Hafu's in Japan: Interesting Facts About Japan's Mixed Race Population

A Brief Background: What Are Hafu’s in Japan?

 For people living outside of Japan, the term “hafu” may come off as something completely unfamiliar. In the Japanese language, the term directly translates to the word “half”. For this very reason, hafu has been used during the past few decades as a word to denote people of mixed race who are living in Japan. Since the 1970’s, hafu has been the official and most socially acceptable term for anyone with a half-Japanese descent.

Photo by National Museum of the U.S. Navy

The social outlook towards mixed raced individuals in Japan has been changing since the turn of the twenty-first century. This is reflective by the constantly evolving terms used to denote mixed race individuals living within, or even outside of Japan. In fact, long before hafu was coined, there were plenty of terms that were being used at the time to denote someone who was not fully Japanese by blood.

The term “ainoco” or “ainoca” is perhaps the earliest term that has ever materialized to denote someone of mixed race. There is not a lot of information available as to how, when, and where it truly originated. However, this term was used before to reference anyone of a mixed Japanese and Caucasian heritage. This was a popular term in Brazil, which meant that there is a notable quantity of persons who have Japanese ancestry within Brazil. Elsewhere in the world, similar terms were already being used such as mestizo and Eurasian.

 For a country that was used to centuries of isolation, the presence of a mixed raced population was not immediately considered favorable by the “pure breeds”. Hence, it comes to no surprise that the term ainoco became a derogatory term in Japanese culture. Mixed breeds were treated poorly in Japanese society, and were not treated as equals.

 After the war, Japan worked slowly on reinventing itself: it’s government, economy, infrastructure, and global and societal views. At an attempt to improve the outlook on ainoco’s, the term konketsuji was coined as a replacement. This term directly translates to “a child of mixed blood”. Unfortunately, this soon enough became associated as a derogatory term, and became a subject of discrimination. It would take Japan a couple more decades before mixed race individuals would go to become fully accepted members of society.

 In the 1970’s, Japan was already a modernized nation - perhaps the most advanced in their side of the hemisphere. At the dawn of modernization, the term hafu emerged to refer to the rising population of mixed race individuals with Japanese heritage. This term has stuck ever since, and to this day is still being used in Japanese society.

The Census of The Hafu Population in Japan

Ever since Japan opened their walls to the foreign cultures, the mixed race population in Japan started to rise as products of interracial relationships. Mixed culture children were frowned upon back in the days, and they experienced a lesser treatment compared to those of pure-blooded Japanese children. Studies on hafu’s show that during 1980 the number of mixed race marriages was very little - only at approximately five thousand. This meant that if each interracial marriage produced one child, there would have been five thousand hafu’s present in Japan at the time. Of course, there were also hafu’s who were born overseas from one Japanese parent who has immigrated to another land.

Photo by Australian National Maritime Museum on The Commons

Just five years after the initial census was taken, records show that the number of interracial marriages has more than doubled - reaching up to twelve thousand recorded marriages. This would signify that the population of hafu’s would also have increased up to double in number. In another five years, the number of interracial marriages in Japan once again doubled in number, reaching more than twenty-five thousand marriages. This would mean that the population of hafu’s would have grown exponentially in just a span of ten years.

 At the dawn of the twentieth century, there were already approximately forty thousand marriages occurring annually between a Japanese local and a foreigner. Records show that majority of the interracial marriages in Japan occurred with citizens from China, Philippines, and Korea. In hindsight, hafu’s with Chinese and Korean blood may be harder to distinguish from those with pure Japanese ancestry. That is not the same case, however, for children who were born with Filipino ancestry. While Filipinos are also of Asian descent, their looks are much more distinguishable.

 Within interracial marriages that occurred after the 2000’s, the number of marriages with Caucasians are still of a very little number. These marriages usually involved foreigners from America, Brazil, and United Kingdom. Naturally, the offspring of these marriages formed the visible hafu population of Japan. They are much easier to distinguish in terms of looks, and hence, they are most likely to experience any sort of discrimination due to race.

 A good explanation why there was a significant increase in the number of interracial relationships (as well as children) within Japan can be correlated to the massive industrialization of Japan.

 Struggles of A Hafu Living in Japan

Photo by Mennonite Church USA Archives

It is a known fact that biracial in Japan have always struggled, the magnitude of discrimination has just evolved through the years. In fact, the first half of the twentieth century was a nightmare for hafu’s. Then called ainoco’s or konketsuji’s, individuals who had mixed heritage struggled to survive within a predominantly Japanese society. The discrimination goes beyond poor treatment, but they were also given fewer rights and opportunities compared to others. It comes to no surprise that a lot of biracial individuals experienced poverty through those years.

