Interviewed & Written by Isao Tokuhashi
Edited by Daniel Penso
Ryuta Hayashi (Japan/Fourth generation of overseas Chinese)
Finally, the day has come for My Eyes Tokyo (MET) to introduce this person to you—Ryuta Hayashi, a film director.
MET editor-in-chief Isao Tokuhashi met Hayashi about 20 years ago when he was working for a Japanese-language TV station in Orange County, California, and Hayashi was an international student at a local college. They lived with the same host family and spent their days talking about the American music scene, gossipy stories, and girls they saw on the street or at school.
Even after Tokuhashi returned to Japan, they continued to communicate with each other through e-mails and SNSs. After Hayashi’s return to Japan, Tokuhashi heard that he was working on a documentary about the history of Yokohama Chinatown. In the early summer of 2021, Tokuhashi saw his name in an Internet news article.
The documentary film “Hana no Sumika” in which Ryuta Hayashi, a fourth-generation overseas Chinese resident, filmed overseas Chinese in Yokohama Chinatown, Kanagawa Prefecture over a long period of time, will be released sequentially throughout Japan from this coming August. (Eiga Natalie, June 11, 2021)
Tokuhashi immediately contacted Hayashi to congratulate him on finally making his debut as a film director after many years and apologized for losing touch with him. Then he told Hayashi he would love to interview him.
In mid-August 2021, just before the first screening of “Hana no Sumika” (Lit. “Home of overseas Chinese”), they met for the first time in several years. Hayashi told us about what Tokuhashi was unable to ask him directly when they lived together under one roof in California, such as his own complicated feelings about his roots, and how he was freed from them to face his own roots head-on.
*Interview at Rose Hotel (Yokohama Chinatown)
Who am I?
I think that people from multiple backgrounds, not just me, will always encounter the issue of their identity at least once. I myself thought I was 100% Japanese until I turned 15 years old. I was like a Minute Maid (laughs), but in reality, I was only “50%” and my other identity as an “overseas Chinese” was always vague. This is probably because my father, grandmother, and relatives never once told me or my brother about their history as overseas Chinese. I always felt frustrated that I could not clearly say who I was so I decided to research the history of overseas Chinese in Japan properly at some point.
My journey to “find my roots” began by tracing the history of my father’s involvement with Yokohama Chinatown from the time he first became involved with it until he became a Japanese citizen. As an outsider who grew up outside of Chinatown, I entered the neighborhood and told everyone that I met that my father graduated from a Chinese school in the town. Eventually, I met people who were close to my father, and by listening to their stories, I began to unravel the history of the town. It took six to seven years of filming and another three years of research before that, for a total of about 10 years of production and I could clearly sense that my family has had a deep connection with Chinatown.
As if to coincide with the change in my feelings, there have been changes in Chinatown as well. In particular, the relationship between the Yokohama Overseas Chinese School (Republic of China-oriented) and the Yokohama Yamate Chinese School (PRC-oriented). Originally, Yokohama Overseas Chinese School was the only Chinese school in Yokohama, but in 1952, an incident occurred in which the teachers were expelled for supporting Mao Zedong in their education. This led to the creation of the Yokohama Yamate Chinese School, and a long period of conflict ensued between the two schools. In Chinatown, it was taboo to speak openly about these relationships, but recently a movement has begun to document such situations. It was under these circumstances that “Hana no Sumika” (the English name of the film: “LEFT -Where I am-”) was to be released to the public.
Trailer of “Hana no Sumika”
“You are Japanese in every way”
I grew up in an environment where the influence of overseas Chinese culture was not so strong. At New Year’s, Chinese meals, not Japanese ones, were served on the table, but the language we talked to each other was almost exclusively Japanese when my family got together with my relatives. Sometimes, they spoke in a language that I did not understand, but I never doubted that those were words that only adults could understand. The New Year’s gifts I received from my uncle (who appeared in “Hana no Sumika”), who was my father’s older brother, had the name “Gakugin (学銀)” written on them. I interpreted that to mean “money to learn” (*”学” means “Learn” and “銀” means “silver” or “silver coins”). It was not until much later that I learned that it was his real name because my uncle was called “Yoshikazu”, which is a Japanese name. My father was called by the Japanese name “Hiro” as well and my family did not celebrate Chinese New Year at all. If the custom of Chinese New Year had been around me, I would have immediately realized my origin.
