Today I was scrolling through the ‘Most Popular’ page on YouTube when I came across a video about a young woman winning the title of Miss Japan. Usually, I overlook videos about any Trump endorsed competition because pageant life is not something that I am particularly interested in. This video, struck close to home. The title of the post was: “People don’t believe I am Japanese” says Miss Japan by BBC News.
Essentially the video is about Ariana Miyamoto, who was born and raised in Japan, and recently won the Miss Japan crown. She is a ハーフ (haafu) and due to this label, she is experiencing incredible discrimination. Why? Well, due to the opinion that she is not truly Japanese. A haafu is a biracial child of one Japanese parent and their foreign partner. The word is derived from the English word half and is intended to indicate that the child is not a part of true Japanese society.
I suppose this is why I feel so drawn to this topic: because I am a fourth generation or 四世 (yonsei) haafu that lived in Tokyo during high school.
My family is a colourful composition of people from all over the world that came together in Canada. I am incredibly blessed to have grown up surrounded by such an array of stories, culture and religion. Due to this diversity in my personal life, I grew up without much thought as to whether or not I belonged to a particular race or whether I looked different. I was just Sam, who had her five – which she later researched and found seven – ‘background’s memorized and was trying not to think too much about the acne on her forehead.
My first introduction to racism in Japan was actually not a personal experience, but rather an incident that occurred within my family after World War II. Finally free from the internment camps, most Canadian issei (first generation) and nisei (second generation) were given the option of either relocating to the Eastern Canadian Provinces or returning to Japan. Opting for the second option, my grandfather’s family traveled back to the native homeland. Upon their arrival however his family was ostracized from Japanese society, and eventually returned to Canada. I was often confused by this story because why would my grandfather, who had been born in Tokyo, be considered an outsider? To the young Sam, there wasn’t any reason: his story made no sense.
When I turned 16 I finally understood.
I will start by saying: my experience in Japan was life changing. Any and all unfortunate situations could never detract from all the amazing and positive ones. I met so many open minded and beautiful people. I was so fortunate to be able to attend such a fantastic school. However my time there also taught me a lot about what it is like being a haafu.
Every culture is distinct to the region it is from; therefore one of the main reasons students participate in an exchange is to gain an understanding of another society. I was no different. Armed with a few snippets of knowledge from my grandmother and the ability to count to ten, I flew out of Vancouver International Airport shaking. This fear of leaving home alone was eventually quelled by the friendly university students seated around me. Even on the plane, my status as a haafu (although I had no idea what that meant at the time) made me unique. This was a unique I was accustomed too, the “oh, you’re part Japanese” exclamation! My heritage was a constant ice breaker!
In Toronto, it is not very common to run into other Japanese folk (or at least not in 2009). You end up being treated like a limited edition Mewtwo that was released right after the first movie – mint condition and holographic – in a sea of Pikachu cards. Yes, I just made a Pokemon reference…
I am also going to stop myself before I go on a spiel about Canada and racism there!
My frustration began while I was trying to immerse myself further into Japanese culture. In most cases I was navigating the Sammarine without much hiccup – minus walking while eating, terrible habit to this day. There was only a few aspects of my life in Japan where I felt like I was constantly being met with walls. Figurative walls, although they were described to me as though they were actually there.
“You cannot be Japanese” I was told by a man one day.
“How am I not?” I replied. “My grandmother is”.
“She is not really Japanese,” the answer stunned me. My grandmother who listened to Japanese cassette taps, mourned Hiroshima, taught me how to make maki, experienced all the hardship of being in North America during WWII because she was Japanese – was not Japanese? “Because you were (both) not raised here. It is like breaking apart a wall constructed with many layers. Even if you start to chip away at it, you can never fully break through”.
My heart broke.
“Japanese people do not do this” I would hear later. “Japanese people would not do that”. Simple remarks that cut deep, felt uncomfortable, and played as a constant reminder that I was an outsider. That I was and am a haafu. An individual who is assumed to act Japanese, but can never truly be a part of Japan.
I am fortunate to have only experienced a fraction of what other haafu’s have gone through in Japan, but the frustration of beating against a door unwilling to open is exhausting. What Ariana is doing is incredibly courageous and I hope that children born from interracial relations will not be exposed to the same loss of identity that so many haafu’s have suffered.
Good luck Ariana at the Miss Universe stage! ファイト!
I sincerely wish the next time I see #AntiJapan, it is in response to the select and closed minded individuals that came up with the hashtag to begin with.
NOTE: Although there is a lot of negative in this post, not all Japanese people hold these ideals! Check out this awesome video about acceptance and encouragement!