 Fast forward to the present, and plenty of the discrimination has already disappeared. The modernization of Japan has paved the way for new ideas, and the younger generation is much more accepting of hafu’s. The millennial Japanese are more open towards mixing of cultures, and it is very evident in their expression of art, literature, films and other genres. It is, however, a sad fact that plenty of middle-aged Japanese still maintain the supremacist mindset that mimics the anti-black movements of America in the 50’s. It is a terrible fact that no matter how advanced and modern Japan is in terms of technology and research, the issue of racism is still persistent. This can be seen clearly when Ariana Miyamoto won the Miss Universe Japan title and she received plenty of negative backlash about her being an unfit choice to represent Japan. Thankfully, there were also positive insights to her win. A few years ago, it would not have been possible for her to join the Miss Japan competition at all.

A New Race of Beauty: Hafu Models and Miss Universe Contestants in Japan

Coming from decades of struggle, social injustice, and racial discrimination, it is quite interesting to see how the change in social dynamics, has in a way, also shifted the way Japanese perceive beauty. From being a minority that was looked upon, the half-Japanese are now regarded as people whose looks may even surpass that of purely Japanese individuals. This has become more and more evident as the twenty-first century dawned, and social media and the Internet made it easier for both sides of the world to connect to each other.

It is no longer uncommon to find Japanese celebrities who are of mixed heritage, often with a part of western blood. Due to their increasing popularity, the standards of Japanese women towards beauty is increasingly rising in favor of the “half-bloods”. In fact, some Japanese girls and women even try to imitate having western features through the use of make-up. Many of them serve as role models and inspirations for younger girls in Japan.

 There are several examples of Japan’s “it” hafu girls, such as Kiko Mizuhara and Ariana Miyamoto. These girls are known for their contributions to the field of music, television, fashion or modeling. Take Kiko Mizuhara for example. She was born as Audrie Kiko Daniels in the United States, from an American father and a Japanese mother. While she was young, her family moved back to Japan until her parents divorced in 2003. That same year, she made her modeling debut for the magazine Miss Seventeen at thirteen, and from there would proceed to become one of the biggest names in Japan.

 At present, Kiko Mizuhara’s modeling portfolio spans way outside of Japan. She has walked the runway during London and Milan Fashion Week, and has shot plenty of campaigns with big name designers such as Marc Jacobs,  Karl Lagerfeld, and Jeremy Scott. Her endorsements vary from magazine prints, billboards, to television and digital commercials.

 As if her modeling portfolio isn’t impressive enough, she also has acting and designing skills to boot. In 2010, she made her acting debut as a star in the movie adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s bestselling novel, Norwegian Wood. The novel was quite popular in Japan, which helped elevate Kiko Mizuhara’s star status even further. After the success of Norwegian Wood, she has starred in several movies and television shows. Meanwhile. Her latest endeavors would include designing, which was sparked after a successful collaboration with Opening Ceremony back in 2013.

 Ariana Miyamoto’s success story is also another inspirational story of having transcended from racial discrimination. Growing up as a half-Japanese and half-African American in Japan was a constant struggle that plagued Ariana during her childhood years. Since her looks were dominantly from her African-American descent, her classmates from as early as elementary school treated her like an outsider. However, in 2015, Ariana experienced a life changing moment when she won the title of Miss Universe Japan. It was a monumental win for hafu’s all over Japan, as it was the first time that someone of mixed race has won the competition.

 While the treatment of hafu’s has changed for the better through the years, Ariana Miyamoto still experienced some negative backlash from people who thought that she did not deserve the title due to her unconventional Japanese looks. Despite these minor challenges, she proceeded to compete at the 2015 Miss Universe against participants from different countries. While she may not have earned a spot in the top three, she did manage to snag a spot in the Top 10. This was a glorious feat that no Japanese representative has achieved in the recent years. In some way, news of Ariana’s victory also equates to the victory of other hafu’s in Japan who have or have been experiencing any discrimination of some sort.

 Hafu: Japan Is Changing - A Documentary Film That Talks About Hafu’s in Japan

It may be hard for the majority of the population to empathize with the stories that biracial experience every day - after all, they are considered minorities for a reason. In order to learn more about the story of mixed race individuals, it may be best to explore different mediums such as tv, books, films and documentaries. There are plenty of notable materials that deal with struggles from mixed races in different parts of the world, this also includes material that focuses on hafu’s in Japan.

 Looking specifically into the hafu-centered material, documentaries, films, and articles that have been released in the past decades have surely captured the struggles and discrimination that were experienced by previous generations. Thankfully, the discrimination that occurred in the past decades has been reduced significantly. For a more updated outlook on hafu’s in Japan, a particularly great material to use as a reference is by two Japanese filmmakers - Megumi  Nishikura and Lara Perez Takagi. The topic of being Hafu is close to the heart of the two filmmakers, who are both Tokyo-born hafu’s themselves.

 The documentary features the daily struggles of hafu’s in modern day Japan. The individuals featured in the film is extremely varied, with interviews coming from several individuals who have their own story about being a hafu in Japan. For example, there is a bit in the documentary where a Japanese-Mexican couple talks about the struggle of sending their children to a school where they are teased by other students, and the difficulty of having to speak English, Japanese and Mexican. There is also a bit on how a Japanese-Venezuelan guy started a community to serve as a refuge for hafu’s in Japan. These stories are all extremely interesting, and even inspirational. It is a great way for an outsider to fully understand the topic at hand.