When my father married my mother, my maternal grandfather made it a condition of the marriage that my father becomes a naturalized Japanese citizen. It was not meant to be discriminatory, but rather to make it easier for my father to integrate and live in Japan, and also out of parental concern for his daughter who was marrying into an overseas Chinese family. Perhaps convinced by this, my father changed his surname from “Lee” to “Lin,” which was the surname of his mother, my paternal grandmother when they married, and also changed the reading of his name to “Hayashi”. I guess that my father, who had his heart set on the Yangtze River, was determined to live in Japanese society. Perhaps, that is why he did not dare to tell me or my brother about his background.
I still remember a girl I went to elementary and middle school with. She was bright and pretty, and my mother and her mother were good friends. While I was waiting for her to come out near her house, her mother gave me a Coke and some Korean seaweed. She was half-Korean with a Korean mother. When she eventually went to junior high school, she was teased by the boys in her class, saying her Korean name.
I remembered this after I learned the truth about myself. Before that, when I had no doubt that I was a “Minute Maid”, I had a rather negative impression of China. So I decided to “ignore” rather than hide my other roots—my background was not something I could proudly talk about. When the news reported crimes committed by the Chinese in Japan or discussed the instability of Japan-China relations, I chose not to get involved, even if someone was nearby saying bad things about China. I even half laughed and sympathized with them because I didn’t want them to mention my family. I was relieved that people around me considered me “Japanese in every way,” and I decided to live my life with the same attitude as before, even after I learned about my roots.
Seeking a wide and diverse world
On the other hand, I began to yearn for foreign countries. Around the first year of high school, just after I learned the truth about myself, I suddenly felt sickened by the situation where Japanese people only mingle with Japanese people and are only interested in Japanese things. I wanted to go to a place where more diverse cultures and races existed, and I set my sights on the United States, the home of journalism. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that I wanted to pursue my own roots and someday publish them in some way.
Coincidentally, we were able to enter California State University from my high school through the designated school recommendation system.(1) Of course, I was really motivated. I worked hard on my studies and cleared the standard at the time, which was “a grade point average of 4.5 or higher in English plus Japanese”.(2) So I talked to my mother about it but she adamantly rejected my request, citing the cost as the reason; but, perhaps she thought it was unrealistic to send her child abroad, or she doubted my seriousness.
Having been cut off from the path to the U.S., I applied to several faculties related to English and foreign languages and entered the English department of a university in Kanagawa Prefecture. However, I felt that the university’s curriculum was far from what I really wanted to learn and know at that time. I wanted to learn more about cultures, societies, races, and ethnic groups outside of Japan, not just about languages so I decided to fly abroad again to find a place where my desire could be fulfilled.
Having had the bitter experience of previously abandoning my attempt due to financial reasons, I devoted myself to a part-time job. After saving up one million yen, combined with the money I had saved since I was a junior high school student, I began full-scale preparations to go abroad. I told my mother about my plan when I was preparing the application documents through the study abroad agency and affixing my guardian’s seal. My mother said, “Well, talk to your father.” My father had been to the U.S. to meet Jewish-Americans in the past with the sole intention of learning the tricks of the trade. Also he used to say to me, “I don’t care what colors the eyes of the person you marry are”—I was convinced that I could make it to the U.S.
People proud of their roots
When I finally stepped onto my dream land, I enrolled in a language school in Orange County, near Los Angeles. However, I canceled the 6-month course, which was mainly classroom learning such as grammar study, and enrolled in a local college to study journalism after improving my English communication skills by interacting with native English speakers in the area.
At the time, I was renting a room in the home of a family. They were a unique group of people: a Mexican mother (host mother) who had studied abroad in Japan, two daughters born to a divorced Japanese father, and a grandmother who looked at them with kind eyes.
Among others, I often talked to their grandmother alone with her. Thanks to her, I learned words such as “¿Qué pasó? (What happened?)” and “¿Dormido? (Are you sleeping?)”. I even learned Spanish from my classmates at the college to make her happy. One day, she talked to me slowly, choosing her words carefully:
“This is a country of mixed races, cultures, and religions. You are experiencing an environment that is clearly different from that of Japan so you should not judge the good and bad points of this country by comparing it with Japanese culture, but judge it from your heart as a human being, and learn only the good things. That is what you should do in America.”
