“Will there ever be a rainbow Japan?”


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Hi Blog.  Speaking again today in a few hours, so let me post this one again for comment.  I’m not one to take CNNGo all that seriously as a source, but try this article on for size.  Arudou Debito


Will there ever be a rainbow Japan?
Government statistics suggest multiculturalism is on the rise, but social organizations for mixed-race Japanese say ‘hafus’ still face challenges
By Tracy Slater 1 December, 2010, courtesy PKU

Japan, which closed its borders from 1639 to 1854 and later colonized its neighbors, has an uneasy history with foreigners, national identity, and multiculturalism.

Yet government statistics and grassroots organizations say multiculturalism in the famously insular country is now on the rise.

Japan: The new melting pot?

Japan’s national government recently announced it is turning to travelers in a foreigner-friendly mission to boost diversity — at least in tourist spots — by paying them to provide feedback on how to increase accessibility for non-Japanese speakers.

David Askew, associate professor of law at Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University, identifies more profound changes.

In 1965, a mere 1 in 250 of all marriages in Japan were international, he notes. By 2004, the number had climbed to 1 in 15 across the nation and 1 in 10 in Tokyo.

According to Tokyo’s Metropolitan Government, by 2005, foreign residents in the city numbered 248,363, up from 159,073 in 1990.

According to Askew, the upswing in diverse residents and mixed marriages has led to another phenomenon: between 1987 and 2004, more than 500,000 children were born in Japan with at least one foreign parent.

Celebrating diversity

A handful of new organizations are tied, at least in part, to the increase in multicultural marriages.

Groups such as Mixed Roots Japan and Hapa Japan, founded by children of mixed-Japanese couples, aim to celebrate the broadening scope of Japanese identity, both nationally and globally.

“There is a real need now to recognize that Japan is getting more multiracial,” says Mixed Roots founder Edward Sumoto, a self-described “hafu” of Japanese/Venezuelan ethnicity. “The Japanese citizen is not simply a traditional Japanese person with Japanese nationality anymore.”

The issue of the identity of hafu is also being explored in a new film titled “Hafu,” currently under production by the Hafu Project.

In support of multiracial families, Mixed Roots holds Halloween and Christmas parties, picnics and beach days.

The organization also sponsors a monthly radio show on station FMYY, and “Shakeforward” concerts in Tokyo and Kansai, accompanied by youth workshops and symposia.

“These events feature mixed-roots artists who promote social dialogue with their songs,” says Sumoto.

The next “Shakeforward” concert will be held on November 27 in Kobe.

One of Sumoto’s primary goals is to “enable mixed-race kids to meet and talk, so they know there are other people like them.”

Despite the statistics, achieving widespread recognition for Japanese diversity has been a struggle for Sumoto and other grassroots organizers.

“Mentally, do the Japanese think the country is becoming more multicultural?” asks Sumoto. “Possibly more than 20 years ago, because you see more foreigners, but people are still not sure what to do with it.”

Multiculturalism on the margins

Like Sumoto, Erin Aeran Chung, assistant professor of East Asian politics at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, sees the issue of Japanese multiculturalism as multifaceted.

Chung has written extensively on Japan, ethnicity and citizenship, especially as relates to Zainichi Koreans, descendents of pre-war immigrants, many of whom were brought to Japan as slave labor.

Zainichi literally means “staying in Japan temporarily.”

“The concepts of ‘multicultural coexistence’ (tabunka kyōsei) and ‘living in harmony with foreigners’ (gaikokujin to no kyōsei)” — catchwords for multiculturalism used by local government officials and NGOs — “are based on the idea that Japanese nationals, assumed to be culturally homogenous, can live together peacefully with foreign nationals, assumed to be culturally different from the Japanese,” Chung said in a series of interviews.

“Rather than expand the definition of Japanese national identity to include those who are not Japanese by blood or nationality,” Chung argues, “the concept of kyōsei suggests that Japanese nationals must rise to the challenge of living with diversity,” instead of as part of a group of diverse citizens belonging to a truly multicultural nation.

A recent move by the Japan Sumo Association (JSA) suggests not even citizenship guarantees acceptance as “truly” Japanese.

At a meeting last February, the JSA administrative board mandated limiting foreign-born wrestlers to one per stable. The upshot: even if a competitor born abroad becomes a Japanese citizen, he’s still considered the stable’s token foreigner.

The myth of mono-ethnicity

Underneath the debate over Japan’s willingness to embrace multiculturalism lies the question of how mono-ethnic the nation ever really was.

According to Ritsumeikan’s David Askew, “The idea of Japan as mono-ethnic is actually a postwar belief.”

The Ainu and Ryukyuan ethnic groups, engulfed by Japan during its prewar colonial movement, are examples.

As for Taiwan and Korea, they “were part of Japan until 1945, so you could hardly talk about a homogeneous population before then.”

“The conversation about multiculturalism today is one that focuses on accepting ‘foreign’ cultures, ignoring the broad range of cultural practices within Japan itself,” says Askew.

“Unless the Okinawas and Osakas of Japan are accepted as different cultures, the discourse will continue to promote the idea of a homogeneous Japan,” says Askew.


58 comments on “ “Will there ever be a rainbow Japan?”

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  • In 1965, a mere 1 in 250 of all marriages in Japan were international, he notes. By 2004, the number had climbed to 1 in 15 across the nation and 1 in 10 in Tokyo.

    While I don’t disagree with the point that internationsl marriage is on the rise, those numbers seem awful high. The numbers I usually see bandied about is somewhere between 1 in 25 to 1 in 20 optimistically. What’s this Guy’s source?

  • >Zainichi literally means “staying in Japan temporarily.”

    I sure would like to know what dictionary he’s using, because that’s not what my ja2ja kokugo dictionary says. Nor do I think it has this nuance on the street, according to my very unscientific straw poll.

    To the CNNgo Tokyo editor: you remember when you told your predecessor, when asked about your Japanese ability, that you didn’t really have a need for it in Tokyo?

