Hafu – What It’s Like to be Half-Japanese in Japan
A hafu, or haafu, 「ハーフ」 is a child of mixed parentage born of one full-blood Japanese parent and one non-Japanese parent. It’s a noun and loanword from English half used almost exclusively in Japan to openly address and describe those who are not full-blood Japanese. The existence of the word points to a problem inherent in the Japanese way of life: the homogenous societal structure of the country prevents anyone who isn’t born of two Japanese parents from fully entering the traditionally closed society.
The term lays in a gray area – those who identify as half-Japanese, tend to find hafu to be pejorative, but full-blood Japanese understand it to be a simple descriptor with no particular connotation, which can cause confusion as to what vocabulary is currently considered to be politically correct. However, the deeper issue seems to be not that hafu conveys some sort of negative outlook on children of mixed parentage but that the word simply exists where it doesn’t need to.
The History of Hafu
Japan is naturally closed as an island nation. The Japanese people inhabited the Japanese islands relatively undisturbed until the American diplomatic Perry Expedition led by Matthew Perry in 1853 and 1854. The expedition led to the fall of the shogunate, which returned power to the emperor of Japan. The ensuing Meiji era opened the country to outside technology and influences.
To maintain their unique culture and lifestyle, however, traditionally-minded Japanese have made efforts to keep their bloodlines as Japanese as possible. Work visas are hard to come by, and citizenship is even more difficult to achieve. Japan does not allow dual citizenship, and those who wish to be citizens must adopt a traditional Japanese family name, of which there are only a limited amount.
The most common way to achieve permanent residence status in Japan is to marry a Japanese person. International marriages, relationships, and divorces in Japan all saw rapid growth from the onset of the 1990s and peaked around 2006. While the number of marriages has continued to decline, it remains at a historical high on average. In 2012, 3.5% of marriages in Japan were interracial, and that number has stayed steady through 2015.
As half-Japanese girls and boys began to join Japanese society, they adopted monikers by which the general Japanese population would refer to them. The first of these was ainoko 「あいのこ」(also written 間の子 or 合いの子), which carries a meaning of a child in-between, and the second, konketsuji 「混血児」which means mixed blood child. The two terms became commonly accepted as derogatory and society replaced them with the stylized English hafu. It is the preferred term today, but it still carries the weight of the mixed-race struggle within the country of Japan.
Post-War Mixed Lineage Children
The presence of Hafu first boomed in the years following World War II. Wartime comfort women were among those who mothered the children of occupying U.S. soldiers, but they were just a few in their company; women who worked at small and improvised occupation shops also developed relationships with American fighters and began to bear children of partial Japanese and partial American descent.
These half-Japanese children bore the hate and criticism of the Japanese during the early post-war days. When Okinawa returned to Japanese rule in 1972, foreign presence became the subject of scrutiny, and even in modern Japan there are those who feel ill will toward supporters of the military base and foreign existence in Japan.
However, many open-minded Japanese have made strides toward finding a politically correct term to address those of mixed lineage. Some parents of half-Japanese children prefer to now use double 「ダブル」 to describe their children and ask others to do the same. In Okinawa, many employ the term Amerasian 「アメラジアン」for the more common mix of American and Japanese.
Today, hafu exist in a period of rapid social change. As the population realizes the consequences of their high-pressure, exclusive society, and amid problems such as hikikomori and karoshi, the need to adapt to globalization becomes more clear – and populous cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto have already made steps to prepare by incorporating non-Japanese culture into their own.
Modern Social Context of Hafu
Not all hafu live in a world that ostracizes them. They are well-celebrated in Japanese media, especially half-Japanese women. Hafu or haafu models such as Lola, also called Rola, Becky, and Maggy are beloved for their exotic physical features and on-screen presence. Models such as Lola and Becky imitate the fashionable characteristics of full-blood Japanese celebrities, while models such as Maggy display parts of different heritages when appearing on television.
The Japanese Image of Hafu
Recently, Japan and the world reached a crisis when Ariana Miyamoto, the child of a father in the U.S. Navy and a Japanese mother, succeeded as a contestant for Miss Japan in the world of beauty pageantry. Though she is not full-blood Japanese, her race is the only element of her
existence that sets her apart from her peers. She speaks Japanese natively and spent her childhood and formative years almost exclusively in Japan, with the exception of a two-year expedition to America to live with her father’s family.
Japanese dissenters flew into a rage when Ariana moved into the spotlight. Several critics believed that Ariana did not embody the physical appearance of a Japanese woman. It didn’t matter that she self-identified as Japanese, came into the world in Japan, and got her education through the national school system. Her hafu appearance marked her as someone who could never hope to be one of her own people.
In an interview with the Japan Times, Megumi Nishikura expounds further on the struggle of being a hafu without celebrity status. She was born to an Irish-American mother and a Japanese father, and though she began her education within the Japaneses school system, her uncertain identity pushed her into an international school, an increasingly popular choice among international families in Japan.
She learned to deal with her existence as a person of mixed race by learning to choose when to disagree with her critics and when to appreciate what their misunderstanding means. Her experience is shared by many in the documentary film Hafu, the first film of its kind to take a deep look into the personal stories of those who have both struggled and succeeded in the realm of the half-Japanese.
Hafu Outside of Japan
Bustle writer Lia Beck, a half-Japanese woman who grew up in the United States, recognizes that her life contrasts starkly with that of Ariana Miyamoto. She grew up learning to reconcile the ignorance of those around her, but realized that though her appearance set her apart, so did that of everyone around her. The identity of Americans hinges more on their speech and beliefs than their physical appearance, despite the internal racism that lingers throughout the nation.
Being half-Japanese doesn’t mean much in the States. It may elicit questions of lineage from those swept with curiosity, but mixed race hardly affects the majority of social interactions between Americans. Even those who have accents and may have spent the majority of their lives in Japan find acceptance among Americans.
Part of American education includes lessons that cultivate an appreciation of the many immigrants who helped to build the nation. Higher education systems teach of the horrors and tragedies that befell many races in the lands of North America before colonization and after and how those who fell victim were affected simply because they were of a different race. Civil War education and the plight of the slaves is included in history and English curriculum, and is a vital part of all social sciences in both grade school and at university level.
Japan still lacks major educational focus on concepts such as xenophobia and racism within the country. Progressive teachers have taken on such education as a personal mission, but the system that places priority on success with entrance exams prevents much deviation from the prescribed curriculum.
Change is invisible and slow-moving, but the promise of a Japan rich with international knowledge and understanding may be closer than experts think. Large cities with well-used airports enjoy an international cultural bubble that sometimes forgets the struggles of foreigners in Japan. For now, a larger international presence and the bravery of a few mixed-race families in Japan will pave the path for a new dawn in the land of the rising sun.