Foreigners across the board who have ties to Japan tend to have strong opinions about the term “hafu.” These are voiced any time we post an article even remotely related to the word or cultural identity topics here, as evidenced by last year’s most popular article by far on the GaijinPot site.
Of course, hafu, or “half” in English, is the name sometimes used in Japan for people who have one Japanese parent and one parent of foreign descent. We thought readers would find it interesting to hear the perspective of someone who is not only half-Japanese but has dedicated the past two years of his life studying this subject.
Tetsuro Miyazaki, a photographer and the son of a Belgian mother and a Japanese father, is the creator of the Hāfu2Hāfu photography project. For his research, Miyazaki has photographed and interviewed 90 people of mixed Japanese heritage from over 65 different countries. The result is a collection of portraits and questions that those participating would like to ask their hafu compatriots, their own family, their friends and you — the viewer.
We’ve previously covered the project on GaijinPot and Japan Today and talked about Miyazaki’s ambition to feature all 192 possible combinations of nationalities mixed with Japan in his book. Today, however, we decided to turn that process around.
For this post, GaijinPot has selected eight questions to ask Miyazaki — questions originally posed by his subjects and taken directly from the project — about what it means to be hafu.
“What was your first impression of the word ‘hafu’?” (Janice Nakamura, 26, Taiwan)
Tetsuro Miyazaki (TM): The Japanese term “hafu” originally comes from the English word “half” and is the short version of referring to someone being half-Japanese and half-Belgian, in my case.
Since it’s a Japanese word, it is mostly used to refer to someone with one Japanese parent. But it can also be a mix of two other nationalities. I should probably better describe myself as hafu-Japanese.
I have always referred to myself as half-Belgian in Japan and half-Japanese in Belgium. Some say the term hafu is derogitory because it means you are only half of a whole. Of course, this is negative. The problem in this case really lies with the word “only” and not hafu.
“Why not refer to yourself as ‘double’ instead of ‘hafu,’ which comes from ‘half’?” (Tosao Van Coevorden, 31, Netherlands)
TM: I call the project Hāfu2Hāfu, so the short answer is: I prefer the term hafu. Most hafu people I have met also use the word hafu to describe themselves, but this doesn’t mean we embrace the label without any restraint (we address more questions about the word in the project).
When I was 15, I was told to be proud of both my cultures and to call myself “daburu (double)” when referring to my two heritages, but there were a few problems with that.
First, I had to explain what daburu means. I always ended up saying: “Yes — hafu, but different.” To me, it also implied that I was better than others. This was something I did not particularly enjoy. I wanted to fit in – not stand out more.
Finally, I believe daburu puts extra pressure on children. It implies the perfect understanding of two cultures and the speaking at least two languages at a native level, among other things. Personally, I find it easier to exceed expectations as a half, than to meet them as a double.
“What is the biggest advantage and disadvantage of being hafu?” (Naomi Cornelissen, 16, Netherlands)
TM: Being raised by parents with different backgrounds and sometimes conflicting values offered me a nuanced view on the world. I can switch between perspectives and realize that it is not black, white, or gray but marbled.
I can switch between perspectives and realize the world is not black, white, or gray but marbled.
Many hafu I talked to find themselves more empathetic than most of their friends. I think I can relate to that. A downside is that I am often asked to make choices my non-mixed friends never have to consider. How do I answer where I am from this time? Why am I asked to choose a country to cheer for in the Olympics or in the World Cup?
“Would your life have been easier if you were raised in your ‘other’ country?” (Paula Mako Kishimoto, 24, Haiti)
TM: This is very arbitrary, but I don’t think there are many places better to grow up in than Brussels, Belgium. Brussels is a bilingual city and it is the political capital of Europe. I enjoy its multiculturalism and don’t think I would have had the same rich and diverse influences growing up in Japan. I was also fortunate enough to visit Japan almost every summer. I am not sure if my parents would have taken us to Europe had it been the other way around.
But as they say — the grass is always greener on the other side. Especially as a child, I imagined life in Japan to be much more fun. I sometimes wonder if I would have become a freelance photographer if I were born and raised in Japan.
“How will the word hafu evolve in the next one or two generations?” (Sumera Reina Sata Ansari, 24, Pakistan)
TM: In an ideal world, we’d get rid of all labels in a few generations from now.
In a few generations, hafu will either disconnect from it’s original English meaning and become an inclusive label for all mixed heritage people (in Japan) or it will remain the label used for people with one Japanese parent. I think this group will become a smaller part of growing mixed communities in Japan that are not “just” Japanese or gaijin (non-Japanese).
“Do you consider [yourself] to be biracial, bicultural or both?” (Ayako Hosaka Umai Ngiraitpang, 25, Palau)
TM: If Europeans and Asians belong to different races, then I am biracial (Eurasian). My Belgian mother clearly has different cultural values than my Japanese father had (he passed away). I was brought up with both cultures and values, so I believe I am bicultural too.
I feel this question is a bit incomplete, because there is a fourth option missing: neither. For example, Asian Japanese raised by a single Japanese parent are neither biracial nor bicultural.
“What is your advice for foreign-born hafu to feel more accepted in Japan?” (Sabrina Ayumi Sasaki, 33, Brazil)
TM: Some of the hafu I’ve interviewed grew up outside of Japan, but were temporarily living here when we met for this project. How well they fit in mostly depends on their Japanese language level, cultural understanding and visual homogeneity.
I used to try really hard to fit in and be considered a true Japanese person by the Japanese society at large. I studied the language, practiced kendo and other traditional pastimes. But no matter how hard I tried, I would always stand out a bit. This has, at times, made me feel insecure and I was sometimes even jealous of the gaijin around me for not being held back by their lack of knowledge of the language or by the expectations of Japanese people.
My advice is really simple: care less about what others think and accept who you are.
My advice is really simple: care less about what others think and accept who you are. Only then will people accept who you are (or who you are not — and you should be fine with that, too). It’s simple advice to give but hard to live by.
“How do you appreciate Japan and its culture while being very critical about it at the same time?” (Ronnie Aker, 62, Norway)
TM: I love so many things about Japan! I love the food, the safety in the streets at night and warm toilet seats in winter just to name a few. But the older I get, the clearer I can see how Japanese society deals with its own problems.
What I feel strongly now is the need to present a balanced and clear image of the Japanese. Funnily, I instinctively want to protect and justify how things are done in Japan when someone attacks its customs or society. At the same time, when someone adores every aspect of Japan, I feel the need to balance it out by being very critical about those very things. For some people, it’s all or nothing. For me, it’s always a bit of both.
(A note from Miyazaki about his responses: “I normally don’t do this, because I believe the answers to the questions are less relevant than the questions themselves. Also, the answers to the questions might be different today than tomorrow.”)
Miyazaki has currently photographed 90 Japanese hafu from 65 different “other” countries. His ambition is to represent one Japanese hafu from every country in the world.
If you’d like to support Miyazaki’s project, here’s how:
- Pre-order the Hāfu2Hāfu photo book to support this crowdfunding campaign (closes March 15, 2018).
- Help him represent more countries (list of countries he’s already covered here).
- Share the project with your friends and family.
- Make time for honest discussion with your Japanese family and friends about any of the topics mentioned above.