    Turns out you need it.

  • An increase in the number of NON JAPANESE living, marrying and interbreeding in Japan does not equate to “A Melting Pot” or “multiculturalism”.

    Whilst Japanese society in general, the law and the common mindset allows for rampant discrimination, demonization and flagrant disregard for international treaties/agreements and the rights of NON JAPANESE, the increase in numbers of said NON JAPANESE and the HALF (half what btw?) offspring they produce results in nothing more than an increase in targets for the corrupt prejudicial police force, scapegoating by the media and the continuation of the “soto uchi” mindset that is still so prevalent.

    It’s going to take a lot more than a few more boat loads of NON JAPANESE landing on these shores to undo 200 years of secluded anti NON JAPANESE societal development.

    Japan will never be a melting pot.

  • While this is a great article, I do think the literal translation for Zanichi is open to other interpretations:
    在 is like “to reside” in a sense, so it does not mean “temporary.” I want to stress that this does not make the word anymore insulting to people of Korean descent in Japan: Zainichikankokujin 在日韓国人 means “Koreans who reside in Japan.” This is still a misnomer, though.

  • newbiefront says:

    Well I hope that the “halfu” community in Japan will succeed in finding acceptance. Ive worked with several, and to be honest, there was some tension sometimes. I think they felt that they were looked at differently by the other Japanese if they had to speak English. The ddint want to be seen as foreign, so they hesitated to speak English. Probably had been teased about it growing up. They also seemed to have identity problems, arrising from their upbringing here in Japan. One individual told me that he couldnt find a job or get a house back in the 80s. He seemed to have a complex around the other Japanese. The halfus that were brought up in an international enviroment seemed to do much better, from my observation anyway. I really hope things change for them.

  • The true test of internationalization is finally being able to disassociate yourself from national identity altogether. This also seems to me to be the one thing Japanese young people are dissuaded from doing, though they may be encouraged to do a lot of surface-level “international” things. They might, for example, be encouraged to learn English, but implicitly have it understood that they are doing so in order to be able to explain Japan to outsiders. That is, they can venture out and interact with the world, but only while wearing the hazmat suit of national identity.

    It’s also nice to see a mainstream media source openly declaring the fact that ethnicity can only be THOUGHT more or less homogeneous; it never actually is so.

  • > Zainichi literally means “staying in Japan temporarily.”

    That is a rather odd and inaccurate definition. It just means for foreigners to live or reside in Japan; there is no semantic notion of duration in the word. I wonder if he is confusing this with zairyū (在留), which specifically does mean temporarily or for a fixed amount of time. (Off topic, but that is why I think the new replacement cards should be named 在住 cards instead.)

  • Those marriage figures do look a bit high.

    People need to remember that Japan has been a melting pot for most of its history, just as the UK has been. Genetic evidence, as well as archaeological and linguistic evidence show that Japan is an island that has been colonised by waves of immigrants from Siberia, China and Korea and South East Asia. The whole homogenous race thing is a modern myth.

    — Links to sources please.

  • ThirdObserver says:

    A good article on the origins of Japanese people is the article “Dual origins of the Japanese: common ground for hunter-gatherer and farmer Y chromosomes” from the Journal of Human Genetics (2006) 51:47–58 ( ). The overall finding is summarized in the last paragraph which states:

    “[O]ur data suggest that Paleolithic male lineages entered Japan at least (12,000–20,000 years
    ago from central Asia, and were isolated for thousands of years once land bridges between Japan and continental Asia disappeared at the end of the last glacial maximum (~12,000 years ago). More recently, Y chromosomes that originated in Southeast Asia expanded to Korea and Japan with the spread of wet rice agriculture.”

  • Andrew Smallacombe says:

    Of course, we will know that Japan is truly internationalised when we see “haafu” disappear from mainstream usage. Half what? Not-half what? One parent was a man, the other was a woman. Is the offspring “haafu”?
    A label we will all be better off without.

  • Data for marriages in Japan is here (2009, from Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare):

    So the total number of marriages was 707 734, and of these:
    673 341 (95.1%) marriages, both partners were Japanese
    34 393 (4.9%) marriages, one partner was foreign.

    Looking at the latter category, in 26 747 cases the husband was Japanese and the wife foreign, and in 7 646 cases, it was Japanese wife and foreign husband.

  • @Mumei: if you are a special permanent resident, they won’t be called or labeled 在留カード {zairyū kādo}; they will be called and labeled 特別永住者証明書 {tokubetsu eijūsha shōmeisho} (Special Permanent Resident Identification Card). From a size and an internal IC chip specifications point of view and other points of view, they are exactly the same as the new IDs taht replace the ARCs.

    Don’t ask me why non-special “regular” permanent residents don’t also get different labeling; I don’t know. (FWIW, both regular & special permanent residents do get “special” treatment with the current 外国人登録証明書 {gaikokujin tōroku shōmeisho} (ARC) in that they don’t need employer information on it)

    Special permanent residents will continue to be handled differently from all other NJs in that their card has less info on it than everybody else. OTOH, non-PR NJs will get a little more privacy that until now only PRs (e.g. no need for employer info) have enjoyed in that the new IDs have less information on them than the current ARCs. And also for PRs, the amount of info on the new cards will be less than their current ARCs.

  • Quote: I want to stress that this does not make the word anymore insulting to people of Korean descent in Japan: Zainichikankokujin 在日韓国人 means “Koreans who reside in Japan.” This is still a misnomer, though.

    Possibly splitting hairs, but if they do hold Korean citizenship and are residing in Japan, albeit permanently, I don’t see why this would be a misnomer. Not sure I see why it would be insulting either, though obviously I am not they.

