Half? Which half?

This weekend was a three-day weekend in Japan. Monday was “Coming of Age Day” (成人の日), which is when cities around the country hold ceremonies to inform those who have turned 20 years old of what it means to be a “member of society” (社会人). The ceremony typically involves young people dressed in expensive kimono and suits, long-winded boring speeches by politicians, and then heavy drinking afterward (some of which have turned into near-riots in cities such as Kochi in recent years—although these incidents are often not reported in English-language websites).

Anyway, my wife and I celebrated the holiday like most people who have a three-day weekend: we went to the mall.

AEON operates several malls in our area (and always seems to be opening more, despite the business climate), but even the nearest one is about a a twenty-minute drive. Not wanting to drive on a holiday, we took the train instead. Living on a major train has many benefits, but one of the biggest is having an elevator from the ticket gates to the train platform. Luckily, the law was changed a few years ago virtually requiring that train stations with a certain number of average passengers build an elevator for barrier-free access (there are still a surprisingly large number of train stations, public buildings, and pedestrian walkway areas with no barrier-free access at all).

Of course, we had to change trains, but it’s a small price to pay for a cheap $6 per person round trip train ride. The baby, of course, is free. We brought her in the baby stroller. We first wrapped her in a blanket, but as it turned out she actually started to sweat through her wool cap. We eventually even unzipped her winter jumper to cool her down. She was smiling and gurgling happily at a few older women who talked to her on the train. Good news, since she was extremely afraid before New Years even to look at strangers.

It was as we were transferring to another line and were taking an elevator down to the the train platform that I heard the word.


We were sharing the tiny elevator with another couple who had their own stroller with what looked to be about a two-year-old daughter.

“Ha-fu desu ne?” the woman giggled, staring at our daughter. The baby giggled back. My wife nodded and said, “Yes.” I smiled and said nothing.

Leaving the elevator, I waited until the couple had gone the opposite direction a ways before turning to my wife.

“I know,” she said. “I knew you were upset, weren’t you?”

The word “half” (ハーフ) in Japan seems to have started as a reaction to children of U.S. military and Japanese women during the Occupation of Japan after the end of World War II. I’m not an expert on this time period, but there seems to have been extreme prejudice and even official discrimination against these children, some of whom were legally illegitimate (there’s an interesting PBS documentary that was made about this issue, called “Doubles,” which is an alternative term to “half”).

This attitude toward Japanese and non-Japanese couplings was seen even as recently as the World Cup 2002, when a politician in Miyagi (a location of some of the games) worried about English soccer hooligans warned that “it’s even possible we’ll have the problem of unwanted babies borne by women raped by foreigners” (as reported in the Guardian and on some online sources but not in any Japanese media, no doubt since Japanese people prefer to deal with such extreme xenophobia by simply ignoring it rather than discussing it openly).

The term “half,” itself, is a racist, derogatory term that means “half-breed” or “mongrel.” (If you look it up in a typical Japanese-English dictionary, it merely translates the term as “mongrel” or “half-blood,” although the Japanese-Japanese dictionary mentions that the term is often considered discriminatory.)

We’ve heard this word used repeatedly about our daughter by passersby who, apparently, regard the word as descriptive rather than abusive. My wife has suggested that they use the word not knowing the cruel history behind it.

Half-Japanese-Americans and other “half-Japanese” people around the world have made their own group and web page, which they call “Halvsies,” which celebrates famous “half-Japanese” such as Sean Lennon and Dave Roberts.  However, there doesn’t seem to be a Japanese-language version of their page, and most of the people they discuss don’t actually live in Japan. There is no way in Japanese to say “X nationality – Japanese,” like there is in the U. S. “Japanese-American,” “Latino-American,” and “Irish-American” are all perfectly acceptable, among many others, but “American-Japanese,” is not. So, my daughter is simply “half.”

I was asked this by a Japanese colleague a few months ago, who asked me casually, “So, your daughter’s half, right?”

