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.”
“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”?