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Taking off from where I left off in ‘a True Love Story’

My parents went on to have 3 daughters. I am the youngest of the 3. We all have different experiences and stories on being half Japanese half German, growing up in Japan, but here is my story.

Kids can be extremely cruel… But also extremely strong. I experienced a lot of prejudice growing up in Tokyo. Japan is a society where individuality is frowned upon, and from a young age you learn to hide your unique features to avoid standing out. For children of mixed marriages, not standing out was extremely difficult if not impossible… Firstly my legs were about double the length of kids my age, my hair was a lot lighter, my feet bigger, eyes lighter…. There’s a famous Japanese saying

‘The nail that sticks out gets hammered down’

Well, for us ‘hafu’ children, no matter how much you hammered down, we were still going to stick out.

‘Hafu’ is a word used in Japan to refer to someone who is biracial, in other words, half Japanese. It is the most commonly used term when describing someone who is half Japanese. The word comes from the English word ‘half’, indicating that the person is half foreign half Japanese.

I have memories of growing up as a school girl in Japan, going on the public trains and often overhearing mothers pointing at me and telling their children that we are ‘gaijin’, as if they were pointing out a specific animal in a zoo. The term ‘gaijin’ means ‘foreigner’ and the Japanese characters used to write this word is ‘outside person’. I remember at swimming school the coach called me aside and told me that I must take my earrings off, and how I looked different enough, I shouldn’t try to look even more different by wearing earrings. To me ‘gaijin’ always felt like a very derogatory word. After all, my mother was Japanese, I was born in Japan, and knew of Japan as my home. How could they say I was an ‘outside person’? But perhaps they just didn’t know any better, they were not used to seeing people like us. This was all in the 1970’s and we have to understand that back then, multinational kids were extremely rare.

On a personal side I see lots of positive changes whenever I go back to Japan. People are more open. People are more intrigued by you and your background when they meet you. You still face a lot of prejudice, in the fact that they will not fully ‘accept’ you. For example if I walk into a shop and speak perfect Japanese, they will still look at me like I’ve just spoken a foreign language and look at me with a blank face. Now the reactions just amuse me. No one is trying to be spiteful, it is just the way you are brought up and what you are accustomed to.

I think a lot of Third Culture Kids (TCK) were affected by this prejudice of being seen as an ‘outsider’ as well. In Japan they are referred to as ‘kikokushijo’ and are children of Japanese expatriates who live and are educated abroad, and then move back to Japan. When returning to Japan, since they have usually picked up behaviour, languages and values that are different from what you are expected in Japan, they face a hard time adjusting back into the Japanese way. Of course these children have a big advantage over the Japanese kids in that they are usually bilingual and bicultural and very adaptable to different cultures.

You would think that ‘hafu’s’ and TCK’s are in a great position to find employment in Japan, having been exposed to many different cultures, languages, etc. But the Japanese business world is still not ready for this type of diversity. Many highly qualified people who speak fluent English and Japanese (and other languages) applying for jobs in Japan will be turned away because the domestic Japanese business world think that they are too Westernised, have a mind of their own and cannot be ‘moulded into the Japanese way of thinking. Although things are changing, change is slow. Especially in the business world. Japan is in need of some serious globalisation, so lets hope people continue to accept us ‘hafu’s’ and TCK’s.

I don’t look back on everything and think negatively on anyone, or try to make this into a sad story. In fact I think I was very fortunately to be able to experience 2 totally different cultures growing up. It’s made me the open-minded and outgoing person that I am today. I am proud of both my mother’s and father’s background and I will carry this forward with me, to my children, who are half Italian, a quarter Japanese and a quarter German. I will teach them as much as possible about all backgrounds and nationalities so they are proud to be of mixed race. The more we teach our kids to be open minded, the more they will be accepting of others as well, and isn’t that what we really want?