When will the term hafu stop putting the Japanese half in the corner?
Anyone who owes part of their lineage to a Japanese parent and part to a non-Japanese parent will have spent their lives reconciling themselves to the term hafu and all its incumbent implications. I am far from being an exception and I have come to find that the interpreted connotation of the term and the level of discomfort this label causes depend on the extent to which one’s own cultural upbringing is influenced by their parents’ backgrounds. In other words, one can be of mixed race but fundamentally feel they belong to one culture or one can be the embodiment of the perfect fusion between two cultures. Depending on which category you fall under, the label will evoke different reactions and frustrations. This is especially evident in a confused country like Japan: an ethnically homogenous and subconsciously xenophobic nation with a bordering on irrational emulation for Western culture. The mixed feelings towards foreigners harboured by the Japanese make Japan a perfect breeding ground for a distinctive racism towards half Japanese people, mostly of a harmless but highly wearisome nature. These conflicting attitudes towards foreigners and foreign cultures stem from the antiquated notion of Japan being an isolated country due to its geographical positioning: the term sakoku jidai (literally meaning locked country) may have faded from the daily vocabulary of its people, but the sentiment is still subconsciously in place. That’s not to say that one is remotely likely to face blatantly aggressive racism on a daily basis, but it soon becomes evident to any foreigner that trying to blend in entirely with their Japanese peers is a futile endeavour. This is no different for the half Japanese; no matter how Japanese one’s demeanour, their appearance gives them away and most Japanese people appear to find the discrepancy between one’s Japanese mannerisms and their foreign looks impossible to overlook. In this sense, Japan is actually bafflingly schizophrenic. On the one hand Japan idolizes Western culture and produces increasingly bizarre and convoluted interpretations of it within its own culture; while on the other hand, the Japanese are incredibly inept at adopting an acceptance of foreigners as a constituent of their society. Someone born and raised solely in Japan as a regular Japanese citizen would, understandably, hope to be treated as Japanese; however, it is likely that they have been treated as an anomaly their entire lives. Broadly speaking, Japanese society is split into two conflicting ideals with regards to half-foreign half-Japanese people: members of older generations are often still influenced by the more-negative-than-neutral image conjured by terms such as konketsuji (mixed blood child) or ainoko (child of love - originally referring to a child born to a Japanese woman and African-American soldier) coined during World War 2, while the younger generation is influenced by the glamorous vast presence of half-Japanese adolescents in the country’s modelling industry. Both attitudes are based on the external characteristics of mixed race people and, unfortunately, there is nothing one can do to erase the “foreignness” displayed by their physical appearance for the sake of being accepted as part of the Japanese population. Whether one is entirely Japanese in character and ideals or not has a minimal impact on this predicament and while some may relish the celebrity-like attention they receive as a result, others find it a source of immense frustration. A prime example of this situation is Eiji Wentz, a half-Japanese half-German American celebrity and comedian, often speaks of the inconveniences caused by his appearance, for he is unable to speak English and his self-perceived identity is entirely Japanese. His fairer skin and hazel eyes place him unquestioningly under the “idol” category, so he decided to counteract this imposed image by becoming a comedian, a rather crude one, at that. Playing on his lack of English skills, he recently revealed he is considering learning English and that people shouldn’t assume it will be any easier for him, sending out the message that merely having fair hair and lighter coloured eyes does not automatically define him as having a propensity for English.While Japan raised half-Japanese people face unjustified foreign treatment despite feeling entirely Japanese, those brought up as bicultural often face the conflict between the attitudes towards foreigners of their two (or more) countries of patrimony. Having spent one good chunk of my life in Britain and another in Japan as a half-Japanese half-British person, I have seen first-hand the comfort with which I fit into British society contrasted with the difficulty I’ve had in shaking off the “foreigner label” in Japan. For someone like me, the term hafu itself doesn’t engender any offence in itself since, in effect, that is what I am: half-Japanese. It’s the attitude that encompasses the term that bothers me, it is basically a toned down version of gaijin that separates me from my Japanese peers. For the most part, in Britain, I can pretend I am entirely British if I feel the need to be. My name, Christine Syrad, doesn’t stand out as particularly foreign (though people tend to think I am Middle-Eastern despite my surname being of British origin) and I have a standard British accent. If I don’t tell anyone that I am half-Japanese, I can choose to live as a regular Brit amongst Brits. In Japan, this just isn’t an option, even if I opt to go by Nakajima Reika, my Japanese name, and even though I speak Osaka ben, a very distinctive dialect, because I have mixed facial features am therefore singled out as being not quite Japanese. The fact that I can choose to be treated as a British person in Britain but cannot convince Japanese people to see me as Japanese has directly contributed to my feeling more at ease in Britain than in Japan, despite feeling just as Japanese as I do British on the inside. Although I owe my cultural background and my international outlook to both countries in equal measure, I can’t help but feel that I identify more with British people than with Japanese people as a result of this phenomenon. Admittedly, in the grand scheme of things, people deal with far more serious accounts of racism, so I do not want to imply that as a half-Japanese people we suffer intolerable injustice, however, a sense of identity is a reassuring thing to have pinned down and this is what we have to struggle with. While Our Japanese contemporaries may see us as fortunate for having exotic facial features, features some aspire to recreate through cosmetic products, and in extreme cases procedures, we feel we are denied something of a much greater value; a real sense of belonging when in our own home country. Unfortunately, since racism in the form of semi-idolization is hardly an aggressive form of bigotry, it is very difficult to communicate the discomfort it can cause without sounding petty and ungrateful for having a distinctive genetic makeup. Don’t get me wrong, I can take this all in my stride, but it would be nice if one day I was able to roam the streets of Japan truly feeling as Japanese as I do British.