Being ‘hafu’ in Japan

Much as been written about the recent popularity of half-Japanese people in Japan and also ongoing discrimination towards ‘hafu’, the Japanese word for those of mixed-ethnicity.

In the last 15 years being half in Japan has been something of an obsession, be it in film, TV, advertising or modelling. If you walk the streets of central Tokyo, huge billboards with pretty half-Japanese girls advertising the newest brand of perfume tower high. Mixing the West with the East sells in Japan.

Yet, while the image of half-Japanese people has dramatically improved in Japan recently, it was not long ago that being mixed race was met with scorn. Discrimination still runs deep in Japan, where national identity is extremely important.

Central Tokyo, not many foreign faces


Take for example, the Miss Japan competition which has sparked controversy amongst more conservative Japanese people. For the second year in a row the competition has been won by a half-Japanese woman, this year by Priyanka Yoshikawa of Indian descent. Last year’s winner, Ariana Miyamoto, who is half-black, half-Japanese brought outrage and claims that she was ‘not Japanese enough’.

However, it’s hardly surprising racism exists, Japan is so homogeneous. Despite being ‘hafu’ I still stick out, even in central Toyko.

As I am half-Japanese myself, this is a subject that is particularly personal to me. Here are some problems/perks of being half-Japanese in Japan:

Japanese people assume you’re a foreigner

The Japanese really do have an appalling gauge for telling whether someone is half-Japanese. For example, in the UK I am always the ‘Asian’ one and often referred to as the ‘Asian guy’. Yet in Japan, there is total surprise if I tell anyone I’m half Japanese, an assumption that is almost instantaneously made in the UK. This is obviously born out of the fact that Japan has next to no Western immigration while the UK is now very diverse, but there is almost still something a bit deflating about the fact Japanese people often have no clue I have Japanese blood.

People find you intriguing

Having said that Japanese people can’t tell I’m Japanese, once they discover you are, they become instantly fascinated by you. Once you’ve both got over initial awkwardness, most Japanese people are extremely friendly and you become very popular!

It helps if you can speak Japanese

This so-called popularity has perhaps led by speaking Japanese. Japanese people wholly expect non-native people do have no grasp of their language, so even my broken Japanese is met with cries of shock and exclamation. The amount of times people have told me how great my Japanese is even if I utter one sentence is incredible. Like anywhere, an attempt to learn or speak the native tongue goes a long way to creating a good impression.

Is it not obvious I’m half?

It’s not racism it’s ignorance

Having grown up in the UK, I can only talk about my experience in Japan and not through the eyes of a native. However, in general, Japanese people are not racist towards foreigners (except perhaps the Chinese), but more ignorant as they are not exposed to foreigners in the same way Western Europe is.

It’s impossible for me to know if I would have faced ‘racism’ if I attended Japanese school. The probability is high, but I experienced teasing and ‘bullying’ at school in the UK. The level of animosity towards foreigners in the UK is far more volatile than in Japan. Kids will tease each other in whatever country you grow up in.

Identity crisis

I feel this is a genuine issue that many half-Japanese people feel both living in Japan and abroad. Japanese culture is so particular that many feel you cannot be fully accepted into Japanese society without being fully Japanese. In the UK that is not the case, but it is still tiring to be in a pub and some random person to call you Park Ji-Sung or a person I don’t know to say something along the lines ‘ask the Asian guy’.

This has often left me wondering what I am. It perhaps sounds soppy and cringe but it’s a question that often plays on my mind. Having been born in the UK and called it my home for 20 years, I would consider myself British, yet most people are more interested about what part of me isn’t British before they recognise me as one of their own.

On the other hand, I also very proud of my Japanese heritage but feel I could never consider myself fully Japanese as I cannot speak fluent Japanese. Furthermore, I am not sure the Japanese would ever consider me Japanese even if I spoke the language fluently.

Regardless, I am proud of my heritage and hold both countries close to my heart.




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