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The Burgeoning Hafu: A Grassroots View of Diversity in Japan

High profile hafu athletes such as Osaka, Hachimura, and sprinter Abdul Hakim Sani Brown, are the public faces, but the more substantive force of this change is happening in neighborhoods, at the grassroots level.

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Images from Hāfu2Hāfu: A Word Photography Project about mixed Japanese identity, book and photos by Tetsuro Miyazaki.

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A defining memory of any Olympic Games is the lighting of the Olympic torch at the main stadium. In the Summer Olympic Games of Tokyo 2020, that image is of Naomi Osaka, a hafu, a Japanese national with a non-Japanese parent. 

Osaka’s role as joint flag bearer for the Japanese team at the Opening Ceremony, alongside NBA star Rui Hachimura of Beninese and Japanese parentage, is being touted in the Western press as a watershed moment in Japan’s recognition of its ever increasing diversity

High profile hafu athletes such as Osaka, Hachimura, and sprinter Abdul Hakim Sani Brown, are indeed the public faces of an increasingly diverse Japan, and they provide heroes for Japan’s hafu youth. What most Western commentators fail to recognize, however, is that the more substantive force for change is occurring in a bottom-up form. It is also much ignored that non-Japanese residents of Japan might do more within their communities to influence the rate of change.

Rui Hachimura
Naomi Osaka

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Critical Mass

Elderly politicians in Japan have been wont to occasionally pronounce that Japan is a mono-racial nation. This statement is insensitive, factually inaccurate, and stupid, but from their personal life experience, largely true. 

The Japanese primarily comprise three groups: the predominantly Hokkaido based Ainu, the Ryukyu (Okinawa) and the mainstream Yamato. All three have strong genetic links to the Jomon, the original inhabitants of Japan. Hokkaido and the Ryukyu Islands were incorporated into Japan in 1869 and 1879 respectively. 

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Aaron Wolf of Japan (left), whose father is non-Japanese, wins the -100kg final judo match of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

There was very little interaction among the three groups during the formative years of today’s elderly politicians, nor were non-Japanese arriving and staying in meaningful numbers. 

Times, however, have changed. Japan may be devoid of an aggressive immigration program, but plenty of foreigners still come and many decide to stay. Government data state that around one in 29 babies born within Japan has at least one non-Japanese parent, while percentages within the major metropolitan areas are considerably higher. 

At my daughter’s former government elementary school in the Tokyo area, for example, there were ten hafu within the full year group of around 160 students, four of whom displayed clear visual differences from the standard Japanese aesthetic. The remainder were less obvious, having one parent from a Northeast Asian nation. There were no serious issues of discrimination at the school. The hafu kids were well incorporated into the student body — ten out of 160 seemingly sufficient to achieve a critical mass wherein hafu kids are not at risk of being negatively perceived or treated as oddities. 

Will the aforementioned elders adjust to the new realities? One would hope so, but in truth, it doesn’t matter. For the children my daughter went to school with, the concept of hafu as fellow Japanese is an unquestioned fact. As those elders exit the stage, they will gradually be replaced by others for whom a non-homogeneous Japan has been a lifelong reality. 

Soccer star and hafu, Musashi Suzuki

Where Are You From?

What is the appearance of a Japanese face, an American face, a Nigerian, an Ecuadorian? Will there ever be a day when the initial assumption of Japanese nationality is not primarily made on the basis of appearance? That final question should perhaps be set aside until the West shows Japan how it is done. 

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Founded on lands of indigenous peoples, the young Western immigrant nations of Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada should naturally lead the way in the negation of such assumptions. Alas, these nations still have a ways to go.

The genocides of the indigenous inhabitants were carried out by an initial immigrant drive of white Caucasian peoples. Subsequent waves of immigration were of a more diverse mix, yet even in the present day, Asians whose families have been resident for three generations or more in these countries are routinely perceived as outsiders. 

Japan is fundamentally different to those immigrant nations. The Yamato, Ryukyu and Ainu can all trace settlement back over two thousand years. 

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Japan is the United States of America, but with the Indian nations still at the helm. Accordingly, it cannot presently be helped that a Japanese hafu may occasionally have to explain that, “I am from the same place as you”. 

