The importance of being “half”
Across Japanese social media the news was greeted as this year’s “beauty revolution”: for the first time in the country’s history, the title of the most beautiful in the land was awarded to a mixed race contestant. Ariana Miyamoto is a 20-year-old from the province of Nagasaki, she is the daughter of an Afro American father and Japanese mother and she has just been chosen to represent Japan at this year’s Miss Universe event. Why is this so strange?
- Thursday, 19 March 2015
Before 8 March this year, Miyamoto was just one of tens of thousands of hāfu, or “half”, a word commonly used in Japan to refer to the children of unions of which only one parent is Japanese.
Japanese in every way apart from their “non conventional” appearance, differences in the shape of facial features, eyes or even skin colour can make mixed race Japanese stand out in a country where, at least according to the statistics, foreigners make up only 1.5% of the population.
“I wasn’t sure whether a hāfu like me would be suitable to represent Japan in the competition,” explained Miyamoto to the press. “The support from all those close to me convinced me to keep going”. But aside from the platitudes it is worth noting the commitment made by Miyamoto.
“I would like those who have suffered like me (for questions of race) to have the courage (to carry on)”.
Discrimination against those that are only “half-Japanese” is still widespread in the country.
The film Hāfu, which was released at the end of 2013, shone a spotlight on the lives of those born to mixed couples. The film follows the experiences of five children of international unions: there are those born and raised in the country, like David, whose father is Japanese and mother Ghanaian, and those in search of their roots like Sophia, of Japanese origin but raised in Australia.
David finds it hard to be recognised as Japanese due to the colour of his skin, while Sophia experiences difficulties establishing effective communication with a fundamental part of herself because she lacks that essential tool: the language.
Then there are those such as Fusae, whose mother is Japanese and father is Korean. Fusae is perfectly indistinguishable from any Japanese woman of her age but she describes the anger that she felt on discovering that her origins were not entirely Japanese and how she originally thought that being “mixed” was a dangerous stigma that threatened her own integration. Finally, there’s little Alex, who was bullied because of his origins and had to change school as a result.
Speaking at a TED talk in September 2013, one of the directors and writers of the film, Megumi Nishikura, daughter of Japanese and American parents, outlined the difficulties of the hāfu in being recognised as Japanese.
“What does it mean to be Japanese?” asked Nishikura. “One has to look Japanese, talk Japanese and behave according to all of the Japanese customs and traditions. Those unable to tick all of the boxes 100%, well, they’re not Japanese”.
For more than a century the concept of a mono-ethnic and culturally homogeneous country has served to shape the modern nation state and this idea still prevails today. Nishikura believes that it is necessary to redefine the concept of “Japanese” to include all of those born to mixed couples, whom she feels should be seen as complete human beings rather than half-Japanese.
The other side of the problem is a sort of fetishism of the hāfu, derived from the presence of some “exemplary” representatives portrayed on TV programmes and in women’s magazines as trendy, exotic objects.
Nevertheless, the number of children born to mixed couples is on the increase: government statistics show that over 20 thousand international marriages take place each year and this figure would indicate that today in Japan one baby in 49 is of mixed origins. Globalization and Japan’s policies to offset the effects of an aging population will only accelerate the change that is already taking place. Amidst these changes, the term hāfu, with its racist connotations, seems increasingly inappropriate.
Translated by Nicholas Neiger