  • Even with marriage numbers of 5% – 1 in 20 – we’re talking about a significant effect. There are some questions this raises in my mind… How many of these couples stay in Japan (as opposed to going to live overseas)? If they end up living overseas, or move a lot, it’s not quite the same thing as putting down roots in Japan and having those people from overseas become part of the community. What about the children of these couples – are they educated in Japanese schools? If they are, and assuming an equal fertility rate of these couples, then kids today would be growing up with an average of one of these kids in their classes… That’s actually a bit off if mixed marriages are more common in Tokyo, but in any case, it means this generation will be more accustomed to multiculturalism whether or not the older generations ever “get it”.

    On the Zainichi issue, I have mixed feeling because I kinda feel like some portion are a lot like the Japanese in reverse. The use of special Korean schools, the avoidance of citizenship – there is a point where you go from holding on to your identity to actively rejecting the place you live in. If you don’t even speak Korean, have always lived in Japan, and expect to always live in Japan, why DON’T you take citizenship? I know it’s not a simple issue, but still.

  • Don’t see the problem with “haafu”. My kids are half-Japanese, half-English. They’re happy with that, so are myself and my wife. What’s there to be unhappy about?

    — Er, methinks we’ve had this discussion before. If you’re not convinced by the arguments against “haafu” and wish to make a case as to why not by addressing those arguments, please do so. Avoid these kinds of open-ended questions, please.

  • Look at the numbers: mostly chounan living with their parents in the countryside with few Japanese marriage prospects, so they’re marrying mail-order Chinese, Phillipines, and Vietnamese girls. Same thing is happening in Korea right now.

  • Okay. I’m not convinced by arguments against the word “haafu” because they seem to be based entirely on the premise that there is something belittling about the word. This is a result of people thinking illogically, both linguistically and scientifically. Linguistically there is the idea that “half” implies “less than whole”, which of course it does if we talk about half an apple or a half-finished piece of work. But “haafu” is merely an abbreviation for “half Japanese and half something else” equalling exactly one whole human being. It does not imply less of a Japanese citizen than somebody who’s DNA happens to be entirely from Japanese parents, how could it? Because in that case Debito would be what? A “zero”, perhaps, despite the fact that he’s one hundred per cent a Japanese citizen?
    And scientifically, every child gets half of its DNA from its mother and half from its father, so everybody is technically a “haafu”. This isn’t noticeable when both parents are from the same racial group, but when they’re not, it becomes so, justifying absolutely the use of the word. The idea that my kids are “double”, as some folks would have it, is ridiculous both linguistically and biologically.
    A final point: I understand completely that some people don’t like the “haafu” epithet, for whatever reasons, and in deference to their feelings I would never use it to them or about them, but I find it interesting that I’ve never, ever heard anyone object to it after twenty years in Japan, despite knowing dozens of couples who’ve produced “haafu” kids.

    — I object. Always have. So it’s no longer never, ever.

    Too tired today right now to argue, so others, feel free. Thanks for elaborating your arguments, Joe.

  • Joe

    I also know dozens of couples of mixed marriage (Japanese and other) and I have heard at least half (no pun intended) tell me they strongly object to the term haffu

    The term sucks and is totally unnecessary to describe another person! period! There are plenty of other descriptors


  • Well, I am obviously not a father yet, so my comment may not hold any water, but to me, I feel that if I were to have a mixed race child, I would let the child be proud of both sides of the family, but at the same time have him or her understand that he or she does not need to identify as “half this” or “half that”, but instead focus on the him or herself as a WHOLE. You are you. Let yourself be known through personal idenity instead of your ethnic identity. A country does not need to point out the racial differences since we are human after all.

  • In my opinion, the word ‘Haafu’ DOES imply less than whole, in terms of human status.

    Shall we start describing Obama as ‘a mix’, ‘a mongrel’, ‘a half-white’, or ‘a half-American’?

    It sure would be great if most Japanese people actually thought to themselves, “Haafu means half-Japanese and half-Non-Japanese, and Non-Japanese are equal in both rights, and status, compared to Japanese, so Haafu has no belittling connotations.”

    The unfortunate truth (in my opinion of course, there are no official studies to prove my radical opinion) is most Japanese people unconsciously think to themselves, “Haafu means half-Japanese and half-Non-Japanese, and Non-Japanese are NOT equal in rights, nor in status, compared to Japanese, so Haafu HAS absolutely belittling connotations.”

    We should stop calling the nice boy playing in preschool, “A nice black boy.” He is a nice boy. Period.

    We should stop calling the nice boy playing in preschool, “A nice ‘half-white’ boy.” He is a nice boy. Period.

    And we should stop calling the nice girl playing in preschool, “A nice ‘half-Japanese’ girl.” She is a nice girl. Period.

    But realistically, if we humans really feel the need to continue categorizing people with labels based on their race when discussing them, then how about stopping the use of the term ‘half’ and stopping the use of the term ‘double’ and starting the use of a positive, factual, term: ‘hybrid’. 🙂

  • @Joe

    Joe, you may think that you’re making revelations here with what you are saying, but you’re not. We’ve heard all the arguments and they are weak.

    “Haafu” is just another way to marginalize a minority based on appearance. But the truth is that the people using the term don’t know, by sight alone, what percentage of a person’s hereditary is from where. That is the truth. The problem with all of these words, even with “gaijin”, is that they are imprecise, inconsistently used and they are only concerned with looks (a form of lookism). To people who value accuracy, they are insulting.

    If one of your grandparents was a westerner, why should you have to go through life being called, incorrectly, a haafu? Should the onus be on that child to explain themselves to everyone?

    I have an idea. How about we call all the kids who need to wear glasses something different from the kids with normal vision? Because they look different, right? Let’s call them glass-eyes, or glassies for short. What do you think of that?

    In my case, our child would be born to a Korean mother and a western father, but living in Japan will no doubt be called a haafu. If haafu means “half-Japanese”, as you say, then in what sense would it be true to call him/her a haafu?

  • @Adam: my daughter is in the public school system and while the total percentages I’ve seen with my own eyes don’t add up to 5% or one in every classroom, biracial / dual national kids are so not uncommon now that the teacher laughed at me when I asked before enrollment, in whispered voice, if she had experience with “half” children — in other words, “yes, and it’s no big deal.”