I had a little correspondence with the daughters of my host mother, though not as much as with their grandmother. The younger sister, who was a woman of few words, one day tucked a letter in hiragana on my room door saying, “Reizouko ni gohan ga aru” (There is rice in the refrigerator). The older sister, who had a cheerful personality, suddenly said to me in Japanese like, “Itte rasshai!” (Have a good day!) (laughs). The way these girls, who speak very little of the language of their roots but are comfortable in the U.S. where they were born and raised, overlapped with me, who likewise spoke very little of the language of my roots but had been comfortable in Japan where I was born and raised. I felt comfortable with them, and I was reminded that “Identity is not something that can be determined by others. It is what you think about yourself that matters.”
I felt the same way when I met Chinese-Americans there. When I told them that my father is Chinese and my great-grandmother came to Japan from China, they became interested in me and we became closer. What surprised me was that I was able to “disclose my background” naturally in the U.S., whereas I had hesitated to do so in Japan.
I don’t know about the state of mind of the generations before my father. But why should the fourth generation of immigrants still fall into the mentality of feeling guilty about their origins? I felt uncomfortable when I wondered if immigrants to Japan should always be tormented by such a situation. The Asian-Americans I met in the U.S. were more robust and imposing. I saw people who, despite being minorities, were proud to live their lives as Vietnamese or Chinese, and I thought I should be like them. My host family’s grandmother’s words, “Learn the good things about America and bring them home,” were exactly for this moment, I thought.
A “Black” Asian
I fully enjoyed my life in Orange County. However, I wanted to get away from an environment with many Japanese people and easy access to Japanese goods so I decided to go to college in another state. Thus, I moved to Kansas in the Midwest.
Asians seemed to be a rarity in Kansas. One day while I was jogging, a high school-aged boy in a pickup truck threw a rock at me. Other times, I was interrupted by other customers while waiting in line at the supermarket checkout counter. Also, I encountered parents telling their children, “Don’t look at that guy!”
But, I think it is somewhat premature to consider and denounce these things as discrimination. They simply didn’t know anything about Asians. Moreover, I lived in a rural area with a population of about 6,000 so people have nothing to do and have too much time on their hands. Making fun of people like me must have been a great way for them to pass the time.
In such a place, once people think you are interesting, the situation can quickly turn around.
One day, I was having a meal alone in the college cafeteria, and suddenly, out of nowhere, a black basketball player invited me over: “Come eat with us, we’re all colored!” and he carried me to their table. This was the beginning of a friendship with the black players, which eventually led to them calling me the “n-word”, a term they only use for people they truly trust and consider their friends and would be considered racist if another race said it to a black person.
At a home party, I attended with my classmates, a white girl said to me, “I heard that Asians are timid. You can’t drink this stuff, can you?” Then, she offered me a large cup of vodka, which she poured into it in a row. I drank it nonchalantly and poured more vodka and drank it down, poured a third cup and held it out to her and I said back to her, “You say I’m timid, but aren’t you the one?”. The people around us cracked up. From that night on, I was called “Champion”. This led to me becoming famous at the college, as I was asked to play knocker for the predominantly white women’s softball team.
Facing the blank space inside myself
While majoring in journalism at two American colleges, I minored in photography at a college in California. Eventually, I became interested in expressing myself through images created from a series of multiple photographs and began studying film during my studies there. I began to pursue transferring to UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and California State University, Long Beach, which have produced many famous filmmakers. I want to make movies and music videos that will be popular in the U.S. someday!—It was never a dream because I had enough grades to meet the transfer criteria.
However, the tuition fee of four million yen (approx. 40,000 USD) per year was a big obstacle for me, and I had to return to Japan with painful reluctance.
Still, with a fever for movies, I enrolled in the Japan Academy of Moving Images, one of the renowned film and documentary production schools in Japan. Around the time I moved to Kansas, I thought, “I need to get back in touch with my roots!”, so I decided to make a documentary on the history of overseas Chinese. In my first year, I researched Chinatown for the first time as part of an exercise in making a film using photographs and audio interviews. In my second year, I temporarily stopped making films on the theme of overseas Chinese and produced a film centered on the student movement at a university in Tokyo, which was thriving at the time. In my third year, for my graduation video production, I once again chose the theme of overseas Chinese, and finally turned the camera on my family.
