An Interview with Naomi Takata Shepherd, the Creator Behind 6 Degrees of Hapa


Today I am so excited to introduce you to Naomi Takata Shepherd, the talented creator behind 6 Degrees of Hapa! Naomi and I first met when our booths were next to each other's at a marketplace and storytelling event celebrating Japanese American women during Women’s History Month a few months back. While I did not consider myself hapa (though after interviewing Naomi, I consider myself to be in a hapa family since I am in a multiethnic marriage), I immediately fell in love with her line of clothing. The subject of identity can often be painful and fraught, but Naomi has found a way weave in some fun and pride. I immediately purchased a green scarf with a repeating spam musubi print, a way to wear my Japanese American Dad’s Hawaii upbringing (and a childhood snack we both share), proudly. I found myself reading Naomi’s powerful and thoughtful answers over and over again in the course of the last week. I hope that you too will find her interview as inspiring as I did, and that it will renew your sense of pride in your own identity— as it does for me.

On her background… 
I’m a hapa/mixed Japanese American artist who is passionate about creating work that focuses on intersectional and inclusive narratives. I was born and raised in the Bay Area and after a brief stint in Southern California for film school, I decided to come back and have been here ever since. Creating art and storytelling have always been passions of mine. As a child, I would use these forms of expression to help better understand myself and my own identity.

On how she started 6 Degrees of Hapa… 
The idea for 6 Degrees of Hapa started with a conversation that my family and our hapa family friends were having one night after dinner. We ended up talking about how even when we saw other mixed families or people, we didn’t necessarily bring that subject up with them because we didn’t know how those people felt about being mixed. So the very first concept for 6 Degrees of Hapa was born, which was t-shirts that proudly and clearly stated the word “hapa” so it would be easy for other hapas to say, “Hey! There’s someone like me, maybe I should get to know them!”

Naomi with her family

Naomi with her family

On where the name of her company came from…
6 Degrees of Hapa is all about celebrating mixed cultures through apparel, art, and personal connections. At first I struggled to come up with a name that really encompassed what I was trying to do, which was to create a brand that was not solely about celebrating hapas as individuals, but also about celebrating the family, friends, and community who hold us up and help make us who we are. I never set out with the intention to make a business that was exclusive. The name 6 Degrees of Hapa just popped into my head one day when I began to think about how everyone is connected through a complex web of relationships and experiences. 

On how her upbringing and her heritage informs her work with 6 Degrees of Hapa…
I wanted to create a brand that gave the mixed community an outlet to express ourselves and our pride in our diverse roots — in part because I didn’t have that sense of community while I was growing up. I’m lucky that I’ve always had pride in my family and my mixed heritage, but it’s never been easy to maintain an unwavering faith in my own identity.

Being hapa/mixed meant that throughout my school years my peers didn’t know how to categorize me and I was often left feeling like I wasn’t “enough” of any one culture to be considered anything.

It’s taken me a very long time to learn and understand what it means to be hapa/mixed, what it means to be a third/fourth generation Japanese American (which is very different than being someone who is born and raised in Japan), and what it means to be American and white. And the learning never stops. 

I wanted to create a brand that gave the mixed community an outlet to express ourselves and our pride in our diverse roots

On her path to clothing design…
Along with having parents who have always encouraged my creative pursuits, I think the activities I chose to participate in when I was younger—art, Destination Imagination, Girl Scouts, and being on my high school newspaper’s staff—really prepared me for textile and apparel design. Each of these activities required me to to express myself visually and develop a do-it-yourself sense of artistic problem solving. These skills have helped me teach myself how to draw with Adobe Illustrator, screenprint, create repeating patterns, and develop apparel from scratch, to name a few aspects of my 6 Degrees of Hapa work. 


On how she wants her designs to make 6 Degrees of Hapa wearers feel…
I want my customers to feel proud, supported, and connected to a greater community. I’m always happy when my art and apparel make people laugh, because my illustrations are meant to be playful and humorous. There are definitely times for serious dialogue about identity, but I think it’s just as important that people are capable of finding humor and lightness in the imagery that helps make up their identities, even if it is as simple as musubi on a cap!

