Being ‘hafu’ in Japan

Being mixed-race in Japan is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, being ‘half’ can open doors and stand you quite literally out from the (very homogenous) crowd. But on the other side of the coin, ‘hafu’, the Japanese word for people of mixed Japanese ethnicity, are constantly battling stereotypes and suffering from identity crises.

In the last 15 years being ‘hafu’ in metropolitan Japan has become something of an obsession – be it in film, TV, advertising or modelling. Just look up when 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. A history of discrimination towards post-war Korean immigrants or children born from relationships with American naval servicemen still runs deep in Japan, where national identity is extremely important.

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Central Tokyo, not many foreign faces

Take for example, the 2016 Miss Japan competition which sparked controversy and grumbling in conservative corners of Japanese society. For the second year in a row the competition was won by a half-Japanese woman, Priyanka Yoshikawa of Indian descent. 2015’s winner, Ariana Miyamoto, who is half-black, half-Japanese equally brought outrage and claims that she was ‘not Japanese enough’.

Five years on from when I first published this article the same issues have surfaced but this time on a more international stage. The rise of star tennis player Naomi Osaka, born to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father has reopened conversations about what it means to be Japanese and what constitutes ‘Japanese-ness’. The law in Japan outlaws dual nationality and states that you must choose your nationality by the age of 22, with Osaka choosing to represent Japan when she turned 22.

Most Japanese commentators are happy to jump on the bandwagon now Osaka has chosen to represent Japan, given her tennis prowess and the real possibility she could win gold at the Tokyo Olympics. However, Osaka’s skin tone and shyness when communicating in Japanese has some pundits murmuring about what this really means for the future of the Japanese race.

This subject is particularly personal to me as someone who identifies as half-Japanese. I am not alone in feeling let down by the Japan’s government continued decision to not accept that we might have dual identities and would like to remain citizens of both countries.

Nonetheless, here are some common problems/perks I’ve observed being half-Japanese in Japan:

Japanese people assume you’re a foreigner

In general, Japanese people have a pretty poor gauge for telling whether someone is half-Japanese. For example, in the UK I was/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. The obvious reason for this is that Japan has comparatively fewer immigrants, while the UK is now relatively diverse, but there is something a bit deflating when Japanese people have no clue I have Japanese blood.

People find you intriguing

Having said that, if Japanese people can’t tell I’m Japanese, once they discover that I am, 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

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 – ‘nihongo wa sugoi desu ne’ – your Japanese is amazing – is truly staggering.

Like anywhere, an attempt to learn or speak the native tongue goes a long way to creating a good impression.

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Is it not obvious I’m half?

It’s not racism it’s ignorance (Normally)

Having grown up in the UK, I can only talk about my experience in Japan and not through the eyes of a native. From my experience, Japanese people are not racist towards foreigners (except perhaps the Chinese), but are ignorant of foreign visitors as they are not exposed to other cultures as much as those living in Europe or other places.

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 constant teasing and ‘bullying’ at school in the UK. I believe, that the level of animosity towards immigrants in the UK is far more volatile than in Japan.

Identity crisis

This is a genuine issue that many half-Japanese people feel both living in Japan and abroad. Japanese culture is rigid and resistant to change which makes many mixed-race Japanese people feel they cannot be fully accepted into Japanese society without being fully Japanese.

In the UK it can feel the same, those times you realise you’re the only non-white person in a pub and some random person calls you Park Ji-Sung or a person you don’t know says something along the lines of ‘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 find it hard to consider myself fully Japanese as I cannot speak fluent Japanese.

Until then, it’s about being comfortable with my own unique identity, which is being a mix of both cultures – both Japanese and British.

*edits were made to this article in November 2020*

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