What it means to be 'haafu' in Japan
Before moving to Japan, Chikara Dean always saw himself as Japanese. Despite spending his entire childhood in America, he still felt a strong affinity for Japan, helped by the fact that he would spend every summer in the country. “My mother, who never gave up her Japanese citizenship, made me do karate and go to Japanese school from a young age,” he says.
British born and raised Toby Kanetsuka, however, always saw himself as British before he came to Japanese. “I never really visited Japan before studying for a year abroad at university,” he says.
Even though Kanetsuka grew up British, he was made aware of his Japanese ethnicity in the UK at a relatively young age. “My surname from my father is Japanese, which stood out,” he says. “People also knew that my father is an aikido practitioner.”
While Kanetsuka admits that comments about his Japanese ethnicity came in all forms, whether it was harmless stereotyping or the rare racist comment, he found them to be at a minimum due to the multicultural demographic of London.
Even with an American father, and being born and raised in the U.S., Dean remembers confronting the occasional racial slur. “At times I was made to feel different, as if I wasn’t American,” he says.
With every summer visit Dean made to Japan, he also found his thinking about his background beginning to change. “I grew more proud of my Japanese ethnicity and heritage, as my mother and I did some genealogical research and confirmed our family’s lineage to a ‘daimyo’ (territorial lord) family in Kyushu,” he says.
When Kanetsuka came to live and work in Tokyo, he soon found himself wanting to know more about his Japanese background, such as where his father is from and some of the culture that was always somehow amiss when he was growing up. “But I never associated myself much more with Japan, and still feel firmly British in my ethnicity,” he says.
After already having some exposure to Japan, Dean says he had high hopes to blend into Japanese society after moving to Yokohama. “However, the reality was that I found it hard to do that in the workplace,” he says.
Kanetsuka admits to not having that expectation, as he had already heard that if someone is not born and raised in Japan, they are not really considered Japanese.
“It may just be one of the traits of any modern large metropolis like New York, Paris, and London,” he says. “Whether that will change over coming decades, with more mixed race Japanese being born, is difficult to tell.”
Once Dean and Kanetsuka started interacting with Japanese, they found themselves confronted with a variety of reactions based on their mixed appearance and/or Japanese language ability.
“I had some Japanese people who would stare at my face seemingly in wonder that I could speak fluent Japanese,” Dean says.
After the usual questions to gauge how much of the Japanese side is present, Kanetsuka says the Japanese he encountered would “pretty quickly go back to treating (him) as a foreigner.”
The one consistent experience shared between the two men, and doubtless many others, was fielding the “Are you haafu?” questions from the Japanese.
“If I had 100 yen for every time I was asked that, often not even ‘Are you haafu?’ but simply ‘Haafu?’ I would be rich,” Dean says.
Often this simple question would then be followed by more questions usually quite personal in nature, such as whether it the mother or father that is the non-Japanese, where they met, etc.
“Usually, since most Japanese found my being half-Japanese incredibly interesting, they would ask which of my parents are Japanese, where I was raised, how I speak fluent Japanese, and so on,” Dean says.
Kanetsuka found that the Japanese usually want to find out “what type of haafu” he is. “This includes the extent to which I’ve been exposed to Japanese culture,” he says.
When faced with the option to capitalise on their biracial origins while in Japan or attempt to fit in with the population instead, Dean says it would depend on the situation.
“I tried to fit in with the people I worked with at the restaurant, but I more capitalized on my biracial origins by working at English language school on the side, as well as doing some translating,” he says.
As with most people living in a country that they did not grow up in, Kanetsuka says he made an effort to fit in with certain societal norms in Japan. “I don’t want to be treated as 100% Japanese, because I’m not,” he says. “There are definitely times when it’s an advantage to be visibly not 100% Japanese.”
While Dean and Kanetsuka may have occasionally been reminded on their mixed heritage while living in the West, they often found themselves faced with the fact that they are “the outsider” while in Japan.
“Many Japanese were really accepting of me and the fact that I thought of myself as Japanese, but some Japanese people would continue to call me a gaijin after I had told them I am Japanese as well,” Dean says.
Instead of confronting it, Kanetsuka says he just accept it as a matter of fact. “It might be different story if I was living outside of London or Tokyo though,” he says.
For both men, it often seemed as if the Japanese were eager to point out how much they did not belong in Japan, either directly or indirectly.
“Many Japanese, especially in Tokyo, who seemed like they didn’t like foreigners due to a nationalistic attitude or bad experience, would point out that I didn’t belong in Japan,” Dean says. “It was usually indirect, since I was only 19 at the time and easy to anger, and most Japanese aren’t too direct.”
Living in Japan as a mixed Japanese meant that Dean and Kanetsuka would get into contact with a wide variety of people, some whom would become good friends.
While Dean worked with an all-Japanese staff in a restaurant and had childhood friends in Japan, he says many of the people he ended up associating with in Tokyo were half Japanese, international students or expats.
“I made friends ranging from Japanese salarymen and college students to U.S. Navy guys, usually my senior,” he says. “I was able to become good friends with anyone who accepted me as who I believed myself to be with no questions.”
When it comes to Kanetsuka’s friend network in Japan, he admits to feeling closer to foreigners or other half Japanese.
“They are at least in a similar situation in that they are also living in a country they did not grow up in,” he says. “Sharing this helps you feels closer.”
Dean says interacting with other half Japanese in Japan would often be an “incredibly surreal” experience, mainly because it was an opportunity for everyone to be who they truly are, and not what their race is “I have found that sometimes it can be very easy to be yourself with other half Japanese, mainly because we can so easily relate to each other,” he says.
Kanetsuka, however, says there are personality types that transcend nationalities. “Friendships, at least in my network, come from various ethnicities and nationalities,” he says.
Despite the initial learning curve of living in Japan as a half Japanese, both men say their time in Japan and experiences with the locals were positive overall.
“It has been a great learning experience,” Kanetsuka says. “People in Tokyo can be largely indifferent, as with other major capital cities, but those that I do interact with seem to have a slightly more open view towards more internationalism.”
Although Dean left Japan to finish his degree, he says he cannot wait to return to the country once he graduates, though under different circumstances.
“I look forward to moving back to Japan as a self-made man and therefore not having to work for Japanese, as I found that to be difficult with our sometimes differing views and values,” he says.
Kanetsuka also does not foresee any radical change in thinking in Japan toward internationalism taking place anytime soon.
“It’s good to point out differences though, as long as it is in the right way,” he says. “We are all different, and I see diversity as a positive thing.”