“Half”

Ryan Surdick for the Japan Times, “There is more to my son than the fact he’s a ‘half’”:

In this context, it’s taken me quite a while to work out what exactly it is about the usage of the word “half” in Japan that bothers me. Though I know people don’t mean any offense by it, there is still a twinge of repulsion when I hear the word. For a long time, I assumed it was just the English connotation influencing my perception of people’s meaning.

However, I’ve come to realize there’s more to it than this. The real problem I have is not with the word itself, but rather what it signifies about the user’s thinking. It’s often one of the first things people say when they meet my son. “Half” immediately becomes the defining characteristic of him to anyone he meets in Japan. And along with this comes a whole host of assumptions.

The problem is that “half” is as far as most Japanese think about it. There are lots of TV-famous “half” tarento, but if you ask what the other half is, most people don’t know. “She’s half Japanese …” and something else.

This is the “other” trap that almost all Japanese fall into simply because they’re not used to dealing with anyone who isn’t Japanese. Where Americans — used to a much more varied population ethnically — would use hyphenated-American, Japanese just leave it at: half-Japanese, half not-from-around-here.

Japanese assumptions toward someone who looks foreign lead them to believe that the person who looks Asian is more capable of speaking Japanese, even after a few exchanges should have made it apparent that the Asian-looking person doesn’t, in fact, understand Japanese at all. I had this exact experience when having dinner with a Chinese-Canadian friend several years ago.

I am asked all the time whether my son speaks Japanese. Of course he’s a native Japanese speaker. He’s growing up in a country where everyone speaks that language exclusively. Because he looks partly foreign, the expectation of most Japanese people is that he doesn’t speak Japanese. This makes no sense if you know even the first thing about languages. I’m actually worried about preserving his English when everyone he encounters outside his home only speaks Japanese. Culture and language are acquired from the people around you, not through inheritance. Unfortunately, many Japanese believe otherwise.

Cultural expectations regarding Japanese ancestry have even affected public policy. The invitation to nisei (二世 second-generation[1]) and sansei (三世, third-generation) Japanese from South American countries — mainly Brazil and Peru which have had strong historical ties to Japan — to come and work in Japan was extended under the assumption that even grandchildren of Japanese would be less disruptive to the wa[2] than bringing in “real” foreigners from Southeast Asia or China. It’s an extension of the same kind of kooky nihonjinron ideas that led to widespread credence in telling personality by blood type, except that usually horoscope reading doesn’t affect something as important as immigration policy (just the President’s schedule) and doesn’t have undertones of racial prejudice.

The belief of the government apparently was that some amount of Japanese blood would make the immigrants more Japanese — even if, in the case of sansei, the closest they had been to Japan was visiting grandparents who had been living abroad for most of their adult lives. Even nisei are culturally less Japanese than I am, since they grew up entirely in another country; at this point, I’ve lived more of my adult life in Japan than in the US.

This policy understandably ended up causing all kinds of problems since, culturally, these people were Brazilian or Peruvian, not Japanese. There were clashes over lifestyle, cultural expectations, and language. Some apartment owners refused to rent to non-Japanese (this kind of discrimination is still a gray area under Japanese law) which led to a certain amount of ghettoization since this limited the places they could live. If anything, the problems were exacerbated by the expectation that nisei “should” act more Japanese because they had Japanese blood.

The Japanese thinking about mixed-ethnicity children bothers me in much the same way it bothers Surdick. Between worries about bullying[3] when my son starts school, and the limiting mindset of the “half” label that will be attached to him his whole life if he grows up here, I’ve given a lot more thought to taking my family back to my native US than I would have if the unconscious discrimination was only directed at me. I can handle it. I’ve been dealing with being a gaijin for a long time, and I started dealing with it as an adult who grew up in a country with a relatively mature attitude towards race-relations. I’ve got a pretty good idea of how to stand up for myself without being a jerk about it, know how to pick my battles, and the maturity not to let the discrimination negatively impact my self-esteem too much.

If we stay in Japan, my son will have to face constant attention and discrimination (both positive and negative) because he looks “different” which will make it much harder for him to be bilingual and bicultural. From what I can see of his personality so far (he’s still only 3) I think that he’s strong enough to adapt, but the more cosmopolitan attitude in the US toward mixed ethnicity would make it almost a non-issue, instead of the overarching facet of his social interactions, the way it would be in Japan.


  1. There’s some ambiguity in English between what constitutes first and second generation immigrants. In Japanese, issei (一世) or “first generation” are always the ethnic Japanese who immigrate to a foreign country, nisei (二世) are the children of issei who are born in that country.  ↩

  2. 和 is one of those nearly untranslatable terms loaded with cultural significance. In a dictionary, you’ll find it translated as “harmony” or “peace”. Ostensibly meaning: being in accordance with your place in the world, it’s also strongly associated with the cultural expectations of group harmony, conformity, and consensus in Japanese society. For far more than you ever wanted to know about wa and other Japanese cultural concepts, read anything by Takie Lebra, who literally wrote the book on many of those subjects and coined terms that are still widely used in Japanese cultural anthropology.  ↩

  3. Ijime is usually translated as “bullying”, but that simple false-equivalence misses the unique flavor of bullying in Japan. Ijime is endemic to all levels in Japanese society. While it has recently become a buzzword in schools and government, I expect the results of any reforms to be about as effective as the reforms to English education, in no small part because of that old adage about fish not realizing that they swim in water. I have personally been witness to so many incidents of physical and verbal abuse perpetrated by Japanese in nearly every level of society that I’ve come in contact with, that I literally can’t remember them all. But I doubt that most Japanese would have counted more than a handful as actual abuse by their standards.  ↩