What Does It Mean to Be Hafu in Japan?

April 11, 2015 Updated: May 17, 2016

Many “hafu,” or half-Japanese people, face unique and unexpected challenges in modern-day Japan.

Hafu is a term borrowed from the English word “half” and is used in Japan to describe someone who is biracial.

The 2013 film “Hafu,” which was released on DVD earlier this month, is an in-depth documentary about five hafu and their personal stories, subtitled in English and Japanese. Some are visibly half Japanese, while others are not; their experiences are diverse and some are poignant.

This film brought a tear to my eye, since I am also hafu, half English and half Japanese. I related to many of the issues in the film about culture, race, and personal identity.

“I think the biggest challenge is that people don’t acknowledge the fact that they [mixed-race Japanese] are Japanese. Especially for those that are born and raised in Japan,” said Lara Perez Takagi, who co-directed “Hafu” with Megumi Nishikura. They are both hafu themselves.

“Just because they have different facial features, or different colored hair naturally—they won’t be considered Japanese 100 percent. That’s the ongoing issue,” she said.

The film features David Yano, who is half Ghanaian and half Japanese. He was born in Ghana and then moved to Tokyo at a young age. He grew up in Tokyo and Japan is his home, but because of his physical features he was always treated like a foreigner—he had to explain that he was hafu each time he met someone new.

Yet when he made the decision to go to Ghana in his early 20s, he felt he was a foreigner there too. It was after this journey that he realized his personal identity is Japanese.

Sophia Fukunishi, who is half Australian and half Japanese, was born and brought up in Australia and had only visited Japan a few times to see her family. The film documents her decision to take the plunge and live in Japan for one year to connect with her Japanese heritage.

We met in a café in Surry Hills, Sydney. Speaking with Fukunishi, I found we shared many similar experiences even though we didn’t know each other—particular issues shared by hafuthe most common being people not realizing that you are half Japanese.

“Once someone thought I was an Eskimo,” she said, laughing.

During her yearlong stay, Sophia found it harder to integrate into Japanese society than she first thought. Sometimes she felt like she was treated as a novelty.

Being hafu can be seen as trendy or fashionable in Japan—partly because of the media hype for hafu celebrities and the dominance of hafu in the Japanese modeling industry. This has led to some hafu being stereotyped by Japanese people.

“Japanese people often think if you’re hafu you’re tall, bilingual, look like a model, and you’re rich,” said Fukunishi.

The Children

The documentary also introduces Alex Oi, 9, who is half Mexican and half Japanese. He experienced bullying in school because he was not “full” Japanese. His parents eventually decided to send him to an international school, where he felt more comfortable being himself.

But not every parent would have the option to send their child to international school—and the hafu population is growing, around 20,000 mixed-race babies are born in Japan each year.

Many hafu do look Japanese. Recent statistics show that 1 in 49 babies in Japan are born with a non-Japanese parent—the majority being international marriages between Japanese and Chinese, Filipinos, or Koreans. It is the smaller minority that are visibly hafu in Japan.

For example, Fusae Miyako, who is half Korean and half Japanese, is not visibly hafu. In the film, she recalls the traumatic moment when she found out that she was half Korean. Her family led her to believe she was fully Japanese, as her mother thought that being half Korean would have an impact on her marriage to a Japanese man in the future.

Miyako has now married a man from Cameroon. When they were looking for a place to live, they found it hard to get the rental property they wanted in Japan; many Japanese property managers still have a no-foreigners policy.

It is perhaps unimaginable in some other countries. Miyako’s experiences are poignant and we are drawn into her personal story, reliving her journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance.

“It’s not what people say to you that matters, it’s where you find yourself, it’s where you feel comfortable. Finding that acceptance is what really counts,” said Lara Perez Takagi.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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