Anna, a woman of mixed Japanese and American heritage, was in a taxi en route to a party in Tokyo last year when she was asked that question, and says she had half expected it.
Anna, who requested anonymity for privacy reasons, has a Japanese mother and a White American father, and spent her childhood in Japan, before moving to the US in her teens.
“I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent telling my life story to strangers who want to fulfill their curiosity,” says Anna. “It was getting to a point where I thought, Why do I need to share my biological background with someone I’m never going to meet again?”
In some cases, that’s not a bad thing.
Many mixed heritage entertainers and sports stars are hugely popular in Japan. Well-known figures such as Vogue model Rina Fukushi and tennis star Naomi Osaka have given mixed heritage people more prominence in the public sphere in Japan, and globally.
For others, however, the apparent fascination with their heritage brings unwanted attention and can invite casual racism. Some who consider themselves Japanese say it leaves them feeling othered in their own country.
Mixed-race identity has a complex history in Japan.
Between 1639 and 1853, Japan closed its borders to foreign influence — with the exception of Chinese and Dutch traders who came to the port cities of Yokohama and Nagasaki.
“Back then, there was a lot of debate over whether to assimilate or keep apart these children when they entered elementary school,” says Lawrence Yoshitaka Shimoji, a sociologist at Ritsumeikan University in Japan.
A changing world
As Japan absorbed Western influences in the post-World War II years, perceptions changed.
European languages were seen as chic and exotic and Japan’s fascination with Western movie stars grew.
Spying an opportunity, Japanese management companies started to promote local actors, dancers and singers of mixed heritage, says Okamura, the independent scholar.
By then, the derogatory term of konketsuji had given way to “hafu,” a corruption of the word “half-caste”. In 1973, its use was formalized in the 1973 edition of a dictionary called Kanazawa Shōzaburō’s Kōjirin or “Wide Forest of Words,” where it was listed as a synonym of konketsuji.
Rather than unite the population, the buzz around “hafu” created an “us and them” mentality, says Okamura. Mixed heritage people who look more foreign than Japanese may be treated as foreigners, he added, even if they are Japanese nationals.
That’s not always welcome.
The fascination with mixed heritage Japanese people can also be traced to the country’s lack of immigration.