The Mixed Experience in Japan
I often ask myself what it means to be a hafu in Japan. Anyone who is mixed in Japan will likely say they often feel like an alien in their own country. Countless small incidents build up to this—being offered a fork instead of chopsticks, getting talked back to in English after speaking perfect Japanese, and people staring for no reason at the train station. But the story that has stuck with me the most is this one.
Schools in Japan are in session longer and have shorter summer breaks, so when I was in elementary school, I was able to attend a public school in Tokyo every July. The school that I did taiken nyuugaku at had a system where the class leader for each day would decide who would be in charge the next day. I had made a new friend there who was kind enough to ask “Mia, do you want to do it tomorrow?”
But another classmate cut in before I could respond: “Why should someone who is not even Japanese be the class leader? There is no way she can do it.”
From that day on, I have incessantly ruminated over this person’s words. My younger self was filled with confusion as to why I, a half-Japanese person, was considered so different that I could not give the simple commands of “kiritsu, rei, chakuseki” to the class despite being fluent in Japanese. As I grew older, I began to understand that this was not an isolated incident, but a common experience of mixed people in Japan.
A recent Nike Japan commercial brought a positive light to multiracial and multicultural people, showing how sports can bring everyone together despite their differences. As a half-white hafu, it warmed my heart that Nike had specifically chosen to show images of a mixed Japanese and Black girl as well as a Zainichi, an ethnically Korean person in Japan. By showing people who are not often the faces that come to mind when hearing the word mixed in Japan, Nike brought attention to issues that Japanese people may not be fully exposed to.
After the commercial premiered, what was supposed to be a futuristic vision of unity quickly turned into a controversy. People on Japanese twitter inadvertently showed the darker side to the narrative and the true necessity of this type of video, as ensuing comments of opposition flooded in. Some denied that racism exists in Japan while others went so far as to declare a personal boycott against Nike products.
There are currently 92,000 likes on that video, but also an overwhelming 70,000 dislikes. Although my cynical government major-self would love to focus on the latter part, the half-Japanese child in me who was told I could not be the class leader tends to look at the positive side. Every act of disrimination of course comes to mind when I think of being a hafu, but it is triumphant moments like this Nike ad that make the mixed experience in Japan so special. For each microaggression in my life, there have also been small acts of acceptance that have made me feel proud to be Japanese.
At the same Japanese school where I did taiken nyuugaku, I met some of my best friends who I still see every time I visit Tokyo today. There were the teachers who treated me as they would any other student (bathroom runs during class in Japan were a no), and the crossing guard who enthusiastically said “Ohayo!” to me every day. There were the friends who cheered me on as I raced my classmates on the track, or the student who would leave his apartment extra early so he could walk with me to school since I was unsure of the streets. These occurrences, along with seeing people like me represented in the Nike commercial and online, gives me hope that Japan is changing. I would like to tell my younger self and other multicultural children in Japan that they should shout “Kiritsu!” as loud as they can—Just Do It!
Translated by Mia Glass and Yulia Ikumi
Edited by Meg NH
Illustration by Ayumi White