Redefining what it means to be Japanese: filmmaker Ema Ryan Yamazaki on her life and work

Exactly how much Britain’s two favourite TV soap operas and a much loved police procedural series might have influenced Yamazaki’s latest feature-length documentary, The Making of a Japanese (2023), is debatable.

Ema Ryan Yamazaki grew up watching British TV soap operas Coronation Street and EastEnders and police procedural series The Bill. Photo: Ema Ryan Yamazaki/Cineric Creative

The film, which traces a year in the lives of Tokyo junior school pupils, will be available to stream in Hong Kong on Now TV’s documentary channel, Now True.

The Making of a Japanese, Yamazaki’s third major documentary, received its world premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival last autumn and is now on a world tour, with screenings everywhere from Thailand to the United States.

It did not have to travel far for its impact to register. The audience reaction at the premiere “was overwhelming and surprisingly emotional”, says Yamazaki from her home in Tokyo.

“People were crying at various points, feeling nostalgic for their childhoods and the education system they grew up with,” she says. “It was emotional for me, too. It’s been a long journey: I had the idea for the film 10 years ago.

“The Japanese school system is one of those things you take for granted and it gets a bad rap. There’s a lot of negativity around Japanese education and I understand its issues.

“But it’s the only system where we clean our own classrooms and serve each other lunch. These kids are learning responsibility at a young age – that’s something we should acknowledge and other countries can learn from.

“There’s also what could be changed, especially in modern times. People got what I was trying to do, which was a great feeling.”

Born in Kobe and raised by her Japanese mother and English father in Osaka, Yamazaki, 35, was exposed to the delights of British television “during many summers and Christmases in Bury, Greater Manchester, with my grandparents” as well as its classrooms.

“I went to school in Bury at five,” she says. “I was in [local newspaper] the Bury Times as ‘the Asian girl’.”

Yamazaki on location. The Making of a Japanese received its world premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival last autumn. Photo: Eric Nyari/Cineric Creative

Yamazaki’s early education continued in Japan – and its importance would become clear when she left home to study documentary making and editing at New York University.

Not looking “like a traditional Japanese”, she says, she left Japan “at 19, thinking I might never live here again because I was so frustrated”.

“I wasn’t comfortably Japanese. I wanted to be, but it felt like no one was treating me that way, so I had a negative view and it took the next decade and a half to get here.

“I lived in New York for almost 10 years and came of age there, [but] now I’m comfortable with my relationship with Japan,” she says.

“I get that people won’t always see me as Japanese, especially with an American husband and a very white-looking child. But I’m enjoying redefining that and playing with expectations.

“That’s why the films I make about Japan are done in a way that maybe only I can: I know what it’s like to be in Japan but also how the outside world sees it, and what it takes to tell nuanced stories that aren’t about sushi and samurai.

“It took leaving here to appreciate day-to-day things: the trains being on time all the time, things being so clean and us having some sort of harmonious community, for better or worse. Japan took me on that journey; I’m so glad I have that.

“And looking back, the foundation of every part of me as a Japanese person was taught in those six years in elementary school.”

A scene from Koshien: Japan’s Field of Dreams. Photo: Cineric Creative

Yamazaki, who has worked extensively with national broadcaster NHK, is now researching her third Japan-centric documentary, which will star “the adults of Japan”.

“I want to feature a traditional company and explore its inner workings and generational shifts, using it to think about what’s happening in society,” she says.

“Japan is going through a reckoning of what traditions we keep and what we update as times change. Exploring that with people in different positions is what I’m interested in.”

That will make a trio of big-ticket documentaries about Yamazaki’s homeland: her first, Koshien: Japan’s Field of Dreams (2019), is an examination of Japaneseness filtered through the national obsession with baseball – which, for Yamazaki, curiously, is where it all began.

“I grew up a ridiculously intense fan of Ichiro Suzuki, the best player in Japan, who joined the Seattle Mariners in 2001. He was a pioneer. I read a book about him when I was at a very impressionable age,” she says, “and through him I learned about working hard and becoming the best at what you do.

“When he went to the US it gave me the idea to leave one day and pursue something – and ultimately I decided on film. I decided that was going to be my baseball.”


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