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  • Christina Theodorakis-Itagaki

The Use of "Half" in Japan

Let's take another trip to the fun world of Japanglish -- English words that Japan has essentially bastardized from their original meanings.

Today's word is "half," or ハーフ in Japanese (literally the transliteration of the English word "half").

If you're not familiar with how Japan uses this word, many half-Japanese people will probably tell you to consider yourself lucky. Shortened-word-loving Japan took the English word "half-Japanese" and cut it down to simply "half," using it as matter-of-factly as we would say "He/She's half Japanese, half Italian" in English, except that there's a catch with how the Japanese term "half" is used that I'll get to after I explain a little about the xenophobic nature of Japanese culture. No matter how many positive experiences half-Japanese people have in Japan with Japanese people, you'll probably hear that there's always something they find off-putting when they hear this term.

Disclaimer: Since I'm not any part Japanese myself, I had to consult some half-Japanese people, including the CEO of our company, to give the most accurate information possible from a cultural and historical perspective.

Culturally, in the last decade or so, a lot of Japanese people see "halves" as an exotic, cool thing to be. Japanese people under the age of about 35 think that half-Japanese people are more worldly because they must be bilingual in Japanese and another language, and they're also stereotyped as being more physically attractive than the average Japanese person. Being a "half" in Japan is almost like a badge of honor nowadays since half-Japanese people are frequently hired as models in Japan, so much so that Japanese women in particular seek out a foreign partner to marry and have "beautiful half kids" together. I'm not even exaggerating.

Any older half-Japanese person who's spent any time in Japan is probably puking by now after reading the current view of half-Japanese people after what they've had to endure in their lifetimes. You may hear younger half-Japanese people say that they don't mind the term "half" because they've accepted it as Japan's term for "half-Japanese" in their minds, but people who are older were more of a target in Japanese society as they were growing up until the 1980's and take a particular dislike to being referred to as "half" as if the Japanese half of their ethnicity is the only half that's being acknowledged as worthy or human.

Think about this for a minute. There were cases where, because of their mixed ethnicity, parents of Japanese kids wouldn't let a half-Japanese kid come over to play with their kid. Half-Japanese kids in Japan in the '80s would have rocks thrown at them by Japanese kids while being condescendingly called "half," as if they were half child-preying-demon. There would also be times when a half-Japanese person would be holding a bowl in their hand while eating in a restaurant (a culturally accepted style of eating in Japan) and occasionally would receive a comment from a restaurant employee about how the way they're holding the bowl isn't very Japanese. After getting a "What are you?", they'd have to explain that only one of their parents is Japanese and that they were raised outside of Japan. To that, the restaurant employee would react with contempt, "Oh. You're half."

Japan was an isolated country in terms of trade and foreign travel for over 200 years, and some would argue that this effect still lingers in Japan's xenophobia. Now, I'm not trying to put people off from travelling to Japan, as most Japanese people are very friendly, welcoming, and apologetic about these racist people, but it's the very conservative outliers around the country who view the isolationism era with rose-colored glasses (please no "America First" comments).

Some parts of Japanese culture in general place a lot of importance on purity -- for example, children are seen as pure beings before being tainted or warped by life where people begin on their paths to becoming deceitful adults -- and I've even seen this depicted in anime (Japanese animated series). In fact, Japanese people use the word "純ジャパ" -- pronounced jun-japa (literally "pure-blooded Japanese") -- to refer to Japanese people with 100% Japanese ethnicity. In a homogeneous country like Japan, this shouldn't come as a huge shock -- my parents, who are from the homogeneous country of Greece, are always happy to meet people outside of Greece who are 100% Greek like them. This doesn't mean that people who are only half Greek are seen as less Greek or not worthy, though, if they can speak the language and follow the cultural traditions. (Maybe it's for that reason that the Greek language doesn't have a word similar to jun-japa.) If you're from a multicultural country like the U.S. or U.K., this would probably be really hard for you to understand.

However, many half-Japanese people would say that this isn't the case in Japan from their experiences, as there are some people who think it's okay to categorize them as different from "regular," "pure" Japanese people by calling them "half." This cultural gap is clearly dwindling as Japan has globalized and the younger generation travels outside of Japan more and more (before COVID). Most countries have a residual racism problem, sadly, and it takes an ongoing effort to eliminate it. That's why we all need to consider what our actions and words are really expressing, even implicitly.


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