I immediately shot back, “Half what?”

“Well, you know, half-Japanese.”

“Which half?”


“Her left side, from the waist up…does she have a Japanese ear and an American eye?”


China recently has begun experiencing multiethnicity “for the first time” (unless you understand ancient history), at least according to its own version of “American Idol.” A black-Chinese college student named Lou Jing became an instant focus for “we Chinese” ethnocentricism, with TV announcers calling her “Chocolate Angel” and online commentators telling her she wasn’t a “real” Chinese person.

I accept the fact that I will never be anything but a boring white American. But I worry now about what my daughter will have to endure in the future, for the sake of “we Japanese.” Why should anybody have to choose “which half”?

About MThomas

Long ago, I gave up my high school dreams of becoming the next Carl Sagan and instead wound up working (in order) at McDonald's, a '60s-themed restaurant, a video rental store, a used bookstore, a computer seller, Kinko's, a Jewish newspaper company, and an HR firm. I eventually became a teacher of intercultural communication in Kyoto, where I vainly attempt to apply quantum mechanics to language teaching, practice martial arts and Zen Buddhism, and always keep one eye on the sky. And yes, I know my profile photo's backward. I just think it looks better this way.
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15 Responses to Half? Which half?

  1. I’m ambivalent about the term. Sometimes, it annoys me… but generally, I try not to let it. I think there is a danger in translating the word and bringing our own cultural baggage with us. I’m from the UK where the fastest growing ethnic group is ‘mixed race’. When I was a lad we would have said ‘half-caste’ but times are changing. Although Japan is not as ethnically or culturally homogenous as it likes to think it is, it is still far more unusual to encounter ‘difference’ here than it is in urban Britain.

    I’m sure those people in the shopping mall would have been mortified had they thought they were being racist. Technically, they were allowing the ethnicity of your child to influence their reactions. But were they malicious, or just a little ignorant?

    I have no doubt that my two boys will have some interesting experiences ahead, but I wonder if making too much of this kind of thing would effect them more negatively than just blowing it off.


    • I agree that in retrospect, it’s very doubtful that the woman in the elevator meant anything racist by it. It’s just that every single time my wife and I take out baby out in public we hear “haafu, haafu” followed by squeals of delight. It’s usually accompanied by “oh, she looks just like a little doll” (o-ningyou mitai) and sometimes “haafu are so much cuter than Japanese” (said in the presence of my wife, who IS Japanese).

      What bothers me is that these comments are not said to children whose parents are both East Asian (for example, “half Japanese” and “half Chinese.” Naturally, such children would look physically more similar to “full” Japanese children (although all “full” Japanese originally came from the Korean peninsula, the Chinese mainland, Southeast Asia, the Polynesian islands…). But does this imply that children from a Caucasian/Japanese mixed marriage are somehow “cuter”?


  2. tokyo5 says:

    Does that term bother you?
    My Japanese wife and I have three daughters. They have been called “half”. I don’t think it’s a big deal. Noone means anything derogatory by it.


    • Actually, I have to admit that the term does bother me. The “half” is always the “Japanese half.” The other half is never said…because the other half is “gaijin” (i.e., anything not Japanese). People in Japan who say “half” and don’t bother even mentioning the non-Japanese “half” treat the non-Japanese heritage as if it’s unimportant. There is no such thing as a “half person,” only a full person.


      • tokyo5 says:

        Well, in my experience it only becomes an issue if you it an issue.
        My kids are teenagers now and have had no bad or “racist” experiences in Japan.

        Anyways, please feel free to visit my blog:


      • One difference may be that I’m living in a very conservative, borderline rural part of Kansai. Sometimes older people actually cross the street rather than walk directly past me. Most younger people in the area ( under 40ish) seem more unconcerned about foreigners, but I am definitely worried about the reaction my daughter will have if she has to attend a local public school.

        Thanks for the comment again. I’ll check out your site.


