Interview by Annie H Jones
Japan remains a fairly monoethnic country following a history of hundreds of years of closed borders. However, in recent years, there has been a huge increase in immigration and tourism which is gradually changing the face (and faces) of Japan. The number of interracial marriages increased eight-fold from 1980 to 2004 resulting in a rise in the number of biracial children growing up in Japan. These days, around one in 49 Japanese citizens are of half-Japanese descent, a racial mix that is referred to as “hāfu” (ハーフ) in Japanese, originating from the word “half” in English. This racial minority group often collides with discrimination and prejudice, whether viewed as negative or positive, in a nation that is not yet accustomed to the notion of race mixing.
The first in our series of interviews for Women’s Stories is with Lena who is half Japanese, half American and has spent most of her life living in Japan. We were interested to hear her personal story and the unique experience of growing up as a “hāfu” in Japan to provide a small window into the complex issues of identity, race and belonging to two different cultures.
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So, let’s start from the beginning. Can you explain a bit about the early years of your childhood?
I was born in a suburb of Tokyo to a Japanese mother and American father. At the age of five, my family and I moved to Okutama, a town on the outskirts of Tokyo, where I went to elementary school and junior high school. I think we were the only foreign kids within a 30-kilometre radius so it was a fantastic place to get all kinds of racist comments. There was a military base 30 kilometres from us so I’m sure people in that area were used to seeing foreigners, but they had protests all the time saying “Get the Americans out”. It was very awkward walking by.
You were clearly aware that people didn’t see you as Japanese from a young age then. What was that like in your elementary and junior high school years?
I grew up being called “gaijin, gaijin, gaijin” [foreigner] and people constantly commented on my appearance which made me very uncomfortable. I hated looking white as a child because I had strangers taking pictures of me. In fact, this photo [above] is me and some random men that wanted a picture with me. I think people thought it was cute to see a white girl in a randoseru (the typical Japanese square backpacks worn by elementary kids) but I just constantly felt like I had eyes on me.
“I hated looking white as a child because I had strangers taking pictures of me”
We grew up in a Japanese household, though. I didn’t learn English until I went to high school in the US. I’m the youngest of five kids and two of my brothers can’t speak English at all. My dad was in the Air Force working in the intelligence office so he speaks Japanese. After he retired from the Air Force, right before I was born, he took a job in a traditional Japanese company. He was the first foreigner they ever hired which made him act very Japanese.
How long did you live in the US? There’s obviously a lot more mixing of races in the US than in Japan. Did you still get asked about your origin or “Where are you from?”
I spent a total of four years in the US, including one year of elementary school and high school. I had people ask me what I am because I don’t look like a typical white girl. It really depends on which state you are in but some states are not as diverse as the rest of the world would like to think. I was living in Arizona where half the state is Hispanic so they don’t care as much about appearance. If I was ever asked about my appearance, it was usually because they thought I was from somewhere in Europe. Or if people saw me reading in Japanese. There aren’t that many white girls reading hardcore Japanese novels!
But I found that my Japanese tendencies – being very hard-working and taking things seriously – seemed to annoy them. I would explain my background but most people had barely left the state so they only knew what they saw on TV. I think it’s different these days in the US though because people are a lot more conscious about being politically correct.
After spending time living in both countries, do you feel that you identify with both your Japanese and American roots?
I do identify with my American roots now for sure. I feel like I have two different personas in Japanese and American; my aggression comes out very differently. My Asian aggression is calm but cold and my American aggression is loud and emotional. [Laughs]. I voted for the first time in my life as an American citizen last year. I mean, I wasn’t massively happy with the result of the 2016 election, but now I know how to vote from overseas!
I used to think that my Japanese side gave me mindfulness and sincerity. But I later realised this was more something I took on to disguise my insecurities and paranoia. I didn’t want people to not like me. As a young girl and a minority, acting mindful and sincere seemed like the only way to not get attacked. But I think that coming to terms with that greatly affected my personality and made me into who I am today.
What was it like when you moved back to Japan after living in the US for three years?
When I came back after high school, being hāfu had become a huge thing in Japan because a lot of the famous models were mixed race. I got some modelling work and my old friends started acting differently and begged me to take pictures with them. I look more white compared to other hāfu people so for those who liked foreigners, they really liked being around me I guess. When you are young, I think you are extra short-sighted because you only have so many tools to make yourself look better. If you look at it in terms of poker, having a hāfu friend made your hand stronger.
“People loved the fact that I was mixed but I was never sure if they liked me for who I was”
Some days I would love the fact that I was hāfu, but others I would hate any kind of attention. It was nice that people would remember me and notice me but, at the same time, that’s when I started feeling very uncomfortable because people loved the fact that I was mixed but I was never sure if they liked me for who I was. Deep down, I knew nothing was genuine. I still took every opportunity I got but I felt very insecure and just had a few friends who could sense what I was actually going through. The fact that I’m hāfu was not because I chose or worked for it; it was just given to me and I had no idea what to do with it. It’s like having an Aston Martin but not knowing how to drive it. I was never an Aston Martin but would like to think I was at least…. a BMW. Fine, a Volkswagen!
Do you still experience discrimination or people treating you as a foreigner now as an adult in Japan?
I’ve had a part-time job turned down because the photo on my resume looked “too white”. They literally said: “You look too foreign”. I could have filed a lawsuit but, honestly, living in Japan, I understood. My mother had never seen a black man until she met more non-Japanese people through my father.
“I’ve had a part-time job turned down because the photo on my resume looked too white“
I have zero accent in Japanese so whoever I talk to on the phone has a very difficult time adjusting when I see them in person because they completely expect a Japanese person. It’s not as bad now that I mainly live in the Roppongi/Azabu area (the centre of Tokyo), but it is still pretty bad if you go out of the city. Although people won’t verbally express it, you can feel that they are on high-alert.
Have you noticed any differences between Japan and the US in terms of expectations as a woman?
I think being feminine (女の子らしく) has more prominence in Asia. The US is more about looking pretty and smiling. In Asia, you have to be able to do quite a bit too: Cooking, cleaning, sewing and be quiet and obedient. What was always frustrating and difficult for me was, no matter what I did to the best of my abilities, people always said: “Oh, but you are a hāfu.” Hāfu people are supposed to be pretty, talented and smart. Although if you’re not the caucasian half, then that’s a completely different story. Anything you can’t do will be used against you.
The term “half” can come across as offensive in English but seems to be quite commonly used in Japanese. Have you ever been offended by the term? Is there a word you would prefer?
Not at all. I’ve never looked at it that way until I saw an article written by people who were offended. At this point, I don’t know if I’m just desensitised because of all the things that have happened to me or just simply indifferent about it.
But it does make me uncomfortable when people use the word “winner” (当たり) and “loser” (ハズレ) to describe what kind of hāfu you are [in terms of looks] as if we are some kind of raffle.
Do you think the situation for mixed race people living in Japan will change in the future? What are your hopes?
Yes. It has gotten significantly better in the last 20 years speaking from personal experience. If it has already changed this much, why not more? It’s very difficult to change the existing “standard” but I think the more that people are exposed to mixed race people the more normal it will become.
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Lena is currently living in South Korea with her husband and two daughters. She is looking forward to moving back to Japan later this year. Thank you for sharing your story, Lena!
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