The moments when people walk by one of my pop-up shops and do a double-take when they see all of my merchandise and say, “Hapa? That’s me!” are always very gratifying. Even when people don’t necessarily buy something from my shop, just hearing them get excited about seeing a shop that they can identify with confirms that I’m doing something right in my business.


On her proudest moments in her work… 
Getting asked to speak at Loving Day 2017 in San Jose was an experience I’m really proud of. Right around that time was when I decided to launch an Instagram-based project called Share Your Hapa Story, which gives people the opportunity to share photos and their experiences as a mixed person/family. I’ve had over thirty people send in their stories so far, and I’m always amazed at what people have to say. It’s also exciting to see how engaged the 6 Degrees of Hapa community is in hearing and responding to these stories.

On a very personal note, for the longest time I’ve had to put my handmade and hand-drawn art to the side because of a spinal injury, which limited my fine motor skills greatly. After a number of years of living with this spinal injury and the chronic pain it caused, I had disc replacement surgery in August 2018 and it has had such a positive impact on my quality of life. I’m really thankful to have my fine motor skills back after my surgery and the recovery process, and have finally been able to get back to my handmade art. One of my first big projects since then has been to create an edition of Kokeshi block prints, which made their debut at Roy’s Station Coffee & Tea in San Jose Japantown this summer. Being able to see my art up on display for the first time is a moment I will always be proud of.


On where she draws inspiration from… 
I draw inspiration from my own cultural background by using imagery that has often popped up throughout my life, like the kokeshi dolls from my grandparents’ house. Many of my designs have Hawaiian influences to honor and acknowledge where the word “hapa” comes from. I also try to bring in elements that mixed families can relate to, such as food, because it plays such a strong role across cultures. Food is a huge part of everyone’s cultural narrative and specifically, foods like spam musubi wouldn’t have ever come into existence without the mixing of many cultures.

On the biggest inspirations in her own life…
My family is by far the biggest inspiration in my life. I am so fortunate to have such a supportive, hard-working, creative, and funny group of people that I get to call my family. My grandma likes to tell me, “You have brains, you have beauty, you can cook...Just like me!” 


On what being hapa means for her life and her work… 
It’s been quite something to see the evolution of the Hawaiian word “hapa” as it has gained popularity as a term that more mixed people identify with, especially mixed members of the Asian and Pacific Islander community. There have been so many articles about the origins of the word and both positive and negative press surrounding how people choose to use the word “hapa.”

Even since starting 6 Degrees of Hapa, my understanding of the word has evolved and it’s important for me as an individual and as a business to acknowledge and inform people about the word’s Hawaiian roots; hapa is a Hawaiian word that has several different meanings, including half, fraction, a part, and it is also used for and by people who come from mixed heritages.

For me, as it relates to people, hapa means that you and your family are a mix of cultures, and definitely not exclusive to “half and half.” A huge part of my personal philosophy is inclusion and I think that the word “hapa” really embodies that, because we can be hapas as individuals, but we can also be hapa families and hapa communities. 

On shifts she hopes to see for the future of mixed race or hapa people in our society…  
People of mixed heritage are nothing new. If you look back through history, we have always been present. But up until very recently, I don’t think there have been many opportunities for our voices to be heard as a collective group. I hope with the work that so many of us in the mixed community are doing, we’ll be able to shift the narrative from being not “enough” of any one culture, ethnicity, or race, to being accepted for who we are—whole people who have multiple heritages and a wide range of experiences to draw from, just like everyone else.

A huge part of my personal philosophy is inclusion and I think that the word “hapa” really embodies that, because we can be hapas as individuals, but we can also be hapa families and hapa communities.

On why working with the local community is important to her and her community…
Working with other local small businesses and companies that manufacture products in the US is important to me because it means that with my small business, I’m supporting the local economy and community members who own and work at these businesses.  