    Indeed, in her 1年A組 class, there were two other obviously (Black + Japanese) biracial kids, and I was introduced to a Taiwanese mother who had her daughter in the school but a different 組 The inclusion of my Eurasian daughter brought the international factor to 4 kids.

    I’m embarrassed to say this, but my daughter’s elementary school is actually far more diverse than my U.S. public elementary school in the 70s in the suburbs was.

    Other than their skin color, the only thing that’s different about the kids was the names on the desks: they put a piece of tape of the desks and write the child’s legal full name on it in hiragana (no katakana or kanji; you don’t learn rōmaji until 3rd grade). The two Black-Japanese kids had long western names, complete with middle names (e.g. Joseph Alexander Robertson aka ろばっとそん じょーせふ あれくすあんだー) which meant their names ended up being two lines of tape on their desks with lots of characters. For literacy practice, they make the kids copy their full names, verbatim, on virtually every handout they get. They must’ve missed out on 40 seconds of every activity due to the time it took for them to write their names.

    Other than that, I couldn’t discern that the kids were treated any differently from what I saw on parents days, the playgrounds, festival days and what my daughter tells me about each day after school. All of them speak Japanese as their first (and sometimes only) language, and grew up on a diet of Japanese television shows, movies, and food, so their classmates can “relate” to them.

    I don’t know how well a kid that can’t speak the language or grew up with a different culture would fit in; I imagine they’d have as difficult a time as they would not understanding English in a U.S. public school.

  • I don’t like the term half/haafu either. I sincerely hope that my children grow up thinking that their nationality is a legal matter, and something that can be changed if they don’t like it the way it is. The passport(s) that a person holds does not define who they are as a person, either inside or out. It just means that those are the countries they’re allowed to live in indefinitely without applying for a visa. Where they choose to live and what kind of culture and community they choose to be a part of, that’s up to them and will be affected by their own personalities, opinions, and experiences.

    There are two children with NJ mothers in my son’s preschool, if you count my son with a naturalized mother, that’s three. There was another girl whose mom was Korean, but she moved. So at MOST, that’s four kids out of two hundred or so. The other three all have Asian moms. Only one of them has a longish katakana name.

    I don’t know how multicultural that is… on the one hand, we’ve got three (used to be four) dual citizen students. On the other hand all of them are pretty much being raised the same way as the other kids, except for learning mom’s language… and another kid in my son’s class is also learning English, just because he and his mother enjoy it, so passport’s no requirement for that.

    It kind of seems that, in my experience at least, most “bicultural” families in Japan either live a more or less “normal Japanese” life, not really different from anyone else in their community, or live in a very international community with an international set of friends, maybe not getting much exposure to a “typical” Japanese upbringing. Especially with a huge percentage of those foreign spouses Asian women who do learn the language and do their best (usually quite well) to assimilate into their husbands’ communities, even those rising numbers of kids may not really mean internationalization when it comes to lifestyle and attitude.

  • Oops, got it trouble for not giving sources again….
    Here are some sources which chart the original colonisation of Japan:

    Hanihara, K (1991) Dual structure model for the population history of the Japanese. Japan Review 2:1–33.
    Hanihara K (1992) Dual structure model for the formation of the Japanese population. In K Hanihara (ed.): Japanese as a Member of the Asian and Pacific. Populations. International Symposium Vol. 4, Kyoto:

    Rosenberg NA, Mahajan S, Ramachandran S, Zhao C, Pritchard JK, et al. (2005) Clines, Clusters, and the Effect of Study Design on the Inference of Human Population Structure. – This is worth looking especially.

    Nei, M., In : Brenner, S. and Hanihara, K.(eds.), The Origin and Past of Modern Humans as Viewed from DNA. World Scientific, Singapore, 71-91, 1995

    Origins: Human Evolution Revealed – Origins: Human Evolution Revealed

    The absolute exact timings of migrations, as well as proportions and exact origins are still being pinned down, but it is well established that Japan has been colonised by waves of immigration from different parts of Asia. In any event we know that all people whose recent ancestors lived outside Africa have, in relative terms very little genetic variation (compared with the original African population), meaning they are all descended from a small group of humans who very recently, maybe as little as 40,000 years ago, left Africa and went on to populate the rest of the world. And all humans originate from a single woman who lived about 100,000 years ago in Africa. There’s simply not enough difference genetically between humans to support any kind of idea of race.

  • @Doug
    We obviously move in different circles! As I said, I’d never use the term about or to anyone who didn’t like it, but I’ve never met (in the flesh) anyone who objected. You say the term “sucks”, but on what grounds? What descriptors would be better? Mixed-race? That to me has definitely negative overtones having grown up in the seventies and eighties in England. Cheers, anyway.

    I agree with you utterly. No-one should be judged or labelled by race. We’re all members of the human race. But when it comes to discussions specifically about race, then we need the vocabulary to be able to communicate with each other. Example: I have a Canadian friend with a rather strange-looking (to English-speakers) family name. When people ask him about it, he replies “I’m half Dutch.” Simple. No-one’s offended. Now, I know for a fact that he considers himself 100% Canadian (I’d get a punch on the nose for suggesting otherwise!), but “half Dutch” is his choice of explanation, and it works fine.

    If you think that “half” in this context implies less than whole, the we’ll just have to agree to disagree. I agree with you completely about the “Nice black boy.” nonsense. I’d never refer to anyone as “A nice half-Japanese girl”. Any references to race should be reserved for when race is relevant, or in answering specific question related to race. Otherwise I wouldn’t mention it. “Hybrid”? Sounds a bit to me like a word a rather intelligent, nasty bully might use in the playground to taunt a “haafu” kid. 🙂

    Certainly don’t think I’m making any revelations, I was just responding to Debito’s invitation to elaborate my argument against people who disapprove of the use of “haafu”.

