In Japan, Will Hafu Ever Be Considered Whole?

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In Japan, Will Hafu Ever Be Considered Whole?

Mixed-race individuals and their families seek acceptance in a homogeneous Japan.

“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.

No Entry

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.

Karthaus, along with co-defendants Ken Sutherland and Debito Arudou – an equal rights activist who was born in the U.S. but became a naturalized Japanese citizen – sued the onsen for racial discrimination. The plaintiffs won, and the onsen was forced to pay them one million yen ($10,000) each in damages. The case made international headlines and shed light on issues of race and acceptance in Japan.

Regardless of Karthaus’ negative experience, he expresses a deep fondness for Japan and says that none of his children have been direct victims of racism.

“My son got called a gaijin (a Japanese term that literally means outsider – as opposed to the more formal gaikokujin, which means foreigner) once, in the third grade. But there was no discrimination otherwise for my other kids,” Karthaus tells The Diplomat. “My eldest daughter actually dyed her hair to look more foreign.”

Legal Complexity

Many observers see a loosening of immigration policy as a potential remedy to the birth-rate issue, but Japan, which along with the Koreas topped the list in a Harvard Institute study of the most racially homogeneous countries, is largely unwilling to accept an influx of foreigners.

“Although the government cannot prevent media hyperbole, the Justice Ministry could do much more with its crime statistics, which belie the common perception that immigrants are to blame for increases in petty crime and drug abuse,” writes Bloomberg.

For those foreigners who have made a home in Japan, the law for any biracial children they have is complex. While children can enjoy the benefits of dual citizenship, the government doesn’t allow hafu to retain their dual nationality after age 22. According to the Tokyo Legal Affairs Bureau, this decision is based on concerns over what would happen in the event of international friction or military action between a dual-citizen’s other country and Japan.

“It's not just a matter of ‘but what if we declare war on your other country – which side will you choose?’” says Arudou, who changed his name from David Aldwinckle after obtaining Japanese citizenship in 2000. He renounced his U.S. citizenship two years later, in accordance with the strict rules against being a dual national.

“There have been debates on revising to allow dual [citizenship], due to Nobel Prize winners who naturalized overseas, but they failed because, again, people worried about loyalty and hidden foreigners,” Arudou adds.

The denial of dual citizenship beyond age 22 was actually put in place quite recently, in a 1984 amendment to the Japanese Nationality Act. Japan is a jus sanguinis country, meaning that citizenship is based on blood, not location of birth. With an increase in the number of mixed-race couples giving birth to children with dual citizenship, the government decided that restrictions were necessary to preserve national sovereignty.

Dual citizens are asked to begin thinking about which nationality to choose by age 20, as this is the age that Japan considers to be the beginning of adulthood. At 20, a dual national is considered mature enough to make an informed decision about which passport to retain.

The government has taken steps to ensure that the rule is understood by hafu, with awareness posters and leaflets explaining the situation. If a dual citizen fails to choose their citizenship before the deadline, the Ministry of Justice will send a reminder to declare a single nationality – after a one month grace period without a response, their Japanese nationality is revoked. There is no penalty beyond the loss of citizenship.

“What does Japan gain by, in effect, rejecting my children and thousands of other young dual citizens living in Japan and around the world, at the very moment when they come of age and are at last able to become productive members of society?” Arudou, who is also a columnist for The Japan Times, asked in a 2010 editorial.

Not surprisingly, the Tokyo Legal Affairs Bureau says that it is not in a position to speculate about the future of the Nationality Act and if an increasing presence of mixed race couples and their children would lead the government to relax the dual nationality laws. However, a spokesperson acknowledges that the issue is likely to be raised and that citizens and the government must hold an open debate about the requirements for not only becoming a Japanese citizen, but for also retaining dual citizenship.

“Why wouldn't a person who is raised in Japan not be Japanese?” asks Takagi. “Japanese are behind when it comes to being more aware of the people who live in their country; their educational system hasn't changed in more than 30 years. With globalization more and more present, eventually there will be a need for change. The educational system must be adapted for children who grow up between more than one culture.”

Takagi takes the Japanese government to task for refusing to adopt a more internationally minded approach to dual citizenship, as seen in other developed countries.

“There is lack of progress when it comes to adaptation and flexibility in all aspects,” she adds. “Many countries and regions in the world admit and respect dual citizenship, including the U.S., U.K., France, Canada, and Australia. Most countries do not think that a citizen will lose the nationality of their homeland even if they succeed in gaining another country's nationality.”


Takagi, along with Japanese-American Megumi Nishikura, co-directed and produced Hafu: The Mixed-Race Experience in Japan, a documentary that explores the trials and tribulations of being mixed race in Japan. It will premiere at Shibuya Uplink Theater on October 5.