Naomi with her sibling, Matthew

Naomi with her sibling, Matthew

On what it means to see her work appreciated and loved by different generations… 
It means everything to me! Recently, I had a kid who was about ten walk right in and pick herself out a Hapa Snapback to add to her growing collection. Her grandmother told me that she had stood up for herself at school when other kids were telling her she wasn’t Asian. The granddaughter had then told them what it meant to be hapa. Hearing that really meant a lot to me because making a positive impact on the next generation of hapa kids is one of the reasons why I try to make 6 Degrees of Hapa a business where the whole family can feel included and find a little something for themselves, whether it be a new t-shirt or a little extra confidence.

On celebrating her mixed heritage… 
We love to eat in my family, and luckily, a lot of us love to cook. My mixed heritage comes out pretty much every time I make dinner, and holiday meals always involve a combination of Japanese American food and American food—we have white rice and mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving. Even if we’re not all together for New Year’s, my mom always makes sure that my sibling, Matthew, and I have soba and mochi to start the new year off right.

Naomi with her family

Naomi with her family

On hopes for the future of 6 Degrees of Hapa… 
6 Degrees of Hapa has never just been about pop-up shops for me— the most important aspects of my business are creating art and apparel that empower the mixed community and giving mixed people and families a way to come together. I hope that as my business continues to grow, I can make that community-building aspect, which is largely social media-based right now, even more of a reality through events and expanding my “Share Your Hapa Story” project to go beyond Instagram.

On unplugging from the workday/week…  
I’ll be honest, I have a really difficult time with unplugging from my work and art. Unfortunately I think that comes with the reality of being a small business owner in the Bay Area. As customers, we have all become accustomed to lightning-quick responses to emails, direct messages, and online shopping, and as small business owners, we have to try and keep up. That being said, I unplug by going on walks, reading, traveling, watching maybe one too many things on Netflix, and I’m excited to finally get back into exercise, like yoga, after a long recovery process from disc replacement surgery!

On off-brand skills or things she loves, that not many people know about…  
Filmmaking is a passion of mine and people are often surprised to find out that I actually went to school for filmmaking with an emphasis in directing and not another area of study, like graphic design. I’m very excited to share that a music video I co-directed with and for my sibling, Matthew (a.k.a. Vioulet), has been getting attention through film festivals, including a screening at Outfest Los Angeles this summer. You can find more information about our screenings, Matthew’s music, and music video “In the Fog/神隠し” at

Matthew, aka Vioulet, Naomi’s sibling

Matthew, aka Vioulet, Naomi’s sibling

Upcoming 6 Degrees of Hapa pop-ups in the San Francisco Bay Area:

September 21-22 - Napa Aloha Festival

October 12 - Crafty Foxes, San Jose Japantown

November 9 - JAMsj Winter Boutique, San Jose Japantown

December 14 - Kimochi Silver Bells, San Francisco 

More on Naomi’s “Share Your Hapa Story” project:
To read previous “Share Your Hapa Story” contributions, please check out the hashtag #ShareYourHapaStory and contributions can be sent via DM @6degreesofhapa

6 Degrees of Hapa is not just about the things we make. We're here to celebrate friends, family, and our diverse connections. To continue with this celebration, we'd love to hear your stories and for you to share a photo or two. Whether it be a short blurb about your experience being mixed/having a mixed family/connections or your favorite food from your childhood, please DM us! What we're looking for: Family-friendly content, clear photos with a clear subject (please no filters added, we'll handle editing), and a short blurb/story that celebrates what it means to be 6 Degrees of Hapa.

For more ways to support Naomi and her work with 6 Degrees of Hapa:
Check out the 6 Degrees of Hapa online shop and the Threadless Artist Shop.

Naomi is also available for freelance art, illustration, and design work and is open to collaborations!

Thank you so much, Naomi, for sharing your story with us! You are an inspiration to so many hapa people, families, and communities everywhere. Thank you for paving the path, and for offering such fun and thoughtful ways to proudly share our identities with the world. I feel immensely grateful to have met you, and to be creating alongside you.