mixed race people in Japan

The Challenge Of Living As A Hafu In Japan


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This week, Anthony discusses what it’s like being hafu in Japan. Anthony himself is half-Japanese, and in this episode he speaks with three other hafusNina Cataldo, Wataru Miyazaki, and Hikari Hida—all with different non-Japanese “halves,” yet all with shared life experiences and outlooks stemming from their hafu upbringings.

What is hafu?

Hafu is a term derived from the English word “half.” It refers to a person who has one Japanese parent and one non-Japanese parent, thus being “half” Japanese. The word is an example of wasei-eigo, a type of English word that has been transformed into a Japanese word using the Japanese syllabary system. Being multiracial might not seem significant to those from western countries, as almost everyone we meet is mixed-race in some way. However, in a country as homogenous as Japan—a place in which everyone is placed into the category of either “Japanese” or “non-Japanese”—being hafu is so unique that is has garnered its own distinction and community.

Hikari Hida

Growing up hafu in Japan

Despite Anthony and his three guests being so different and having different levels of exposure to their Japanese cultural halves, they all had similar shared experiences being raised hafu, specifically during childhood in school. For those who spent their childhoods in western countries, their Japanese culture was seen as weird, whereas those who grew up in Japan were treated with the same oddity as a foreigner. Hikari recalls one incident during grade school that left a lasting impression on her:

When I was in, I think it was first or second grade, but a boy asked me whether my parents met at a kyabakura.

Kyabakura, or hostess club, is a type of Japanese bar or club in which women are paid to flirt and drink with men. Hikari continues by explaining that this type of problematic stereotype is still sometimes instilled in Japanese children—“that’s not something that a 6 or 7 year old comes up with on their own.”

More innocently, the group also recalls their “bento moments,” something that every hafu shares. Anthony describes being mocked by his Canadian classmates for his onigiri wrapped in seaweed, while, across the pond, Hikari’s bento packed with her mom’s authentic Thai cooking caused an uproar with her Japanese classmates. On the other hand, Wataru was praised as the cool kid for bringing exotic furikake seasoning and Kewpie mayonnaise.

trying to eat onigiri

Hafu superpowers

While growing up hafu has its challenges, Anthony and his guests also discuss advantages of being raised under two different cultures. All agree that, due to their multicultural backgrounds, they’ve developed a keen sense of looking at multiple sides of any problem or situation, which is a huge advantage, especially in Japan:

“Being bi-cultural helps a lot, especially at my work. A lot of the nuance is there.” – Hikari

“I like to explore different opportunities and see that there’s more than one solution, there’s more than one way to look at something, and I credit that to my upbringing as a bicultural person. And I think that’s helped me in my personal settings and well as professional settings.” – Nina

“Two sort of ‘superpowers’ that I have would be I have kind of two different opinions, like what Nina said, and also being able to get humor from both sides, like, it’s a very different set of humor—Japanese humor and western humor.” – Wataru

Wataru Miyazaki

Can hafus change Japan?

The homogeneity of Japanese culture makes it difficult for new ideas not generated by Japanese people to be accepted. There’s also the Japanese concept of wa, or harmony, that leads to the inability to question ideas or go against the grain, which can create stagnation and a lack of development, especially in business. Hafus are unique in that they may be more accepted as Japanese, yet not expected to abide by Japanese norms:

“I think hafus are uniquely positioned to push Japan in the right direction. Japan … needs different thinking thrust into the country. I think that, for Japanese, it’s really hard to accept viewpoints from non-Japanese. I think hafus can push this mindset a little bit…” – Anthony

“We’re positioned in a place where we can bridge that gap.” – Nina

Nina Cataldo

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