    Your one western grandparent argument is interesting, but it’s not really directly relevant. You’re complaining that people assume the child in question is the product of a western parent and a Japanese parent when that isn’t in fact the case. That seems to me to be an argument against making assumptions about others, rather than against the use of the term “haafu”. It’s similar with the Korean/western scenario. When I walk into my university classroom at the beginning of the semester and see thirty students all with black/dyed hair and dark brown eyes looking back at me, I assume they’re all Japanese. Very occasionally it turns out that one of them is Korean or Chinese. But I don’t think that makes me a bad person for making an incorrect assumption. I was recently approached by a mildly frantic mother at Frankfurt airport who asked me if I’d seen her daughter. I speak not a word of German (understand a bit) and couldn’t help, but it would have been a bit churlish of me to get all upset and demand just what made her think I was a German, wouldn’t it? 🙂

    What worries me about this whole “haafu” issue is the way the use of perfectly good, useful word becomes a contentious issue for no real reason. Look at America: they’ve gone from “negro” to “colored” to “black” to “person of color” to “African American”.

    In England we’ve pretty much stuck with “black” for all time. No-one’s offended, no-one’s embarrassed, it’s just a word. Seems to me “haafu” should be no different.

    — Let me take up one point. In your response to @Allen above, you said, “…100% Canadian (I’d get a punch on the nose for suggesting otherwise!)” Right. Problem is, people here DO suggest otherwise — under the paradigm of haafu in Japan. And since reprisals against noses etc. are discouraged in this society, the alienated party has to suck it up and take it on the chin. This dynamic is not good for kids (or anyone for that matter), and it’s perpetuated by the unchallenged use of the othering term haafu.

  • I asked my students to name 5 famous Japanese people in class yesterday. Two girls were struggling to think of any famous Japanese women, so I suggested Ren Ho. They looked at me like I was crazy and said “no, she’s Chinese.” I explained her background, and they said “Oh, haafu?”.

    The next time I checked the two of them they had not written her name down. I asked why, and they said “She’s haafu, not real Japanese”.



    This is a report written last year by Peter J. Aspinall. He has worked as principal and co-investigator on studies of mixed race identity and on the history of mixed race. He was national convenor for the ethnic group question in the Office for National Statistics’ 2001 Census Development Programme.

    His report discusses appropriate and inappropriate terms for children with parents of different backgrounds.

    The message which comes across (re:the term ‘half’) is that the people it referred to either found it offensive, derogatory or demeaning, and it is a word that they would like to see removed from official forms.

    As a British primary school teacher I was taught to use ‘dual heritage’ as ‘dual’ can have positive implications whereas ‘half’ can be construed as negative, due to links to ‘half-caste’ or ‘half-breed’.

    In the UK, we tiptoe around sensitive subjects such as this due to the large numbers of foreigners living there. Here in Japan, where the numbers are much lower, (percentage-wise) there is simply no debate. Nor do I think there will be until the number of mixed/dual/half race/heritage greatly increase.

  • @Joe
    your post below is so bizarre its untrue.
    can people really think this in the 21st century?

    #What worries me about this whole “haafu” issue is the way the use of perfectly good, useful word becomes a contentious issue for no real reason. Look at America: they’ve gone from “negro”

    no real reason why haafu or negro are contentious words???good grief.
    if this is what really worries you then I think you need to have a good look at yourself.

  • Rob I’ve heard very similar comments about the studly Japanese hammer-thrower and Olympic gold medalist Koji Murofushi (who has a Dutch mother apparently). Notwithstanding that the guy has, as far as I know, only ever held Japanese nationality, was born and raised in Japan and has won a gold medal (and several silver and bronze) for Japan for goodness sake, my (highly educated and professional friends) discount him as a Japanese, because he is “haafu”. And I think that is entirely the problem. “Haafu” equals “not-Japanese” in too many people’s eyes.

  • Most of the foreign community in Japan that defend the use of the word “hafu’ also see no problem with the word “gaijin” Ive heard both words used in derogatory situations many times. This can provoke a defensive feeling from the person they might be refering to, who would rather not make waves and say nothing about it but instead suffer quietly. I say bullshit. Halfu and Gaijin are both words that have power over others in certian situations. A group of Japanese high school students on the train – “Ano onna mita? Kawaii? Are wa nani? Ah, are wa halfie!” How many times have I heard this. Its perfectly acceptable to those who dont experience it when in their comfort zone. When you arent in that zone, its always different.

  • @Joe
    “In England we’ve pretty much stuck with “black” for all time. No-one’s offended, no-one’s embarrassed, it’s just a word. Seems to me “haafu” should be no different.”

    So in England do you have people claiming that “you’re not British because you’re black”? Do people casually and frequently refer to people as “that black boy”?

    You see, Joe, the point you are not getting is that the word haafu (and gaijin, for that matter) is used in Japan in a way that is way out of the ordinary for people from countries like you and I. The word itself is, I can more or less agree, fine in an abstract sense. But when you look at the way it is used, it becomes not fine, at all. In our own countries we wouldn’t walk around calling people we didn’t know “Mr. Foreigner” based on the way they looked, or calling our classmates a “half-Italian” would we? I think that would be considered rude, because you are drawing unnecessary attention to their genetic background/nationality.

    The people who don’t get why the word haafu is obnoxious are the people who haven’t thought it through all the way, or are just blithely unaware of what’s going on around them.

  • OG Steve
    >We should stop calling the nice boy playing in preschool, “A nice black boy.” He is a nice boy. Period.

    I am wondering where this argument leads to.
    Why do you use the sexist word “boy”? We do not need to discriminate boys from girls, do we? How about “he is a nice child”?
    Oh, wait. We should not discriminate the old from the young. The politically correct expression should be “he is a nice human being.”

