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Exploring race and identity at the Hapa Half Heritage forum

Exploring race and identity at the Hapa Half Heritage forum

What does it mean to be hapa? Interdisciplinary artist Paul Kikuchi has been thinking about that question a lot lately as he prepares to run the Hapa Half Heritage forum during the Cherry Blossom Festival at Seattle Center from April 20-22. He’ll be showing a film, which features an original score, and sparking discussion with high school students and others on Friday. Kikuchi says he plans on “presenting excerpts from the film and talking with the students about civil liberties and the internment, then showing them film clips that give a tactile feeling of what it would have been like to be in one of these places.”

On Sunday, he’ll host a second session. When we talked to him, he was still working out the details, but expect a mix of recorded music film and thoughtful discussion on race and identity.

“Being invited to be part of this festival has got me thinking about my identity as hapa, thinking about my childhood growing up on the Kitsap Peninsula, which is a pretty white community. Aside from a couple of occasions—there was one occasion when my friends were making fun of my dad, making Asian voices at him, and one time when some older kids driving by in a car yelled, ‘American sushi’ out the window — I felt like my mixed heritage was an asset. But that’s something I’ve been thinking about. Who gets to claim half? Who wants to claim half? 

“The Japanese have been able to establish themselves in our culture as a model minority group, and that allows us to claim the half heritage in a way that is an asset,” he says. “For most people like me who are Yonsei or even the Sansei generation, it’s a positive thing. There’s a certain exoticism to it, but it can be respected within our current culture. Now if someone is half African American and Japanese, do they want to claim half? And which half do they claim? It gets a lot more complicated. One of the things that is complex about having a Happa Half Heritage forum is that there is a certain amount of privilege that comes to claiming half as an asset. Blindly saying ‘this is great’ misses a deeper nuance present in claiming hapa racial identity.”

Kikuchi seems like the perfect person to lead the forum at the festival. He’s an introspective artist and musician whose 2013 work Bat of No Bird Island, a soundscape and multimedia website inspired by the memoir and 78rpm record collection of his great grandfather, has led him to further explore stories and music in the Nikkei community. He is currently cataloguing and digitizing the 78rpm records of the Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Washington (JCCCW), where he also sits on the board.

Some of the JCCCW’s colorful old records will be on display at the Cherry Blossom Festival. Photos by Kurt Tokita

He says that volunteer work got him thinking about the broader Nikkei community. “In the last couple of years, I’ve been focused on building stories around those records, so not only cataloguing our large collection of 78s, but when we get donations, talking to the families and figuring out who owned the records, when did they immigrate, and what are some of the stories behind the records,” he says. “We can then have special exhibits about the records themselves and the stories of the Nisei and Issei who owned and loved them.”

Kikuchi’s research into his great grandfather’s records and memoir led him to Kyoto in 2015, when he was awarded a fellowship to study traditional Japanese music. He studied ancient instruments and fell in love with Shinto ritualistic music, deepening his knowledge of and appreciation for Japanese music. He studied a pre-Buddhist genre of music called Azuma Asobi, which he acknowledges is pretty obscure. “Even the Japanese were like, you’re studying what?” But the music deeply moved Kikuchi. 

The fim excerpts he’ll play at the Cherry Blossom Festival, drawn from archival footage of the internment camps, combine with original compositions that use the JCCCW 78rpm records as source material. “Once I started researching this project, I realized there was quite a bit of footage” in the Japanese American National Museum archives, he says. “There are some beautiful gems in there. A young girl at Topaz (an internment camp in Utah) ice-skating on a makeshift skating rink with no one else in sight, the barracks behind her. It’s so heartbreaking but so beautiful in its depiction of the resilience of the human spirit.” 

He’ll also have some of the JCCCW’s 78rpms on display, as he did in an event last November. The collection is full of colorful records, some of which date back to the first musical recordings in Japan around 1902 and 1903.

If you’re wondering what all those old records sound like and can’t wait until the Cherry Blossom Festival, Kikuchi has set up a listening station at the Panama Hotel teahouse. There, a few of the JCCCW’s records and an old turntable sit, ready to fill the café with prewar music. He hopes you’ll give the discs a spin to add to what the Panama already has to offer. “I always found the Panama Hotel an amazing place historically and visually. You look at all those photographs. And I wanted to try to create something sonically that would give people context of the community like the photographs do,” Kikuchi says.

Providing the community with context through music is shaping up to be Kikuchi’s life work.

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© Paul Kikuchi

Paul Kikuchi is a musician, scholar, activist, and educator whose work is informed by highly diverse influences – from his roots as a rock drummer to his experience as a Feldenkrais practitioner; as well as his research into Japanese-American history in the Pacific Northwest. His interdisciplinary work seeks to generate reflection and dialogue, especially in the context of history, community, and identity, and to give voice to marginalized communities and peoples.

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Hapa Half Heritage Forum 

Date and Time: Friday April 20, 11:15-11:45 am; Sunday April 22, Time TBA

Venue: Seattle Center Pavilion

*Venue and schedule may change. Please check the info at seattle Cherry Blossome website >>


* This article was originally published on The North American Post on April 13, 2018.


© 2018 Bruce Rutledge / The North American Post

art artist cherry blossom festival filmmaker hapa identity musician Paul Kikuchi race seattle Washington