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Embedded Racism: Japan's Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination

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  • “In Japan, Will Hafu Ever Be Considered Whole?”, on the debate about Japan’s increasing diversity

    Posted by Dr. ARUDOU, Debito on October 6th, 2013

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    Hi Blog. I was contacted recently for a few quotes on this subject (an important debate, given the increasing diversity within the Japanese citizenry thanks to international marriage), and I put the reporter in touch with others with more authoritative voices on the subject. I will excerpt the article below. What do you think, especially those readers who have Japanese children or are “half Japanese” (man, how I find that concept distasteful in Japan’s lexicographical context) themselves? Me, I think it’s a helluva lot more sensitive than this example of pap (succumbing to the temptation to zoologize people) passing as journalism about “haafu” that appeared in the J-media about a year ago. Arudou Debito


    In Japan, Will Hafu Ever Be Considered Whole?
    Mixed-race individuals and their families seek acceptance in a homogeneous Japan.
    The, October 03, 2013
    By J.T. Quigley (excerpt), courtesy of the author
    Entire article with photos at

    “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 five “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.

    Rest of the article at:

    16 Responses to “ “In Japan, Will Hafu Ever Be Considered Whole?”, on the debate about Japan’s increasing diversity”

    1. Kimpatsu Says:

      The word “ha-fu” is blantently racist, because it means “half the worth of a pure-blood Japanese”. If we must use a pejorative, can’t we call biracial people “muggles”?

    2. Blackrat Says:

      Will the “haafu” ever be considered whole? Good question. When this revolting, derogatory term is excised from the Japanese language and replaced with something such as “konketsu” meaning “of mixed blood” or even better, just “Afro-Japanese” “Anglo-Japanese” etc, perhaps that will be a sign we are getting there. It disgusts me to hear this word so regularly bandied about in the media. Haafu what? Half-human?

      I was in a restaurant with a much younger female friend a few weeks ago. I overheard the waiters talking about us since the place was quiet and they were killing time. One said he was surprised how the foreign guy’s “daughter” looked totally Japanese (which she is), and the other one agreed. I never took it that they were being malicious or insulting but it only goes to show just how readily some Japanese will tend to pigeon hole those around them who seem different. In our case, it was simply her being in my company that led them to that assumption.

      — FYI, I’m not in favor of returning to the Prewar racialized epithet “konketsuji” either.

    3. Andrew in Saitama Says:

      I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s a stupid term based on appearance. Where are all the “haafu” kids with a Chinese, Korean or even Nikkei parent? You don’t hear of them because they are invisible. Or rather, don’t LOOK DIFFERENT enough.

      I also have experiences where:
      * kids of mixed heritage were egged on by their peers to be the class clown
      * kids raised solely by an NJ parent with extremely limited Japanese were given up on by teachers as hopless cases
      * kids of mixed heritage with divorced or separated parents and not coping with the stress were also given up as hopless cases, while the “pure” Yamato trouble-makers got sympathy.
      * assumptions by people who should know better that linguistic ability and cultural fluency were genetic
      * smart-alec, attention-seeking, or just plain intellectually challenged Yamato types in the classroom claiming to be “haafu” when they got caught out with a wrong answer

      It’s a damning and damaging label that just teaches that it’s OK to treat people differently based on looks alone.

      As an aside, I love watching peoples’ faces as they try to compute my answer when they ask if my wife is Japanese:
      “Yes, and so are my kids”

    4. Karjh12 Says:

      My 10 year old son is now sufficiently aware to stand up for himself when he hears the word “haafu ” said about him by the chuzaiin here in Melbourne .

      He confidently states (in English ) “I’m a person.” The jaw dropping looks of amazement and often awkward silence is priceless to observe .

    5. john k Says:

      Slight tangent, but fits in later in life when such children go to school and the abuse they receive:

      “A Japanese court has ordered an anti-Korean group to stop “hate speech” protests against a Korean school, in a rare ruling on racial discrimination against ethnic Koreans…..While hate speech is not illegal, the civil court said the protests “constitute racial discrimination” as defined under a United Nations convention…”


      — Yes, that will be’s next blog entry in about 24 hours (I like to space them out a little, to maintain a life outside of blogging). Thanks for notifying.

    6. Loverilakkuma Says:

      I’m with #1. I don’t feel comfortable with the word “half” being used as an indicator of how much you are close to those Yamato or not. It automatically places you to the group of culture of ‘others’ since you’re always being judged based on different standards for being ‘different.’ In Japanese context, ‘ha-fu’ has the connotation of being imperfect.

    7. Markus Says:

      Hey, “half-Japanese” also means that the other half of you has a chance to grow into a proper person. It’s the glass-half-full mentality 😉

    8. Futureal Says:

      A few misconceptions plaguing discourse on this subject:

      -That the foreign etymology of “hafu” has any but the barest relationship with the way it is used among contemporary speakers. Ditto for “gyp” or “horde”.

      -That most “hafu” in Japan will look Caucasian. I believe most of the other halves of international marriages in Japan are other Asians.

      -That racial “homogeneity” has anything to do with biology. I wish reporters with modern liberal educations would stop taking it at face value when Japan and Korea describe themselves as pure using a standard of purity that hasn’t held scientific water since the 19th century.

    9. Anonymous Says:

      I just want to remind all readers living in Japan,
      (especially those stopped & questioned due to race)
      you do NOT have to answer any police questions like
      “Where are you from?” “Are you a Japanese citizen?”
      because ALL “suspicion-less stops” are 100% illegal.