  • A lot of dual heritage people (haafu) I meet in Japan act and look completely Japanese, or only a little bit different (hard to tell with the amount of cosmetics some women wear anyway), and they keep their background quiet. They tend to “come out” to me as I m a foreigner, maybe they feel they can say it. To other Japanese, they re not discussing it if they can help it.

    Others, usually celebrities, don’t have that luxury. Ditto people who look a bit “foreign”. One guy I knew had just one foreign grandparent but he looked a bit Caucasian, and it was a nuisance for him as he felt he had to constantly explain to restaurant staff, shop keepers etc that he was in fact Japanese and therefore the one they should speak to (as they invariably ignored me, presuming I could not speak Japanese).

    I find this typical and it hasnt changed much since the 1980s. Ie. if you are a tarento then its “ok” to be a half, maybe, but not so in a serious job like the one Ren Ho has.
    And as usual, in general for ordinary people there is no discussion, it is kept a secret. A few younger resident Koreans I know proudly use their Korean names, but their parents are still answering the phone with “Hai, (Toyokawa) desu” even if they havent naturalized.

  • ps. @Rob. Please don’t give up with your sad (ignorant) students who don’t recognize Ren Ho as a Japanese. You are in a unique position as an educator to keep drilling it into their heads that Ren Ho IS a Japanese.

    A follow up to “famous Japanese women” might be famous Japanese Sumo wrestlers. I bet they think Konishiki or at least one naturalised wrestler is “Pure” Japanese, and if they do, don’t correct them! Or, do correct them to make the point that they are as Japanese as they are, maybe more so by participating in a traditional Japanese sport.

    If your students are teenagers, then try the “famous pop singers who are in fact of a multi-cultural background”. It ll make them rethink their prejudices when confronted with the fact that their beloved idols are in fact not “100% Japanese”, as in the case of Crystal Kay, and even Kim Taku.

    — First I’ve heard about Kimura Takuya.

    Might also mention Miyazawa Rie. Most youth I talk to do not realize she has any international roots.

  • HO… when you see a girl, you call her a girl, when you see a boy, you call him a boy. You emphasize or notice their gender in the same manner.

    But, when you see a Japanese child, do you call her/him Japanese? Why then emphasize ‘black’ (boy/girl)?
    Or, in Japan, ‘white,’ ‘haafu,’ or ‘black,’ if you don’t emphasize the phenotype and skin color of anyone who appears to be Japanese or “Asian”

    — I’ll allow this line of discussion to continue for the time being, but I think that HO is just trolling here.

  • They dont think of Miyazawa Rie because she looks “Japanese”. Its all about looks.

    My apologies-Kimura Takuya and Kudo Shizuka are just “rumored” to be resident Koreans, there is no reliable source for this, other than the gossiping of people on the street. It partly goes like this-“He only married her because they are both in fact resident Koreans.” Yada yada.

    — As if it matters anyway. Is the point.

  • @HO – Yeah, even if your point was being facetious, as it happens, yes someday we should take it so far to stop talking about gender or age. While typing my post above, I wondered if someone was going to bring that up. So yes:

    First we can stop mentioning race.
    “Look at that nice boy.”

    Then we can stop mentioning sex.
    “Look at that nice child.”

    Then we can stop mentioning age.
    “Look at that nice human.”

    Of course why stop there?

    Then we can stop mentioning species.
    “Look at that nice animal.”

    Then we can stop mentioning kingdom.
    “Look at that nice eukarya.”

    Then we can stop mentioning domain.
    “Look at that nice living being.”

    Then we can stop mentioning life.
    “Look at that nice collection of molecules.” 😉

    Regardless of how far one can take this, the point remains:

    When talking about people, let’s stop mentioning race. OK?

    @Joe – Debito’s point was perfect: if you understand that calling someone half-Canadian would deserve a punch in Canada, then you should clearly understand why people born here in Japan don’t want to be called half-Japanese.

    And re-read what Giant Panda’s colleagues said about Koji Murofushi.

    And re-read what Rob’s students said about Ren Ho.

    And re-read what Newbiefront’s students said about a “half” on the street: “Are wa nan datta? Are wa half.”

    If they saw a regular-Japanese woman who looked exceedingly beautiful they would say “Ano hito wa nan datta? Ano hito wa moderu mitai!

    Instead they said, “Are”. “Are” means “that thing” (NOT a human) and it seems that many Japanese folks sub-consciously (and often even consciously, but they won’t admit it out loud, of course) feel that gaijin or halfs are sub-human things.

    Time to take off the rose-colored lenses Joe, bro.

    Maybe in Hiroo, Nishi-Azabu, Setagaya, or in “your circle”, people are less racist, great, but the rest of Japan is still surprisingly racist.

    To the average Japanese mind, the word Nihonjin equals “pure Yamato-blood insiders”.

    Non-Japanese, Naturalized-Japanese, and Half-Japanese, equal “un-pure outsiders”.

  • @Joe

    The issue isn’t with the word itself, it is with what it means to those who are using it. You need to remember that to many Japanese there are two types of people, the Japanese (100% pure Yamato blood line) and there are others (not 100% pure Yamato blood). In the eyes of many Japanese you cannot become Japanese through legal processes as being Japanese requires you to be composed of DNA from two pure Japanese parents. It is a birthright not a legal one. (sorry Arudou )

    When a child is born of mixed race parents, clearly the genetic prerequisite for being Japanese is not met, hence the exclusionary term “haafu” is used. Although by simply observing a person’s behavior or language there may be no way of telling their nationality it is of paramount importance to the Japanese to distinguish between that which they consider to be pure 100% yamato and that which falls into the category of “other”. It is absolutely necessary to do this to maintain the homogeneity which is this nation’s binding force.

    Let’s look at your moot example with your friend. You were speaking on the understanding that you both knew his legal NATIONALITY was Canadian, your prejudicial judging of his name being “strange” led you to query his heritage. His looks had nothing to do with it, his name did, he explained that one of his parents was of Dutch descent hence the name you found so “strange”.