  3. Terry says:

    Yeah, we get the same thing and half bothers me too so I generally use the term “both”. I am waiting to see what my kids say to describe themselves and will go with whatever they say. If they have no problems with half then I will use it. However, a couple of months ago there were a group of 3 non-talent talents on TV and they all have one parents who are “international couples”. They were asked by the TV host if they are half and and they replied “Hai, mix desu!” which I found intriguing.


    • “Mix” sounds like a breed of cocker spaniel or German shepherd. I wonder if Tiger Woods would ever describe himself as “mix.” (Or Obama for that matter. Or a certain Korean slash Japanese heritage American friend of mine.)

      Were these people asked “Why do you speak Japanese so well?”


  4. Terry says:

    One more thing related to the “half” issue. What happens when the person is 3/4’s or 1/4? What is said?

    To me “half” usually refers to “half Japanese” whereas 1/4 also refers to 25% Japanese. I may be wrong, half might mean 1/2 foreigner.


    • Technically, I’m about half “Irish,” a quarter “English,” and eighth “German,” a sixteenth “French Canadian,” a 32nd “Native American,” and a 32nd “unknown.” (I think I got the fractions right.) What difference does it make? Everybody’s human. I have to wonder if people bothered with “ethnic fractions” before the nationalism of the 19th century took over.


      • But this way of looking at ethnicity is quite a ‘New World’ one. I don’t know anyone in the UK who would have this information, or express it. Before the 19th century, it wouldn’t have been an issue – marrying someone from the next village would have been pretty controversial. It is still like that in many parts of the world, so cut the Japanese some slack ; D


  5. I get why you don’t like it, but it comes down to this – either you kick against the whole of Japanese society and make yourself unhealthy, or you let it ride. Fundamentally, who cares what a couple of well-meaning but slightly sheltered strangers in a shopping mall think? These children ARE different, and will get attention – sometimes positive, sometimes negative. I think the most you can do is explain how you feel, gently and politely, to the people around you. Teachers, family, colleagues, friends might be enlightened. But the wider world? Pffft… whatever. Getting angry or annoyed is only going to be bad for you and your children in the long run.

    Like any word, ハーフ is open to interpretation in many ways, and all the interpretations you have listed are quite valid. But while you go home and stew on it, the couple in the lift will have forgotten all about it by the time they get back to their car…..


  6. irishapple21 says:

    It can be hard to be different in a homogeneous ethnic society. I currently live in a predominantly African American neighborhood in Newark and I sometimes get looks and comments when I’m grocery shopping. Usually they aren’t mean-spirited comments, but people are curious when they see a difference.

    Erina is going to grow up with a difference from the other Japanese children and people will be curious about her. The best thing to do is to teach her to answer their questions politely and live as an example that “different” does not mean “wrong.”

    You are very protective of Erina, but you will also have to learn to accept the curiosity of the Japanese. It takes time for very traditional societies to accept multi-culturalism.


    • That’s the problem. Japan is not now, nor has it ever been, a “homogeneous society.” Japanese homogeneity, as well as its so-called “uniqueness,” is a myth created and fostered since the early Meiji Era (1870s) when Japan was “modernizing.” Most of the population could (but chooses not to) trace its origin directly back to medieval Korean and Chinese kingdoms. But Japanese want to think they are somehow superior to other East Asian societies. And so they pretend that most of Fukuoka, Osaka, Kyoto, and Nara did not come from Korea to build temples and shrines and to bring their culture and language into the country.

      So-called “multi-ethnic” and “multicultural” societies are the norm in every country. It is only our insistence on clinging to primate tribal behavior that perpetuates the 19th century paradigm of countries based on “ethnicity” and prevents humanity from growing up into the 21st century of global society.

      I suppose the Japanese aren’t unique in their desire to see “non-Japanese” as different. But where do you draw the line? Sadaharu Oh is seen as “Japanese,” despite the fact that his father was Taiwanese, but nobody dares call him “half.” Everybody is from somewhere else. I simply have no tolerance for 19th century-based philosophies of separation.


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