No One Believes That I’m Japanese

Mixed race people don’t often get the acceptance that everyone else takes for granted

Photo: Rika Hayashi/Getty Images

I knew when I started my degree in Japanese and International Relations that I would spend a year in Japan. Although I didn’t grow up speaking my father’s native tongue, I still imagined that as soon as I landed, fluent Japanese would flow from my mouth. Sadly, that’s quite far from the truth. For me, as someone caught between being Japanese and British, returning to my father’s homeland has been a complex and challenging experience.

While the friends I’ve made have blissfully enjoyed Tokyo’s many thrills and sights, my identity issues have bubbled up to the surface. This is not to say that I haven’t enjoyed my time here. I’ve spent endless nights singing my heart out in karaoke bars, dancing underneath the pulsating lights of Tokyo nightclubs, and tucking into food that sizzles off my tongue. However, I don’t have the privileged ignorance of viewing Japan as a complete outsider. Even though my father is Japanese, I am not proficient in the language or the cultural customs. I am someone halfway (or ha-fu [ハーフ], as they say in Japan).

Even among the other half-Japanese people I’ve met here, I feel like an outsider. Every time I hear them launch into fluent Japanese, I feel ashamed. Whenever I have to speak Japanese in front of them, I feel the strings in my stomach tighten. It terrifies me that they might think I’m not truly one of them, because my father didn’t gift me the language that runs through our bloodline. If I cannot even identify as half-Japanese, then what am I, truly?

Many mixed race people are familiar with this question. We ask it of ourselves and field it from others. Those who ignorantly ask, “What even are you?” to racially ambiguous people should know that this is a question that has plagued us for our entire lives. We do not need you to remind us of the pains of being othered. Our experiences have already done that job for you.

In the U.K., I don’t feel like I am “enough” of a person of color to participate in the current discourse. In Japan, the othering of mixed identities is more structural. Most important is the issue of nationality. The supposed homogeneity of Japan is reflected in its stringent laws on dual nationality — those with dual citizenship are required to give up one of their nationalities by age 22. Pro tennis player Naomi Osaka recently received worldwide attention as the sporting world awaited her choice.

In reality, the idea of a homogenous Japan is a myth. Japan is home to a large Korean community, and the number of foreign residents is at an all-time high, with an estimated 2.73 million living in Japan as of the end of last year.

But the myth of homogeneity persists and only serves to erase the lived experiences of mixed race people. Moreover, it is not uncommon that when I speak Japanese, I am often met with weak, broken English. I am aware that people are trying to be helpful. But as someone who has a basic grasp of the language, it is a grim reminder that no matter how hard I try, I will never be fully accepted. For the expats in Japan who’ve experienced this, it’s a minor annoyance. However, it causes me to question my identity. Am I not acting Japanese enough for them? Will I ever be accepted as the ethnicity that I am so often stereotyped as in the U.K.? Who and what am I?

The purpose of my year in Japan is not just to become fluent but also to reconcile my identity.

My classes, which are all language modules, only amplify these uncertainties. Whenever my name is called in class, I always feel the pause. The question on everyone’s mind: Why is there a Japanese person in a Japanese language class?

Once my staring classmates identify my halfness, I feel a certain expectation weigh down on me. Half-Japanese people are often perceived as proficient in both languages, which is an expectation that I cannot meet. I stumble over simple phrases when I have to read aloud in class. Words fall out of my mouth and scatter onto the ground. They fail to find their properly pronounced homes when they come from my lips.

When my Korean and Chinese classmates speak, though, their Japanese flows gently from their mouths, words rising sharply into the air, even though they’ve only been here maybe six months longer than I have. I’m ashamed that I speak more poorly than they do.

Worse still are my classes with other Japanese or half-Japanese students who have lived here for a while. The stress takes its toll; I even bailed on a class presentation because I was afraid of my classmates hearing my Japanese.

I crumble under the expectation that my name holds, and sometimes I would rather obscure my identity by asking the professor to use my Anglicized name, or to omit my last name altogether. I cannot shake the feeling that this is somehow antithetical to who I am, yet I continue to do so subconsciously. How long can I really continue doing this?

Lately, I’ve been writing out my full name. My tests, homework, and vocabulary exercises are now marked with a name that most would mistake for any other Japanese person. And that is exactly my intention. The purpose of my year in Japan is not just to become fluent but also to reconcile my identity. I’m a different kind of Japanese, but I’m still Japanese.

The world still can’t fathom identities that cross borders, but mixed race people break down those misconceptions every day. We must have the strength to define ourselves, especially in the face of how we are perceived. For me, learning to be different has also meant learning to feel at home with my identity. And although nobody believes that I’m Japanese, I do. And that’s all the validation I need.

British-Japanese writer from London. Words in OneZero, Human Parts. Join me on my mailing list and get my free hapa resource list: tommatsuda.com

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