    Now what I don’t understand about you Joe is, why you are perfectly happy to have mixed race children all across Japan (including your own) labeled as “haafu” EVEN THOUGH THEY HAVE JAPANESE NATIONALITY and a variety of ETHNIC heritage but you refer to your friend as being 100% Canadian and don’t dare push the argument that he is “haafu” even though he has mixed parentage? I can’t follow your logic…..

    Anyway let’s move past that.

    I’m going to be a little presumptuous and suggest that you are white (白人)a gaijin (apologies if you are not, but any skin color discrimination works just fine for this example). So let’s have a look:

    Your kid is a “haafu” as you say, half what? Half Japanese and half any of the following?

    * Ethnic groups in Europe
    * White people
    * White American
    * European American
    * White Hispanic and Latino Americans
    * European Australian
    * White Latin American
    * White Argentine
    * White Brazilian
    * White Mexican
    * White Africans of European ancestry

    Could be any one of a hundred countries each with unique individual traits and attributes. Does it not matter to you that your half of the “investment” is not recognized? That half the ethnicity and cultural heritage passed on to your child is simply dismissed and bundled into one general “gaijin” misnomer?

    [Let’s not mention the origin of gaijin eh 😉 ]

    Would you be happy for your child to attend a British school and be referred to as “half caste” as was the case 40 years ago?

    It comes back to the simple fact that the term “haafu” is used for no other reason than to clarify whether one fits the Japanese ideal of “being Japanese” or not, just like cars, clothes and gairaigo, it has to be made patently clear what is “made in Japan” and what isn’t.

    Argue any which way you like (I think you’re just trolling tbph)”haafu” is used for no other reason than to differentiate between Japanese and not Japanese.

  • Of course, I see the irony here: I say we shouldn’t mention race, but at the same time I say, “Most Japanese people blah-blah-blah.” 🙂

    I guess the difference is: when having a discussion about race, and about what people in this country do, as we do here on this human rights forum, making generalizations with the goal of improvement is necessary.

    In a normal, non-race-related, non-country-related, everyday discussion, mentioning someone’s race is not necessary and should not be done.

    PS – my wife tells me that the modern Japanese do use the word “are” even when describing a Japanese person, so using “are” to describe a non-Japanese or half-Japanese person is not an example of racism, my mistake.

    Still, my overall point remains true: there is a lot of racism hidden within national-pride here in the Japanese culture, just as there is a lot of racism hidden within religious-pride in the Judaic culture.

    For example, in Israel: you can convert to Judaism and gain Israeli citizenship, but… these “converts” are never really accepted as “real” (=descended from Jacob’s 12 children) Jews, just as in Japan: you can try to become Japanese as Debito has done on paper, but… these “converts” are never really accepted as “real” (descended from the Yamato tribe) Japanese.

    As a matter of fact, the right-wing folks in Israel are pushing a new law which will reduce the rights of such “citizens who merely converted” to officially be labeled “second-class citizens” with less rights than “real Jews = people born to a real Jew mother.”

    I call it like I see it: racism is racism, even when “my ” people are doing it.

  • It seems odd, as to why people care so much about who is half or quarter. It seems like the Japanese think of it as some sort of handicap or something.

  • One more go at this, then I’m retiring.

    The point with my Canadian friend is that he’s half-Dutch genetically-speaking, but 100% Canadian when it comes to citizenship. I’m trying to emphasise the difference between the two. “Haafu” is a meaningless comment in regard to someone’s nationality.

    No! Sorry, I re-read my post and realised I hadn’t made myself clear. Of course “negro” is an utterly unacceptable word. What I wanted to say is that once “negro” was no longer an option (both in the UK and the US), the word “black” replaced it in the UK, no problem. In the US, due to their extreme sensitivity to racial issues, they’re constantly trying to re-invent an acceptable term and constantly failing.

    Regarding your comment:
    “So in England do you have people claiming that “you’re not British because you’re black”? Do people casually and frequently refer to people as “that black boy”? ”

    I would have to say “yes” to both. Ignorant, stupid people in the first case, but completely normal people in the second. Maybe I was just lucky to grow up in a part of the world where “black”, “Asian”, or “blonde” were just ways of describing people, without any secondary negative implications. Which is maybe why my kids are quite happy to call themselves and certain of their friends “haafu”. And if I were to tell them they were “demeaning” themselves or their friends, they’d laugh at me. So when you say:

    “The people who don’t get why the word haafu is obnoxious are the people who haven’t thought it through all the way, or are just blithely unaware of what’s going on around them.”
    I’d like you to meet my kids and their friends. Because they’d certainly disagree with you.

    An absolutely final thought: it seems to me that Americans take a lot more interest in this argument than English people, and that people living around the main cities in Japan
    are a lot keener than those in the sticks. This leads me to suspect that, as an Englishman living in the wilds of Kyushu, I see the whole argument differently to a New-Yorker residing in Tokyo.
    Anyway, I’ll certainly not be using “haafu” without a lot of thought in future. Though it still seems okay to me…. peace and love.

  • @James
    Sorry, your comment only just appeared after I’d posted my previous one.
    I’m absolutely not trolling,please believe me. I’m usually on the Guardian-reading, trendy-lefty side of any argument, and I’m not sure how I got here . (Debito, do you keep records of everyone’s posts? Can you vouch for me?)

    In your own words: “The issue isn’t with the word itself, it is with what it means to those who are using it. “That’s exactly my point, “haafu” is simply a technically correct, scientific term in regards to DNA. If people choose to use it incorrectly in order to further their hateful, racist agendas and apply it to nationality then that’s their problem. I don’t see why the rest of us should have to change our language to accommodate them.

    — I can vouch for Joe. He’s not trolling. I asked him to elaborate on his opinions about the word, and he has, and is participating constructively in the discussion. Thanks.

    As for the technically correct, scientific term, haafu is hardly that. People cannot be “half” anything when DNA pairings are not 50-50 anyway (cf. how siblings can differ immensely phenotypically despite the same parentage).