My other uncle (*not in “Hana no Sumika”), who is my father’s older brother, once brought a relative from Fujian Province to Japan. I had no idea that she existed in my family, and I thought she embodied “China in my family,” so I made a 40-minute documentary titled “A Red Flower Blooming in an Island Country” with the sole intention of finding out why my uncle had brought her to Japan.
After graduation, I was involved in the production of documentaries and news programs while continuing my journey to further explore my roots with “Hana no Sumika (Lit. “Home of overseas Chinese”), which took about 10 years to complete. While Yokohama Chinatown is the place where overseas Chinese actually live, it is at the mercy of Sino-Japanese relations. They are treated like spies if they go back to China so I wanted to portray Yokohama Chinatown as a place where overseas Chinese could not feel at home even if they wanted to. Furthermore, I named the film such because I thought that Japan and other parts of the world might be a home for overseas Chinese.
For the filming of this movie, I stepped for the first time on the land where my great-grandmother grew up in Fujian Province. Standing in front of the small family grave, which was nothing more than a row of pebbles, I was overcome with an inexpressible sense of gratitude and respect for her. It is not difficult to imagine that when my great-grandmother came to Japan about 100 years ago, she not only had to travel to Japan but also had to live through many hardships as a Chinese after landing there. Eventually, my grandmother was born in Japan, my father was born, and then I was born… My gratitude and respect for the place she had set up for us to live in Japan surged through my heart at once.
The first day of the screening of “Hana no Sumika,” which included a talk show with Hiroyoshi Seki, a Researcher of the history of overseas Chinese, was covered by NHK and other media.
August 21, 2021 at Yokohama Cinemarin
What is “the way you should be”?
Overseas Chinese are found all over the world. Not only in the Los Angeles area, where I lived, but also in New York, San Francisco, Canada, Australia, Germany, and England… I want to tell people living in these places about the unique history of overseas Chinese in Japan. For me, who feels that it is unnatural to make films only for Japanese people or within Japan, I think it is more appropriate for me to send my films overseas. Right now, I am working on the concept of following the history of overseas Chinese, of the Republic of China (Taiwan) descent, who connect South Korea and Yokohama Chinatown.
This film is my debut as a full-fledged film director, and I think I can be considered either an overseas Chinese director or a Japanese director, whichever way you want to look at it. However, I do not think it is necessary for me to choose only one or the other, and I feel that my two identities are what make me who I am. In fact, although it may contradict what I have just said before, I would rather be considered a fourth-generation overseas Chinese filmmaker than simply a Japanese filmmaker.
Times have moved on and Japanese are becoming more diverse. A good example is Naomi Osaka, a Japanese tennis player with Haitian roots. There were arguments such as, “Can she represent Japan with her roots in Haiti and even further back in Africa, and with her limited Japanese language skills?”. But it is not for others to decide whether or not she can represent Japan, but for her to decide for herself. In the opposite case, Mike Shinoda, a member of the band “Linkin Park” and a third-generation Japanese American, wrote a song titled “Kenji” as a tribute to his grandfather, a first-generation Japanese American, although he can barely speak Japanese. In other words, nationality and roots do not have to be exactly the same, but what is important is how you feel about your roots and how much you care about them, regardless of your nationality.
Whenever I see Naomi Osaka or Rui Hachimura, a Japanese basketball player with African roots, in the media, I am filled with the feeling that Japan has finally become such a country. They live their lives based on this land called Japan. You can call those people Japanese. It doesn’t matter what color their skin is – That’s how I feel.
If someone were to make fun of me or my family, I would be able to say, “I have seen more of the world and experienced more things than you have. I’m not that ‘timid’ like a man who cannot say anything if someone talks too fast in English.” (laughs) I would like to look up as I walk, envisioning myself as such a brave person.
Hana no Sumika official website: hananosumika.com/ *Japanese
(1) Recommendation slots are given to designated educational institutions by universities, junior colleges, vocational schools, etc. These institutions, then, select students who wish to go on to higher education, and universities conduct interviews and other tests with the selected students to determine their acceptance or rejection.
(2) Most high schools in Japan have a numerical grading system from 5 to 1 with 5 being the highest grade and 1 being the lowest.