Hapa Population Reflects on Art and Identity in New San Jose Exhibition

Ruth Ozeki's installation features a neon sign saying "What Are You?" at the Japanese American Museum of San Jose.

Ruth Ozeki's installation features a neon sign saying "What Are You?" at the Japanese American Museum of San Jose. (Photo: Creo Noveno / KQED)

Walk to one corner of the Japanese American Museum of San Jose’s newest exhibit and you’ll find yourself face to face with a wall of Post-its. The Post-its are medium sized, in pastel pinks, blues and yellows, with various answers scribbled onto them in black ink: “1/2 Japanese, 1/4 Dutch, 1/4 Lithuanian.” “Xicana, Nikkei, 100% me.” “Part Filipino, Part Salvadorian, All Mixed Queer.”

In the middle of the collage is a small square mirror, set below pink neon lights that spell out the question prompting all that surrounds: “What Are You?”

Part of the 'Visible and Invisible: Hapa and Japanese American History' exhibit at Japanese American Museum of San Jose.
Part of the ‘Visible and Invisible: A Hapa and Japanese American History’ exhibit at Japanese American Museum of San Jose. (Photo: Creo Noveno / KQED)

The installation, inspired by Ruth Ozeki’s exercise in introspective (and literal) reflection, is part of the show Visible and Invisible: A Hapa and Japanese American History. The exhibit explores the hapa (mixed-race Asian or Pacific Islander) community’s place in history, from their arrival as farm laborers to their service in World War II to their visibility in mainstream pop culture throughout the years.

“We wanted to both dispel the idea that mixed race is a new phenomenon in the Japanese American community, and the corollary belief that it means the demise of the community and identity,” sociologist and co-curator Cindy Nakashima says of the exhibit.

Musician Karl Evangelista and performer PC Munoz performing "Half-Breed" in San Jose.
Musician Karl Evangelista and performer PC Munoz performing ‘Half-Breed’ in San Jose. (Courtesy of PC Munoz)

Aside from providing historical context to the community, the show also engages with the idea of individuals discovering their true self — a search that’s truly universal, but all the more pressing for multiracial people living in an increasingly racialized world.

For recording artist PC Muñoz, his introspection materialized as Half-Breed, a performance piece mixing spoken word poetry, soundscapes and improvised instrumentals to examine the historical perspective of multiracial people through his own personal experiences as a mixed-race person.

“It’s very much about me trying to locate every thought I had about being on the fringes, or feeling inauthentic, whether they’re all just projections from family or peer groups,” Muñoz says. “That feeling of not being entirely one thing or another and wondering what group is accepting you as a young person can cause a lot of trauma and can make you wonder how people are being categorized.”

It’s this feeling of isolation that 20-year-old art student Aaron Coleman is currently working through. Her father is a one-quarter French and African American, while her mother is South Korean. Her mother’s side of the family still maintains problematic anti-Black perspectives, something Coleman tries to consciously stave off.

“I had to sit there and acknowledge that there are two sides of me, and neither are bad or good,” Coleman says.

 

Artist Naomi Takata Shepherd hopes to help fellow hapas walk that balance through her business 6 Degrees of Hapa, which features shirts and hats adorned with familiar symbols of hapa culture, like spam musubi and the lucky cat.

“I want to give people a spot where they can be both (ethnicities) as well as a whole new person on their own,” Shepherd says.

Poster for 'Uncle Gunjiro's Girlfriend.'
Poster for ‘Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend.’ (Courtesy of Brenda Wong Aoki)

Shepherd sets up pop-up shops at various Japanese American festivals in the Bay Area, which she says often draws people both in and out of the mixed-race community.

“I didn’t want to make (6 Degrees of Hapa) just about hapas themselves, but also about the families and friends around them, about letting everybody be involved — everybody knows a hapa,” Shepherd says.

With the U.S. Census Bureau expecting a tripling in the multiracial population by 2060, it’s likely that everyone will know even more hapas in the coming years — a reality that performer Brenda Wong Aoki believes is inevitable. Aoki’s family is deeply rooted in mixed-race history, as her great-uncle Gunjiro Aoki was part of the first interracial marriage in America, a story which she immortalized in the play Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend.

Aoki is hopeful, however, and says that the very nature of multiethnic identities provide a possibility for a nation less divided by distinctions between race.

“In our blood we are the bridges — it’s not like we have to say that much. We just have to be, and be boldly,” Aoki says.

Visible and Invisible: A Hapa and Japanese American History is on view at the Japanese American Museum of San Jose. Visit jamsj.org for more information.

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