    Moreover, haafu is not merely a word — it is an epithet. And the fact that people use it to further exclusionary agendas is precisely why we should change our language (and encourage them to change theirs) to discourage that from happening.

  • @Joe, it seems we’re being too harsh on your initial opinion, I apologize. I notice you did write an opposite opinion which sums-up the point we’re trying to express, you wrote:

    “Mixed-race? That to me has definitely negative overtones.”

    Look, the majority of folks on this forum are simply trying to say the exact same thing:

    “Half-Japanese? That to us has definitely negative overtones.” 🙂

  • I think the difference between race and gender is that MOST people consider themselves to belong to one gender or the other. Might not be the gender they were assigned based on physical appearance at birth but I think the number of people who truly would prefer not to be assigned to either gender is incredibly small (this based purely on personal experience, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, I can think of two transgendered individuals that I know as opposed to dozens of people of mixed racial background, and they both identify as a single gender, just not the one on their birth certificate), while the number of people who who consider themselves “mixed” or “half-Japanese, half-white” or “multiracial” or “multicultural” or “none of the above” is fairly large, and varied when it comes to what they would prefer to be called.

    It’s also a by-product of language. “Look at that nice boy.” and “Look a that nice black boy.” are both natural-sounding English sentences, the sentence doesn’t lose anything by omitting “black.” But change “boy” to “human being” and you do have a problem. Yes, you can use “person” or “kid” or something appropriate to their profession, etc, if you’re really not sure, but using man, woman, girl, boy, is at this point an almost unavoidable function of the English language (hey, at least Japanese doesn’t require the use of pronouns?)

    There are so many people in the world today who don’t FIT into one category when it comes to race, or who maybe DO, but don’t want to be defined by that. As far back as I can research, all of my ancestors are Caucasian… but I don’t consider “white” to be a group that I belong to in the same way that I belong to my family or my city or my circle of friends. Some people obviously DO have a strong sense of identification as a member of an ethnic group or race… but enough people DON’T (or do, but for multiple races) that I think it’s inappropriate to define someone by those terms, until and unless you know how the individual prefers to be defined.

  • Andrew Smallacombe says:

    I just had a friend stay with me from overseas. He has a deep respect for Japanese culture and people, but often uses the word “Jap” in casual conversation.
    I was wondering if and when some passer-by would overhear him and pull him up on it.
    Yet, that is how many of us (gaijin) and our kids (haafu) are labeled.
    I don’t need someone telling me that my daughter looks “haafu” – what’s wrong with saying that they can see that she takes after me? I don’t need to hear in reference to my kids that “Haafu ga kawaii” – it’s my kids that are cute, not some abstract (What if I was ethnic Chinese? Bet my kids wouldn’t LOOK “haafu” – and then the comment would be nulled)

    @ Rob:
    I hope your students didn’t think Akiko Wada is a famous Japanese woman.

  • @OG Steve could you elaborate on what you mean by the following?

    [Of course, I see the irony here: I say we shouldn’t mention race, but at the same time I say, “Most Japanese people blah-blah-blah.” :-)]

    I don’t understand what the blah-blah-blah insinuates….

    @Joe, I’m pleased that you are not trolling.

    Yes, we could argue that words are just a grouping of sounds, however, we imbue those sounds with meaning. We have a meaning in mind before we give it a vocalization. The meaning that was applied to the sound “half” was “less than whole”, the meaning of the word “Japanese” was “100% Japanese blood”.

    If I child is born in Japan, has Japanese citizenship and behaves just like any other 100% Yamato, could you explain the following for me:

    1: Why Japanese (100% Yamato blood) would need to identify the Japanese nationals who aren’t 100% pure blood with the differentiating “haafu”?

    2: If it is so important for 100% Yamato to differentiate a 100% from a not 100%, why is in not equally important for them to identify the origin of the non Yamato %?


  • about Akiko Wada, if that was an attempt at humor I m afraid it was lost on me, sorry. I hope Rob’s students do regard her as a Japanese. Surely she is for all intents and purposes. Her Korean ancestry is both distant, irrelevant, and commonplace.

    I’m far too cynical to be a teacher but if I was I might play a game of having beloved Japanese celebrities’ names and asking the students to “spot the non Japanese”.I d include Debito’s picture and say that he was Japanese, and I d include a picture of Alberto Fujimori (with family nametag) and say that he wasn’t.

    It might open their eyes to the multi cultural reality.

    Final answer: ALL of them have ancestry from outside Japan- “According to Hanihara, modern Japanese lineages began with people in the Jōmon period, who moved into the Japanese Archipelago during Paleolithic times from their homeland in southeast Asia. Hanihara believed that there was a second wave of immigrants, from northeast Asia to Japan from the Yayoi period (300 BCE – 300 CE).”
    (wikipedia, etc).

  • I actually design and teach a university English course with a focus on comparative cultural studies. The aim is to hopefully give the students a broader understanding of the world beyond their borders. Thanks for the suggestions of other Japanese stars the students might know. I’ll try to incorporate a lesson dealing with these issues into the syllabus for next year.

  • @James – I simply was pointing out that it is ironic, and slightly hypocritical, for me to say we shouldn’t mention race, but at the same time I make generalizations about the Japanese race all the time. And I was then making the distinction, racists are mentioning race for no good reason, I’m making generalizations about the Japanese race for a good reason: the goal is to open up people’s eyes to the reality that many Japanese (and many Jews) are secretly holding on to the idea that their race is superior.

    And yes, intelligent people understand that neither the Japanese nor the Jews are pure races at all, they are mixes of Black, White, and Asian, as we all are.

    @JonHolmes – Yes, to put it simply, the Ainu arrived 14,000 years years ago from Russia, and then much later a second wave of settlers arrived from China and Korea and kicked the original settlers’ asses up to Hokkaido and then these latecomers proclaimed themselves to be the “real Japanese”.


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