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Hafu What?


In Japan the word ‘ハーフ’ (hafu) is loaded with connotations; no doubt a Japanese person would have a certain image in their minds. It is such a strong word that it seems to form a sense of one’s identity as a hafu in Japan. As a child I didn’t understand the label and thought it meant half, as in half a pint of milk, half. Growing up half-Japanese, half-British in the UK I’ve often felt this notion of ‘otherness’, particularly where I grew up in a predominantly white neighbourhood and school. Therefore, I have never encountered labels in regards to my race and ethnicity such as the notion of hafu. The very existence of the word is a foreign concept that I have now encountered many times since moving to Tokyo.

Hafu is a label which emerged in the 1970s and is used to describe those of mixed Japanese ethnicity. Derived from the English word ‘half’ it indicates a sense of foreignness. An earlier term referring to half Japanese people was ainoko (間の子) meaning a child born of a biracial relationship. In the 1940s, the term developed into a derogatory word associated with the negative treatment of hafu in Japan. The word konketsuji (混血児) followed it in the late 1950s, meaning “child of mixed blood”. This word soon, too, became associated with discrimination and illegitimacy and gave rise to a new word, hafu. A central theme to all these labels is emphasis on impurity and seems to emphasise a sense of otherness and dissimilarity.

This begs the question, why are hafu not simply Japanese?

Hafu often experience a sense of differentiation in Japan; Alice, a hafu Todai student, talks about how her American side seems to dominate others perceptions of her, who consider her to be foreign. Although many hafu’s are no stranger to this sense of dissimilarity with their other nationality too, it seems this is amplified in Japan. Georgia, another hafu Todai student, says that although she’s called ‘broni’ (foreigner) in Ghana, she feels less of a distance, socially, in Ghana than with fully Japanese people in Japan. She says, ‘they don’t really make anyone feel foreign’, whilst in Japan there seems to be a clear ‘gap between foreigners and native Japanese people’. She believes that hafu’s are treated in the same way as other foreigners and in Japan no distinction is drawn between the two groups.

Ella, a hafu UCL student, says that she ‘feels like much more of a foreigner and I feel very British’ in Japan, more so than feeling Japanese in the UK. She thinks this is because of her lack of language skills and cultural knowledge compared to fully Japanese people raised in Japan. This sense of distinction between natives and hafu seems to be a bidirectional relationship, of feeling not entirely Japanese. But the existence of such a word in Japan and the ethnic homogeneity of Japan enhances this sense of otherness; in England there exists no such concept of being half English, although words such as mixed-race or mixed-heritage do exist. The foreign-born population of Japan is just over 2m compared to over 7m in the UK, which has a population just over half of Japan’s 127m.

The legal aspect of being hafu in Japan also adds to this sense of ‘otherness’; the 1984 amendment to the Japanese Nationality Act denies the right to dual citizenship beyond the age of 22. Today 1 in 30 Japanese born have mixed parents and increasing internationalisation means that this ban of dual nationality is increasingly obsolete. Many other countries, such as Canada, Thailand and Australia, allow dual nationality, accepting that belonging to two nations and cultures does not compromise one’s loyalty to those countries.

Someone once told me I was a ‘lucky hafu’ as I apparently look more foreign. This is something I had never considered before and it seems that there exists a racial hierarchy within the hafu community. The documentary “Hafu” (2013) highlights the varying levels of treatment of hafu with different ethnicities. Hafu with a Korean or black parent tend to have the toughest time in Japan, whilst western looking hafu are often idealised. Growing up, Alice said that she often felt ‘lucky’ to be a hafu, that her ethnicity was an asset in Japan, being considered attractive and ‘exotic’. She also points out that all the ‘celebrated hafu’s’ she grew up with had a Caucasian/Western mix, and that the term hafu seems to neglect other ethnicities in the image of hafu.

Although there are aspects of discrimination, the ハーフ experience in Japan seems to be more one of differentiation and a sense of otherness, both inflicted by the Japanese, but also created by hafu themselves. With increasing globalisation and immigration in Japan, it will be interesting to see how attitudes towards hafu’s changes and how the meaning of the term itself develops.


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