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The experience of mixed-race people in Japan

Japanese culture developed, in many ways, independently from the rest of Asia. A phenomenon known as ガラパゴス化, the Galapagos effect, this branching off from mainland culture and commerce has had a notable impact still apparent today.

While an oft-cited effect of this isolation is the incompatibility of Japanese telecommunications with international standards, the perceived uniformity of the Japanese people is likely more important. Although there is debate, for better or worse most Japanese consider their country to be ethnically homogeneous. Despite an influx of foreign workers and tourists in recent years, according to the 2018 census approximately 98% of the population is Japanese.

Perhaps owing to its ethnic uniformity, Japan has a save-face culture that values group consensus and unanimity. Decisions are often, sometimes painstakingly, made via consensus and individuals tie their success to group accomplishments rather than individual merits. As a result, businesses in the country are perceived as having an excessive amount of meetings. After all, it takes a long time for a group to reach a decision.

The Nail That Sticks Out

Nevertheless, group uniformity and a strong ethnic identity have unintended consequences. As we’ve covered before, and as I can attest to personally as a foreign national, cultural differences can lead to friction. In the worst case scenario, non-natives experience inequities and harassment, most importantly with regard to housing and employment.

Yet, what about those with a foot in two cultures or more? Known as ハーフ, meaning "half," a term that underlines their partial Japanese heritage, many mixed-race residents seem to note a sense of disconnect from the wider society. Several object to the common term, however, feeling its negative connotation undermines their Japanese identity. Instead, they opt for ダブル, double, a term that positively highlights their mixed ethnicity.

‘A Dive Into Hāfu’

YouTuber Hugo Kwok is a mixed-race individual living in Japan. In early 2019, he released a documentary chronicling his experiences as well as his fellow students'.

In the cinematic documentary, Hugo skillfully details the modern experience of being mixed-race in Japan. He outlines the relevant history as well as the sentiment surrounding the term. He goes on to note that the number of mixed-race newborns is rapidly increasing. This number reflects an increase in international marriages in recent years.

More interesting, however, Hugo interviews his mixed-race schoolmates. Many reflect on their atypical role in Japanese life. While not subject to racism, they are clearly perceived differently from other "full-blooded" Japanese natives. It seems their peers are sometimes unaware or insensitive to their multi-national background. In some cases, others unwittingly say things that are offensive to mixed-race students.

While I'm not mixed-race, I had the impression that their greatest grievance was their presumed "otherness." While a foreign identity can come with a glamorous luster, it is annoying for mixed-race students to be treated differently, particularly by strangers, upon meeting them. However, as people's attitudes progress, things are becoming better.

Mixed-Race Children

While being a multi-ethnic resident is challenging, raising such a child comes with equal considerations. YouTuber DaveTrippin highlights precisely this in his interview with a parent.

Dave and Lee get straight to it and discuss the challenges of raising mixed-race children. According to Lee, the most significant problem with his two boys is cultivating their language skills. Naturally, boys struggle more with languages than girls, and Lee feels his eldest struggles being bilingual.

The issue will likely only increase as Lee's children grow older. As mentioned, Japanese society is homogeneous, and schools are no exception. Many students, especially around middle school age, are drawn to fitting in. With a foreign appearance, they are less likely to do something that makes them stand out like speak a foreign language. To fight this tendency, Lee plans to send his children to England periodically to visit their grandparents.

A Native Perspective

Finally, YouTuber Nobita From Japan made a video interviewing Japanese individuals about how they view mixed-race individuals.

As you can see, attitudes towards multi-ethnic individuals differ. While no one is outright racist, there is a sense from some that they are different from other Japanese. The situation becomes more complicated when Nobita asks if mixed-race people can represent Japan, say in the Olympics. The interviewees seem much less comfortable with this situation. Nevertheless, there seems to be a consensus that things are getting better.

By - Luke Mahoney.

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