These days it is common to have many hafu in school classes, and children make nothing of it. (Photo: Kokoro Gekijo)

School, Workplace and Neighborhood Levels

Human interaction is not random. People live in communities and work and study with regular coworkers and classmates. For those who make their presence widely known, the question of whether they are a local or not becomes rapidly redundant. 

One of the common hypocrisies of foreigners living within Japan is to fail to make basic efforts toward assimilation while concurrently complaining of incessant othering. If the foreigner is also the non-Japanese parent of a hafu, this behavior perpetuates the obstacles for both their offspring and the broader acceptance of diversity.

In reality, in group-minded and group structured Japan, it is painfully easy to make yourself known to your local and wider community. There are a wealth of neighborhood based events run by neighborhood associations that include summer O-bon dances, mikoshi (portable shrine) festivals, radio taiso (exercises) during the school summer vacation, and grounds cleanup and weeding events at neighborhood parks. Neighborhood sporting teams are also common. 

If your kids attend the local school, embrace, rather than endure, participation in the PTA. Your community will worship you for that. 

If inclined to buy a dog, then do. Dog networks can be remarkably broad, passionate and strong. While I have occasionally been asked to confirm that I am indeed my daughter’s father, my wife has been stopped and asked if she is my dog’s “mother” ー several times in fact. 

The positive effect which rebounds to hafu children from taking these basic steps is profound. The divide between their family culture and that of their Japanese compatriots will be more smoothly bridged. The children will be more visible and appreciated by those with whom they interact, especially within their community. They will be locals. They will belong. 

RELATED: ‘Hāfu2Hāfu’: Mixed-Raced Japanese Ponder Identity in Book of Portraits

Crowds waiting for trains in Tokyo

Feel the Force

A further part of the equation is attitude—the brand of energy exhibited, the atmosphere one projects, the vibe one feels and emits. While facial characteristics may still lead to initial assumptions of where one is from, the superficiality of appearance can quickly be superseded through recognition of a projected energy.

One curious complaint some Tokyo-based foreigners make is that they are continually being bumped into when negotiating train stations during the Tokyo commute. In one memorable letter to the editor of an English language newspaper, the writer described the morning rush as a “pinball”. But it is not. The Japanese are not bumping into each other. They are bumping into him. Or, more accurately, he is bumping into them. Far from being a pinball, the hurried morning commute is a symphony—an ensemble within which he is out of tune.

Another of the standards is that the Japanese don’t sit next to foreigners on trains. It is a particularly interesting claim because when made, a whole host of others will come out and state that race cannot be the key as they have never been thus shunned, despite having lived in Japan for 20 or 30 years. On this issue as well, it is surely a matter of “harmony”—of sending out an atmosphere of welcome or neutrality, in preference to resistance or hostility.

Some non-Japanese readers who are residents of Japan will contemptibly dismiss these notions of energy, vibe and atmosphere. So be it. They announce nothing more than their unwillingness to fit in. The Japanese hafu that have progressed through the Japanese school system, however, most likely do not. They recognize the unifying energy that pervades Japan. They move within it. They exhibit it in a manner that is easy for others to acknowledge, sense and see. 

It isn’t always easy or a straight line, but it reinforces the fact that in Japan they are at home.


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Yuka Saso, whose father is Japanese and mother is Filipino, after her winning putt at U.S. Women’s Open golf tournament (Photo: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)

Bright Shining Future

Japan’s major cities are regularly ranked among the most desirable in which to live in the world. The nation is famous for its beauty and culture. People will come. They will marry. They will have children. They will stay. 

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The non-hafu youth of Japan will continue to grow up among an ever-increasing range of diverse faces. Diversity is their norm, and from it change will naturally accrue at a pace that is steady rather than swift. If it’s too slow for your liking as a non-Japanese resident, then cheer no less for Naomi, but assimilate considerably more. That is the practical option which exists.

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Author: Paul de Vries

Find other articles by the author on the history of the region at this link and other articles on the history of the region at this link.

Paul De Vries is an Australian writer and educator based in Japan. His book "Remembering Santayana: the lessons Unlearnt from the War Against Japan" is available from Amazon. His essays have also appeared in the Japan Times and Asia Times.