There’s Not Just One Way to Be Japanese

I grew up in Japan, and as a kid, more than anything, I longed to be like everyone around me. Yet as the child of a Japanese mother and a British father, I was considered hafu,a term used to describe people who are ethnically half Japanese.

Ema Ryan Yamazaki (山崎 エマ) with her son Mailo
British and Japanese

I spent much of my young life proving how Japanese I was. I would grow angry when people praised my impeccable Japanese. Too often I felt I didn’t belong in my own society. It was all too much. Always standing out felt so suffocating that at 19 years old, I moved to New York.

Japan was closed off from the Western world until the late 1800s. For much of the country’s history, mixed-race children were uncommon, particularly outside Tokyo. In the post-World War II era, derogatory words like “ainoko” and “konketsuji” were used to describe children born of a Japanese and foreign parent. It wasn’t until the 1980s that interracial marriages became more common.

But as Japan becomes more diverse, necessary changes in its society may come not through a reckoning with how biracial people are viewed but through an evolution of what it means to be Japanese. As much as we wish for a change in how society views us — and yes, Japan is evolving, slowly but surely — we should focus instead on how to navigate being seen as not quite Japanese, so that we don’t allow people’s views to override our identities.

Sarina Yasumoto, who is Australian and Japanese, is grateful that she gets to experience the best of both worlds. As I grew older, I started feeling the same way.

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