Lara Perez Takagi (left) and Megumi Nishikura (right) directing their documentary film Hafu. (Photo credit: Michael Connolly)

“For 87 minutes, I want audiences to walk in the shoes of five hafus and experience firsthand what it is like to be half-Japanese in Japan today,” Nishikura says. “Because of the way they look or cultural influences from other countries, hafu often experience feeling ‘other-ed’ in Japanese society. I believe that the definition of what it means to be Japanese needs to include hafu. Ultimately, I believe that with changing demographics, Japan is at a turning point – I believe that a more multiracial and multicultural Japan is a good thing, but it is up to the Japanese people to embrace this change or not. I do hope people will walk out of the theater feeling that a positive future awaits Japan.”

Takagi and Nishikura were inspired to make their documentary after a chance encounter with Marcia Yumi Lise, a sociologist who co-founded The Hafu Project – a series of portraits and in-depth interviews that probe the half-Japanese experience and shed light on what it means to be hafu both inside and outside of Japan. To date, the project has collected 130 portraits and 65 extensive interviews that explore topics ranging from background and upbringing to personal identity and sense of belonging. Exhibitions for The Hafu Project have taken place around the world and are supported by local Japanese embassies.

“In 2009, myself and Takagi met Lise and [Hafu Project photographer] Natalie Maya Willer when they came to expand their project in Japan. In my own research, I noticed the lack of in-depth media attention for hafu and was bothered by the stereotypes of hafu perpetuated by the mass media. So one of our motivations in making this film was to create awareness of the hafu experience and give us a platform to truly tell our stories,” Nishikura explains.

Unlike Takagi’s summer camp experience, Nishikura says that her childhood was generally free from discrimination based on her mixed roots.

“When I attended Japanese elementary school I was aware that I received extra attention from my classmates for being mixed but I don’t have any painful memories. I do remember that when I encountered children who I did not attend school with, they would stare at me or call me ‘gaijin’.”

Speaking of her experience with The Hafu Project, Lise adds:

“As a hafu brought up in Japan and having a foreigner's appearance in the eyes of many people in Japan, I have experienced on many occasions ‘differentiation’ but not discrimination. Being surprised that you can speak Japanese fluently doesn't count as discrimination, I don't think – although being exposed to such treatment, constant subtle differentiation, on a daily basis can really get you thinking. I think somebody called it ‘racial fatigue.’”

Lise also points out that after more than 60 interviews with her hafu subjects, the number who had experienced racial discrimination over the course of their lives was “near zero.”

“I came across at least five people with cases of bullying at school based on the fact that they were ‘different’,” she notes. “Does that constitute as racial discrimination?”

The ethnicity of a hafu’s non-Japanese parent may play a role in how they are received by locals in Japan. Deja, a YouTube personality who posts videos in both Japanese and English, has an African American father and a Japanese mother. As the only Black-Japanese person at her school, Deja’s darker skin color instantly set her apart from her fair-skinned Japanese classmates.

“I remember sitting in class one day when the teacher left for a brief moment, and this boy stood on his chair and said in Japanese ‘Raise your hand if you're not from Japan!’ Everyone looked at me,” Deja recalls. “I didn't raise my hand.”

She continues, “Because of my skin color, no one suspects that I was actually born and raised in Japan. I have been put down by strangers on the street. Sometimes I hear children behind me, if I’m talking in Japanese, saying things like ‘the foreigner spoke Japanese!’”

Deja feels that Caucasian-Japanese hafu are more widely accepted by the people of Japan, pointing out that they can blend in better with their lighter skin. “At first glance, I think that Black-Japanese are seen as just black,” she says. She added that younger people are generally more open-minded than middle-aged Japanese, a statement that may ring true in most parts of the world.

Even Nishikura admits that most people fail to recognize her Japanese side.

“In my day-to-day experience in Japan, on first encounter, I am often treated as a foreigner – not able to speak Japanese and a visitor to Japan,” she observes. “I have been stopped by the police on the street and asked if I am Japanese or not. I usually just tell them I am hafu and that seems to end their questioning. Obviously, though, they are singling me out of the crowd as I don’t look like the average Japanese.”

HAFU_B5_Flyer_Front_newNishikura adds, “When someone recognizes and asks if I am hafu I am delighted! ‘You see the part of me that is Japanese?!’”

Despite any negativity she has faced in Japan, Deja enjoys being an ambassador for both of her backgrounds.

“I think that, with being hafu, it makes me happy that some Japanese people see me as a bridge to getting an American viewpoint.”

It is unclear whether the Japanese government will ever recognize hafu as lifelong dual citizens, but one thing is certain: Japan, and the people who populate it, is changing. With an increased number of mixed race babies born each year, more and more ordinary Japanese will be exposed to the subtle diversification of their homogeneous homeland. Perhaps simply becoming more visible will be the first step toward acceptance of biracial Japanese.

In the end, choosing to embrace its biracial citizens – or shun them – will be a decision with profound implications for Japan’s uncertain future.

Hafu: The Mixed-Race Experience in Japan will be shown at Shibuya Uplink Theater from October 5 until October 18. A post-screening Q&A session with director Megumi Nishikura and a person featured from the film will take place on October 8. Tickets can be purchased at the Shibuya Uplink box office.

J.T. Quigley is assistant editor of The Diplomat.