese and are treated as foreigners in Japan.
The Zainichi-Koreans are another major ethnic group in Japan, composed of the descendants of Koreans who arrived in Japan in the 1910s as forced laborers when Japan annexed Korea. They are a much-maligned group facing persecution and discrimination in almost every aspect of society. Finally, there are the "Hafu" or mixed race/half Japanese people and the Returnees or the "Kikokushijo", who also have issues fitting into society.
The Japanese are resilient - and innovative. And it is these two qualities that will continue to make the country thrive despite the diverse amount of people who consider themselves Japanese.
As one of its card-carrying citizens said, "Being Japanese is being Japanese. If you think you're Japanese, you're Japanese. Japan - it's a nation-state, a culture and a state of being. If you're comfortable being Japanese? You're Japanese."
Directed by: Greg Lam