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Japan’s Schools Are In Total Denial Over Diversity

The term “hafu” in Japan means being half-Japanese. With increasing diversity in Japan’s classrooms, the Hafu2Hafu project is a way to educate students (and ourselves) about cultural identity.

By 7 min read

At first glance, you wouldn’t have the slightest notion that my ethnic heritage is part Native American. The truth is, I don’t know much about it, either. My part-European and part-Native American grandfather refused to speak of it until medical reasons made it a dire necessity. My mother, however, instilled in me a pride about my roots that my grandfather didn’t possess.

Unlike a person raised to think that it’s OK to be different, there are many children in Japan who still don’t get a chance to form their own positive spin on their ethnic identity. They often come from mixed-roots backgrounds and in Japan they are labeled: hafu. Now, roughly 1 in 50 kids born in Japan are half-Japanese.

The term hafu is commonplace for someone who has one parent of Japanese descent and one parent who is of foreign descent. For those unfamiliar with the term, it does come preloaded with its fair share of controversy and negative undertones. It can imply that someone is “only” half — and lead to the larger perception of just how Japanese is “Japanese enough”?

In recent news, Naomi Osaka (who is a Japanese-Haitian hafu) became the first Japanese tennis player to win a Grand Slam singles tournament. She even got a Shinzo Abe (the Prime Minister of Japan) retweet. Attitudes of accepting Osaka as simply Japanese rather than half-Japanese seem to at least be better than even a few years ago.

In 2015, the Miss Universe Japan crown went to half-African American, half-Japanese Ariana Miyamoto and one year later, the 2016 crown went to half-Indian, half-Japanese Priyanka Yoshikawa. Both winners got major backlash. Moments like these are some of the only mainstream events bringing the conversation to the forefront. Yet, after the grand slam excitement fades, will the conversation stay dormant until another hafu does something so great, Japan has to acknowledge its own multiculturalism?

The general attitude about diversity in Japan is that the concept itself is as foreign as, well, foreigners.

Do Japanese people still believe this? Or is the younger generation merely acquiescing to a cultural perspective passed down from their elders? Like other non-Japanese people living here, I can’t speak to being half. Neither am I a parent. But as a former assistant language teacher (ALT) who worked in three Japanese public high schools, I did encounter the cognitive dissonance that surrounds hafu children and how they can be treated and talked about at school.

… by 2039, 7.64 percent of Japan’s population will have one foreign parent.

Teachers and ALTs in Japan will see more and more students each year who are half or who have mixed-roots heritage. In a convincing article by Michael Hassett of the Japan Times, he projects that by 2039, 7.64 percent of Japan’s population will have one foreign parent. While these are indeed estimates — they are quite precise ones. He goes on to predict about 9.66 percent are likely to have one foreign parent, grandparent or great-grandparent.

That’s based on the government’s population projections, he writes, as well as “a few likely assumptions.” Furthermore, the 2017 article notes a lack of data, citing the way ethnicity is officially classified in Japan. For example: the population of Ainu, the country’s indigenous people, is simply classified as Japanese — another way statistics can point toward Japan’s perceived hegemony.

Hafu & mixed-roots kids at school

Last October, when I wrote about the nonprofit Hafu2Hafu project aimed at helping hafu Japanese better understand their identity, I was already familiar with the subject. But years ago as an ALT, I wasn’t fully cognizant until a chance meeting with a student’s parent gave it more definition. The dad, who is from the U.S., mentioned his daughter was in my class, so naturally, I asked who she was. He refused to tell me.

“She would be so mad at me,” I remember him saying. “I can’t tell you.”

Here are a few famous half-Japanese. Upper row, left to right: Sayaka Akimoto, idol singer, actress; Harry B. Harris Jr., four-star admiral in the United States Navy; Sean Lennon, musician and composer and son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Lower row, left to right: Angela Aki, pop singer-songwriter; Renho, journalist and politician; Arata Izumi, footballer.

Between layers of awkwardness, we reached a certain understanding. If he tells me who his daughter is, then it risks me outing her as “half” or at least drawing more attention to the fact.

From what I’ve witnessed, this isn’t an isolated case — students are dealing with questions of identity, as most of us do while growing up, but don’t really talk about it. Even if there was more dialogue happening, ALTs in the classroom can’t just dredge up platitudes like “it’s OK to be different” and “we’re all special” because they clash with the few certainties you eventually glean from Japanese culture: You’re not more special than the group, and it’s not (really) OK to be different.

Public school students who possess “foreignness” are frequently and unfairly assumed to have perfect English-language ability, or on the flip side, forced to sit through the same lessons as their classmates when their English is already grade-levels higher than the average. Physically, they may be made to fit in with the majority at school — even when it goes against their genetics. One on-going example is an Osaka student with an American grandfather who is suing her high school for forcing her to dye her hair black because it is naturally brown. Ironically (or not in Japan, a land of conundrums), the school’s edict for the student to color her hair is in order to comply with a “no hair-dyeing” school policy.

You’re not more special than the group, and it’s not (really) OK to be different.

When it comes to discrimination that is often accepted as cultural preservation, this confusing and illogical process goes beyond the usual “Oh, Japan!” moments. Look further into this and you’ll discover that some Japanese schools have brown hair “registries” — essentially, kids with non-black hair have to prove the natural color of their locks. All this just to fit in?

The notion that Japan is an ethnically homogeneous country is likely burying its growing unique diversity. In the process, it also shames people into keeping quiet about their backgrounds. That puts foreigners — especially teachers — in a predicament: How exactly do we talk about this? What can we as language teachers do to help students?

Introducing students to the Hafu2Hafu project

In that regard, Hafu2Hafu is that invitation — and encouragement — to talk about it. The piece of research, nearly two years in the making, could be an interesting learning tool for both teachers and students.

The project features rather mesmerizing photos and profiles of half-Japanese people around the world, now including more than 50 who live in Japan. It is the initiative of half-Belgian and half-Japanese photographer Tetsuro Miyazaki, who visits Japan several times a year to conduct interviews. The result of each discussion with Miyazaki is a portrait and the interviewee formulating one question they want to pose to other half-Japanese people. That’s later presented on the site, where other half-Japanese are invited to continue the conversation via the comments section.

A sample of the Hafu2Hafu book, which is an Indigogo project.

What’s refreshing about the Hafu2Hafu project website is that it’s not seeking to share personal narratives about what it does (or doesn’t) mean to be half-Japanese. Instead it aims to “take back” the term hafu to use it with pride, as well as offer a way for participants to reach out to one another.

Questions usually get thoughtful comments that allow the reader to dig into the conversation free of their own opinion and bias — exactly what Miyazaki is aiming for.

“I would like the project to be a non-judgemental instrument/tool to create these discussions,” he said in an interview.

Plus, the site is in both Japanese and English, so it can easily be shown to — and understood by — students. You might even find yourself staring at the striking black-and-white portraits and wondering: “Wait, what does it mean to be Japanese?” More importantly, your students will have a resource at their fingertips to do the same.

[This story was originally posted in January 2018. It was updated Sept. 13, 2018.]


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