Haafu, pt. 2 – bicultural or just biracial?

My last post on the topic of “haafu” had all the hallmarks of bad blogging – too many points in too little space, made simultaneously with no trust in the reader to understand them and too many assumptions that the reader already understands the premises I’m arguing from.  I will try to put my thoughts in a bit more order here.

I almost always feel offended when I see people talking about biraciality in Japan – and not because a group that I am part of is being slighted.  In fact I’m more likely to be offended when biracial status is elevated somehow or assumed to confer some magic sauce of internationalism that eludes “normals”, and most offended of all when this is done by people with the benefit of a liberal education who should know better.  The way that this is most often accomplished is by conflating biculturalism with biracialism when it comes to haafu in Japan, and in doing so implying that race and culture flow from one another.

I believe most people raised or educated in pluralist societies know that race does not determine culture or language, and if asked will reaffirm the distinction between physiology and upbringing.  Sometimes people just forget, let still-latent assumptions overtake their thinking, or adapt to the blood-and-soil nationalism that they are exposed to in Japan.  For a disappointing number of people, the hard-won fruit of 20th century intellectual thought that nations are not actually composed of distinct quasi-biological groups with a “national essence” which determines their values, culture and language (which you could call the 18th-19th century model of nationhood) is something they are even proud of abandoning in order to better fit in here.

There is a whiff of regressive liberalism to this.  What people used to consider natural and true about the “peoples” of the world was in fact a political ideology used deliberately to create nations out of disparate groups, and is no more “true” than the border between Arizona and Colorado.  Many educated people know this, but when they come to a country where most people still believe the myth, they consider it rude to continue to treat it with the required circumspection.  Somehow, insisting on a modern understanding of nationhood in this purportedly ancient, traditional country is to them like insisting on chairs and ketchup at a kaiseki restaurant.  It becomes a token of respect for Japan to accept its race-based national narrative.

People seem particularly apt to confuse culture and race where biracial children are concerned.  In fact a common euphemism for “biracial” for kids is now “bicultural”, as if one were a guarantee of the other.  Sometimes things do work out this way, if the family raises their kids with regular contact with both cultures.  Most times, this replacement represents just the common assumption that kids inherit the cultures as well as the genes of their parents, which is widely held even in pluralistic societies but false.  Some children whose parents aren’t even of different nationalities (that is, citizenship and culture) get labeled this way as well, and then the error is even more egregious.  Maintaining second language abilities is the product of a lot of effort on the part of the family; it is not the automatic result of having parents who look different.  It may feel more polite to call someone “bicultural” instead of “biracial” or haafu, but it assumes a connection between race and culture that is ultimately unhealthy for the kid.

Even among families with parents of different nationalities, not all parents have the resources or desire to support raising someone bilingually and biculturally.  These kids have a right to feel normal as well, not to have some identity as a type of other foisted on them.  Is it healthy for that kid that all of society expects them because their last name is in katakana they must justify that with bilingualism?  It’s widely known that Becky was hired to do English voiceover on a Pokemon special on the assumption that she spoke English, which she doesn’t.  In her case it worked out, but not every biracial child can be a model (although sometimes it seems like it).  What if she had wanted to be a calligrapher or 国文 (Japanese lit) teacher?  The assumption that race = culture can hurt people in material ways, and the supposed benefits of haafu-ness come at a cost of not being “pure” Japanese, in a country where people still say that kind of thing.

The conflation of race and culture gets even more problematic when BANAs (Brits, Australians, North Americans) simplify their home cultures to create symmetry with the way Japanese people see theirs (monocultural, monolingual and monoethnic).  Polite/educated society in the BANA countries tends to frown on equating race with being a “real” citizen of that country, yet when tasked with describing the heritage of their biracial children, people blow a fuse in their brains and describe them as “half Japanese, half Canadian”, as if “Canadian” were composed entirely of white English speakers.

Some may counter that “half Canadian” is meant to be a description of cultural and national background, not race.  First, if you’re saying it in Japan, it’s going to be taken as a description of all 3, because people tend to project their conception of their own nation onto others, and in Japan those are all equal parts of being Japanese.  Second, a child born and raised in Japan is not “half Canadian” by cultural and national background.  Maybe one of his/her parents is Canadian, maybe even “100% Canadian” like the maple syrup they sell at the import market, but the child is almost certainly Japanese.  You can make up an appropriate fraction that describes his/her real cultural breakdown, but it’s not 50/50.

I’m not buying into the homogeneity myth either by describing how people see their own country.  Japan has never been homogeneous, and the modern idea that it is has shallow roots – another part of a modern liberal education people are all too willing to chuck when the topic of race comes up in Japan.  The fact remains though that when you are asked if you or your child is haafu you’re being asked about his/her race, culture, and language as if they were all packaged together.

The laziness of the assumption that all biracials are also bilinguals and biculturals becomes more apparent when speaking of immigrants and their children.  I know several families with no obvious Japanese heritage but who live and are raising kids in Japan, and their kids live normal Japanese lives.  That is, they play with friends, watch TV, and look forward to the seasonal Ministop ice cream flavor all in Japanese.  They speak to their parents in Japanese and have no apparent desire to live as a symbolic bridge between Japan and the rest of the world.

On the other hand, many “pure” Japanese, Canadians, and others have gone to great lengths to acquire fluency in another language and/or culture.  These people, an excellent book by one of whom I’m reading now, are bicultural in meaningful ways, and ways that children simply born with one non-Japanese parent are not.  If the word “bicultural” is to have value, then save it for people who can really function in 2 cultures, not just because you want to comment on someone’s race without appearing to.

(Personal story moment:  My dad is Japanese-American.  He is not bicultural, although he does love both katsudon and chimichangas.  So I have special cause to take offense when people describe their Asian/Caucasian children as “half American” – which half are you talking about? )

It may feel inappropriate to focus on race openly and call kids “biracials”, but if you call them “biculturals” when you really have no clue as to their actual comfort level with this or another culture, you’re really just calling them biracials with a different word.  In fact, you’re doing something worse than openly commenting on their race; you’re taking a pre-WW2 view of race as a visible stand-in for much more important information about a person.

Whew, that was long-winded.  In the end though I really want to just protect the right of biracials to accept whatever cultural identity they want, and the same right for monoracials (accepting for the sake of argument the fiction that monoracials exist).  If you agree, here are some things I hope you’ll catch yourself before saying in the future:

“As parents of a haafu, we want our child to know both his cultures.”

“That kid is mixed, you know, bicultural.”

“As a haafu, I can see both sides of the Hiroshima A-bomb debate.”

“I’m half American and half Japanese.”

“He’s haafu, but he only speaks Japanese.  What a waste.”
“Haafu kids have an unfair advantage when it comes to learning English, so their experiences don’t represent most people’s in Japan.”

Last, I should mention that the idea that haafu is offensive because it comes from the English “half” is logically nonsensical.  Words do not “really mean” their etymologies – “Haafu” is not really “half” any more than “Thursday” is really a reference to Thor.

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