In Japan, Will Hafu Ever Be Considered Whole?
Image Credit: dejalovely (YouTube), Michael Connolly, Hafu movie poster courtesy of Megumi Nishikura

In Japan, Will Hafu Ever Be Considered Whole?

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“Spain! Spain!” the boys shouted at her and her brother, day in and day out at a summer camp in Chiba prefecture. The incessant chanting eventually turned into pushing and hitting. One morning, she even discovered that her backpack full of clothes had been left outside in the rain.

“It was the worst two weeks of our lives,” recalls Lara Perez Takagi, who was six years old at the time. She was born in Tokyo to a Spanish father and Japanese mother.

“When our parents came to pick us up at the station, we cried for the whole day. I remember not ever wanting to do any activities that involved Japanese kids and lost interest in learning the language for a long time, until I reached maturity and gained my interest in Japan once again.”

By the year 2050, 40 percent of the Japanese population will be age 65 or older. With Japanese couples having fewer children than ever before, Japan is facing a population decline of epic proportions. However, one demographic continues to grow: Japanese and non-Japanese mixed-race couples. But in one of the world’s most homogeneousous countries, is Japan ready to accept their offspring?

Biracial Japanese nationals like Takagi are an increasingly common sight in Japan. The latest statistics from the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare indicate that one out of every 50 babies born in 2012 had one non-Japanese parent. Additionally, 3.5 percent of all domestic marriages performed last year were between Japanese and foreigners. To put those numbers into perspective, the earliest reliable census data that includes both mixed race births and marriages shows that fewer than one out of 150 babies born in 1987 were biracial and only 2.1 percent of marriages that year were between Japanese and non-Japanese.

Takagi is one of a growing number of hafu – or half Japanese – who have grown up between two cultures. The term itself, which is derived from the English word “half,” is divisive in Japan. Hafu is the most commonly used word for describing people who are of mixed Japanese and non-Japanese ethnicity. The word is so pervasive that even nontraditional-looking Japanese may be asked if they are hafu.

Rather than calling someone mixed-race or biracial, some believe that the term hafu insinuates that only the Japanese side is of any significance. That could reveal volumes about the national attitude toward foreigners, or perhaps it’s just the word that happened to stick in a country where mixed-race celebrities are increasingly fixtures on television.

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Olaf Karthaus, a professor in the Faculty of Photonics Science and Technology at the Chitose Institute of Science and Technology, is the father of four “hafu” children. Far from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, he raised them in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, which makes up 20 percent of Japan’s total land mass, yet houses only five percent of the population.

In 1999, Karthaus visited an onsen (hot spring) with a group of international friends, all married to Japanese spouses. The onsen had decided to deny entry to foreigners after some negative experiences with Russian sailors, hanging signs that read “Japanese Only” and refusing entry to all foreigners.

The Caucasian members of his group were flatly denied access to the bathhouse based on their foreign appearance. When management was asked if their children – who were born and raised in Japan and full Japanese citizens – would be allowed to bathe, the negative attitude toward anyone who appeared to be non-Japanese became shockingly clear.

“Asian-looking kids can come in. But we will have to refuse foreign-looking ones,” was the onsen’s answer. Negative sentiment had trickled down from a group of rowdy sailors to defenseless toddlers.

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