      Japanese law states it is ILLEGAL
      for any police officer of Japan to
      stop & question any person (ANY person)
      without FIRST having Reasonable Suspicion
      that the person has Committed a Specific Crime.

      しょくむ しつもん ほう に よる
      つみ を おかし した こと を うたがう に たりる そうとう な りゆう が ない ばあい
      いほう な しょくむ しつもん です。
      Shokumu Shitsumon Hou ni yoru,
      tsumi o okoshi shita koto o utagau ni tariru soutou na riyuu ga nai baai,
      ihou na shokumu shitsumon desu.
      According to “Police Duties” Questioning Law,
      without first having reasonable grounds to suspect that a person committed a crime,
      this is an ILLEGAL “Police Duties” Questioning.

      The Police Duties Execution Act
      Article 2
      A police officer may not stop and question a person
      without first having reasonable grounds to suspect
      that that person has committed a specific crime.

      This means that ALL “suspicion-less stops” in Japan are illegal,
      regardless of whether you look mixed-race/pure-yamato/whatever.
      This means that ALL “random stops” in Japan are illegal. Period.

      So you don’t need to even debate that a police officer is racially profiling.
      You merely need to show that he stopped you WITHOUT suspicion of a crime.

      Final summary: “random stops” / “suspicion-less stops” are illegal in Japan.

      * You film the illegal action of “stopping people without suspicion of a crime.”
      * You film the police officer’s Techou (with his name+number+STATION.)
      * You give a copy of the film to the Anzen Koan (they need name+number+STATION.)
      * You “Profit” by watching the Anzen Koan investigate and punish 違法な職務質問.
      * You share this information with others, to reduce illegal suspicion-less stops.


    10. j_jobseeker Says:

      Really like your little anecdote.
      Yes, children of international marriages will be the ultimate test of Japan’s long held views of what is “Japanese.” According to cultural standards, it’s in the blood. Well, half-Japanese have that.
      According to law, it’s existence on a Koseki with its entitled citizenship. Check.
      BUT, they LOOK different which on face value means that they SHOULDN’T be Japanese, when they’ve passed both of the above litmus tests, which to borrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, are more like guidelines. Just take a look at the efforts to change the rules of double citizenry because Japanese who became nationalized in some other country (probably because they were sick of the system here) win Nobel Prizes and what not. Win some meaningful, international adulation and you can be Japanese, too!
      Do you ever notice on some of these travel shows, especially the ones that are first-person as if you were on a trip abroad (don’t get me started on that), the narration sometimes says: “Oh, there’s lots of foreigners in this area!” My wife and I always jump on that: “Uh, you’re a foreigner too!” Obviously “tourists” would have been the better word, but you see, Japanese don’t ever regard themselves as “gaikokujin” even when they’re abroad.
      It’s that constant hypocrisy in order to fit cultural preconceived notions that half-Japanese are and should be poking holes into. They shouldn’t shirk from the looks, demeaning or sly comments or outright bigoted behaviour. Like AndrewInSaitaima, they need to shove the conundrum of their existence down the throats of such people. It’s their right. As Japanese.

      — “Win some meaningful, international adulation and you can be Japanese, too!” In my field, that’s called, “They’ll claim us if we’re famous.”

      As for advocating the conundrum of their existence, many professional “haafu” panderers (like Becky) know which side their bread is buttered.

    11. j_jobseeker Says:

      I think most of us would call that “hush money”??? Speak up about your experiences growing up looking different and maybe fall from grace??? Talents like Rola who’s behaviour is so obviously “different” it’s quaint…kind of like a pet. But now, there’s this mini-boom of half-Japanese comedians. Perhaps they can open the door to re-examining attitudes as they use humor to make light of the way Japanese have treated them… Problem is if they become too famous, they face the “Becky Syndrome.” Just thinking aloud.

      — Once people become invested in a system that rewards them for playing to the crowd, it’s hard for them to stop.

    12. j_jobseeker Says:

      Talk about strange and tragic timing. We should keep our eyes and ears open on the murder case in Mitaka involving a half-Japanese. I haven’t heard any overtly racist or disparaging remarks regarding the perpetrator’s mixed lineage, but I did notice that despite having a Japanese last name, most TV news shows are calling him by his First-Middle name, which is of course an English name… Would the TV shows be calling him by his given name if he were not half-Japanese? I think not.

    13. Andrew in Saitama Says:

      @ J_jobseeker,
      Remember the person of part Brazilian heritage who got into a fight with kabuki actor Ebizo? He was also referred to by his given name too.

    14. Andrew in Saitama Says:

      And here you have it, in the news, in the second paragraph from the bottom:

      鈴木さん刺殺 池永容疑者「恨みがありました」 復縁迫りトラブル

      スポニチアネックス 10月10日(木)7時2分配信









    15. Andrew in Saitama Says:

      I saw an ad last night for some (ahem) comedy/variety program last night stating that the next one would be a “haafu special”.

      How to change an attitude firmly entrenched in the minds of the populice that is also reinforced by the popular media…

    16. Andrew in Saitama Says:

      I was doing some background reading on Severn Cullis-Suzuki, who appears in our English textbooks. (In the previous edition of the text she was introduced simply as Severn Suzuki!)
      Anyway, I took a quick skim through Japanese Wikipedia (caveat: I know these articles are sometimes poorly and amateurishly written, and full of inaccuracies) but was hugely disappointed to find the first line of her biographical info as:


      Both parents sre Canadian, but she is still “haafu” because we can track some Japanese blood in there?

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