Exploring the diversity of urban Japan through film

Written by Dr Jamie Coates

Japan is not usually seen as a place with a high number of migrants, yet new non-Japanese communities are emerging in urban centres, with some areas of Tokyo showing levels of diversity like those found in so-called immigration countries such as the UK and the USA. My recent research film Tokyo Pengyou explores how new forms of belonging are produced among young Chinese people living, studying and working in Japan. Focusing on a network of creative young people who met each other in one of Tokyo’s unofficial Chinatowns, the film allows us to reconsider what diversity means in East Asian urban contexts.

Within existing research on transnational migration in East Asia, particularly Japan, significant emphasis is put on the structural forces that shape how new communities form in urban contexts. While these dynamics, such as ethnic identities, local economies and laws, are incredibly important, they can lead us to overlook important aspects of migrants’ everyday experiences. Taking inspiration from one of my interviewee’s explanation of the word for friendship in Chinese (pengyou) Tokyo Pengyou draws our attention to the importance of friendship, creativity and play in young mobile Chinese people’s experiences. In particular, the film demonstrates how the formation of new friendships filters the experience of wider structural issues in migration contexts.

The film produced out of the data I collected for a wider postdoctoral project on young Chinese media practices in Japan. In May 2018, Tokyo Pengyou was published in the Journal for Anthropological Films (JAF), which is an innovative new journal that incorporates a peer-review system for films and other audio-visual research outputs. I screened Tokyo Pengyou as part of the British Association for Japanese Studies conference in September 2018 and the film has been submitted in several international film festivals for 2019. Tokyo Pengyou is my first foray into ethnographic film-making and provided a great opportunity to grow as a researcher. Using ethnographic film-making as part of my research allowed me to see the complexity of everyday life in new ways and has changed how I think about society and culture more generally. In this sense, making Tokyo Pengyou helped me answer questions about how young Chinese people experience life in Japan, but it also raised a series of new questions that I look forward to exploring further.

Tokyo Pengyou from JAF on Vimeo.