The Joys Of Finally Feeling Seen
We should never underestimate the power of representation
I’m not used to seeing myself on a screen. Minorities never are. Especially for someone who comes from one as niche as mine. I am a queer mixed British-Japanese person. I am fully aware that you have most likely never met anybody like me. And I am not saying that because I believe I am some sort of pariah. Statistically, it is just unlikely.
There are roughly 65,000 Japanese nationals living in the UK. Out of those, the majority are likely Japanese businessmen who have been transferred to the UK. Mixed people likely make up the minority of this number. Moreover, among those who are mixed, it is highly probable that only a few are queer.
Yet somehow, we’ve reached the point where my stories are being told. Whilst not mixed, Rina Sawayama is a queer British-Japanese musician who openly sings songs about her sexuality, her identity and the micro-aggressions she’s experiences as a result.
Furthering that, we’ve recently seen a deluge of stories from mixed asian perspectives on both sides of the Atlantic. For example, Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever featured the half-Japanese character of Paxton Hall-Yoshida as one of the romantic leads. With Asian men having a screen history of being emasculated and non-sexualised individuals, it was refreshing to see a world where the opposite was true. Paxton Hall-Yoshida was depicted as the hunk that everyone wants to be with. Although in reality, Asian guys like these exist, it’s a rare feat to see that illustrated in the media.
In addition, Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood also features a mixed asian role with Darren Criss playing Raymond Ainsely, a half-Filipino aspiring film director. His character deals with the conundrum of what it means to be a white-passing person of colour with the privileges and questions that come with it. For someone who has similar thoughts this was refreshing to see on the screen.
The joy of being seen is something most people are accustomed to. Majority populations are used to their stories being told.
However, I am very used to seeing how advanced America is in its depiction of its Asian population. Being Asian-American is a recognized identity — British East Asian, not so much. Although we are the fastest growing demographic in the United Kingdom, it’s very rare that we see British East Asian stories told, let alone mixed East Asian stories.
Despite this, 2020 saw this happen albeit not in the way I was expecting. Giri/Haji is a BBC and Netflix production set in both Tokyo and London that is primarily a yakuza (Japanese mafia) crime series. Yet interlaced between a story of a police detective’s brother gone to the other side, is the story of queer half Japanese sex worker Rodney Yamaguchi. Although Rodney is charismatic and outgoing compared to my introverted and subdued personality, It marks the first time that I’ve ever seen someone like me on television.
Rodney is a self-destructive mess, unfortunately a common theme I’ve noticed with people of a mixed background. It’s confusing being two things in a world that is stuck in a binary perspective. Sometimes that confusion seeps into our personas with disastrous effects.
Whether this was intentionally done is not explicitly implied but I resonated with his struggles and his inability to find happiness for himself. Having lost his partner, he is lost in a circle of pain and drug abuse. Yet he begins to pull out of this cycle thanks to the Japanese detective and Scottish university lecturer who act as his adoptive family. His story doesn’t take centre stage in the crime show, but I can’t help but emphasise with his struggles.
The joy of being seen is something most people are accustomed to. Majority populations are used to their stories being told. But this is something that feels so alien to me. For me, seeing these stories told especially from a British perspective serve to validate my identity. Set between Tokyo and Japan with characters who reflect that dynamic, aside from the crime and violence Giri/Haji is essentially my cultural upbringing symbolised in a TV show. And the joy of finally seeing that brings me so much relief.
But that doesn’t mean we should stop there. The Half East Asian perspective is one of many layers and thus many experiences which have not been represented yet in mainstream British culture. Our invisibility means that there is a lot of ignorance in regards to what being of East Asian descent means. For example, I’ve been referred to as “foreign” before by a white British acquaintance with this perhaps stemming from a lack of East Asian faces with British accents in the current media landscape.
Furthermore, there are likely stories out there of people from various backgrounds whose stories have not been told. I have always seen this as the goal of media. Rather than regurgitating the same stories of the white straight man, media should tell the stories of those that do not have a predominant voice. This can be done by not only having a diverse cast but also a diverse crew and writers behind the screen.
Star of Killing Eve Sandra Oh has pointed out how she is often the only Asian person on set and that the UK is behind in terms of behind-the-screen diversity. However with more diverse castings slowly becoming the norm, it seems like the tide is slowly turning. This means that, for once, regarding representation I am hopeful.