©Photo by iStock: paulaphoto

Hafu: The Ups And Downs Of Being ‘Half Japanese’ In Japan

Stories From My Never Japanese Enough Life

By Tabitha Wilders
November 18, 2022
Japan Blues, Lifestyle

I don’t look Japanese enough. I don’t speak enough Japanese. So, does that mean I’m not Japanese?

First things first. I hate to start off by putting out a disclaimer, but these are my own personal opinions and thoughts about being a “hafu” (half-Japanese) and my experience will/may differ from others. I do not expect everyone to agree with me. Please take what I say with a pinch of salt. Disclaimer over! Now a little bit about me…

Hafu: The Ups And Downs Of Being “Half Japanese” In Japan© Photo by Tabitha Wilders

I was born in Tokyo to a British father and a Japanese mother. I attended an International School in Yokohama for eight years before moving to the UK. After completing my masters in London and working abroad for a couple of years, I finally returned. Here are my personal experiences of being a hafu in Japan.

The hafu or daburu debate

Hafu: The Ups And Downs Of Being “Half Japanese” In Japan© Photo by iStock: CSA-Printstock

Hafu refers to a person who is half Japanese and half something else. Some are against this term and ask others to call them daburu (double). To them, daburu represents both cultures and ethnic heritages that make them who they are. They hear the word hafu and think it makes them sound like half a person. Others prefer hafu as it tends to be associated with kawaii (cute) or kakkoii (cool) stereotypes in Japan. Common stereotypes include the expectation for us to have an envious multiracial look and the ability to speak multiple languages.

My opinion? I’m personally not offended by the term hafu and here’s why. It’s because it doesn’t have a negative connotation attached to the term nor is it used in a derogatory way. I do not hear the word hafu and think of myself as half a person (sorry, that’s just ridiculous). Wouldn’t daburu mean that we’re two people then? Last I checked, I’m not two people either. If I had to give an alternative suggestion, perhaps “dual”? Can people argue with that one?

Coming out as ‘Japanese’

Hafu: The Ups And Downs Of Being “Half Japanese” In Japan© Photo by Tabitha Wilders

I’ve had my fair share of laughable experiences in Japan. I often get that nervous look from shop assistants, ticket officers and people on the streets when I approach them—the one where they automatically assume I’m going to ask for something in English *big sigh*.

One time, I overheard two Japanese girls gossiping about my outfit, describing it as “unique” (I assure you, not in a nice way) and that my shoes couldn’t be from Japan because it wasn’t a style Japanese people would wear. Instead of pretending that I couldn’t understand them, I said, “excuse me” in Japanese and passed by. I then turned around and further added, “I bought these shoes in Japan. They’re on sale at [Japanese store]”, smirked, and walked off. The look on their faces when they realized I had understood everything they had said, I’ll never forget!

“Wow, your Japanese is really good!”

And then there was that time I was at a department store, chatting in Japanese with a foreign makeup sales assistant. “Wow, your Japanese is really good!” she said. Yes, that’s right, I got complimented by a Japanese-speaking foreigner that I’m good at speaking my own language. Great.

These kinds of “incidents”, I can brush off no problem. But one thing I can’t let go of is when people say “Woah gaijin (foreigner)!” Yes, the number of interracial children has been on the rise but we “halfies” are still a minority in a very homogenous country. After returning to Japan, I realized, most, if not all, viewed me as a foreigner. I get it, I can be painfully British. My personality is more western, English is my stronger language by far and I lived in the U.K. for longer. My Japanese isn’t as good as it used to be and I don’t look stereotypically Asian. But it’s sad to feel like I don’t fit into half of my identity. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked what country I’m from. I can never say “I’m from Japan” without getting a confused look.

Japanese expectations and fitting in

From the way that I dress to the way I walk and talk, people always had and most likely always will have something to say. The way I was raised probably makes me more outgoing and outspoken than the average Japanese person. I was consistently reminded of this, often being told “gaijindane (you really are a foreigner)” due to my personality. If I do anything that’s a little different, it’s the same response: “gaijin dakarane (you are a foreigner after all.)”

Being told numerous times “kiga tsuyoiine (you have a strong personality)”—never in the form of a compliment—and “kawaiiku naine (your personality is not cute)” does take its toll on you. I feel the pressure to act differently and I do sometimes find myself putting on a shy persona to fit in. I find it hard to be myself in fear of being judged or hearing another negative comment. You can imagine how tiring this can be.

Despite all of this, I know I still get the good end of the stick too. I receive special treatment like being offered extra help and service, given things for free and being excused if I make a slight etiquette mistake—just for being “hafu”. I’m certainly not ungrateful for being one. It’s important to just embrace who we are, know it’s ok to be different and not care too much about what other people think. For me, it’s still a work in progress.

To all the fellow halfies out there, what has your experience been like? Let us know in the comments or reach out to us directly and tell your story on Savvy Tokyo.


David Simon Bergmann says:

My grandchild Sophie will be half japanese and half caucasian.


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