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Portrayals of duality: 'Hafu' in the media and popular culture

49 Comments
By Jane Pipkin

We are increasingly seeing more strong hafu women being celebrated for their amazing achievements as well as being able to harness the power of understanding and experiencing two different cultures. Yet, it is fair to say that still a lot of representation we see, especially in the Japanese media, is based on the unique beauty that Hafu women offer.

Most hafu women have shared the universal experience of growing up and feeling like they look like and are an outsider, therefore being uncomfortable with their mixed-race identity. Yet, the rise of social media and thus the prominence of celebrity culture has meant more hafu women have been thrust into the spotlight and become more visible. As much as this is a wonderful thing, sometimes it feels as though hafu women are only portrayed in the media because of the fact their duality is seen as “exotic” and “different.”

Hafu-on-Vivi.jpg
Vivi magazine famously uses more hafu models than Japanese models. Image: SavvyTokyo

Although it is fair to say there has long since been a hyper-fixation with hafu beauty standards, I feel like as a result of social media, this hyper-fixation has only increased and I have heard more conversations about what the perfect hafu woman should look like. In my personal experience, as much as it fills me with so much joy to see so many girls who look more similar to me on my Instagram feed, it also brought up a new set of personal insecurities about not possessing the right balance of “desired” Western and Japanese features.

In a 2018 CNN article, hafu model Rina Fukushi shared a similar sentiment stating how there is a “stereotype that all hafus speak two languages [and] the stereotype that all hafus are beautiful and are models”. Rina’s words perfectly capture how in some ways hafu women are expected to fit into a mold, which many of us struggle to live up to. There is an unspoken pressure to get this balance right and failure to do so can often lead to people questioning your “halfness”.

Hafu media representation

Becky-1.jpg
Becky Image: Japan Today

To understand the current media representation and visibility of hafu women, we need to take a quick look at the past. Kyoto-based scholar, Hyoue Okamura highlights how during the 1960s there was a “mixed-blood talent boom” in which many racially-mixed individuals in their early 20s were put into the spotlight in both the fashion and entertainment world, displaying how there has long been a fascination with hafus, ever since they became more recognized in society.

This boom hasn’t slowed down, with a new group of hafu women taking center stage in Japanese advertisements in the last few decades. One such figure is Rola, a model of half Bangladeshi and Japanese descent. According to scholar Kaori Mori Want, figures like Rola have been used in food commercials, including one for Yoshinoya’s Japanese beef bowls because “by using hafu, who presumably do not eat Japanese traditional foods, the advertisements confounded viewer’s assumptions, impacting the audience via surprise”. She has that slight familiarity which is comforting to a Japanese audience but that difference too, which makes her intriguing—a clear example of hafu women being praised but always being othered.

Hafu women are also a popular choice when it comes to being television presenters or talents. For instance, Becky, who is a mix of British and Japanese, gained popularity due to her ability to perfectly encapsulate both Japanese and Western traits through her preppy personality and ability to speak Japanese. She was a popular choice for variety shows because she bought a different and harmless perspective but one which felt familiar to a Japanese audience.

Click here to read more.

© Savvy Tokyo

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

49 Comments
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It's just a term, a word. These stupid sound bites come up all the time. Nothing wrong with the word itself.

It is a stereotype and sorta supports how your heritage defines who you are rather than individuality etc. Which I find surprising how no one has a issue with it in this sense.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

It appears that some people misunderstood my comment (look at all those downvotes)…;

this form of discrimination is so normalized in Japanese society that people actually defend the usage of that word (and I’ll admit that, at the end of the day, it’s not a big deal but)…;

hafu’ is Japanese society reminding you that you’re not Japanese enough / you’re ‘different’ (this ignorance still persists in Japanese society today, even if you choose to bury your head in the sand)…,

sure, people call you that with a smile on their faces and it’s just a word but there’s a but…; “ you’re attractive, interesting, cool and you can be accepted/successful in this country but hey… you’rehafu’ “…;

of course you’re one hundred percent Japanese and as pure as anyone else but… that ‘reminder’ can be pretty annoying.

But yeah, who cares, right(?)

3 ( +5 / -2 )

These kind of articles are becoming tedious.

”I just want to be treated like everyone else”

”I want to be treated like an individual”.

Everyone is different in various ways. This makes life more interesting. If for wotever reason you are “othered”, embrace lean into it and deal with it.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Anyone been to the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, etc? All the most popular local models and celebrities are half “white”. Nothing particularly unusual about the obsession with such individuals in Japan.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I’m of mixed race heritage myself, I could care less what people call me or think because that is what I am. I am mixed, proud of both ethnicities, cultures, acknowledge both of them, it’s obvious I’m human, but the term “hafu” or “mixed race” I wear that with deep pride, if people are offended by these terms that’s on them, and that’s ok, but in the end and to me at least, it’s just a meaningless word, nothing more.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

I don't have any problems with the word. I grew up with people who would describe themselves as half this or quarter that. People who take offense want to be victims in my book. I can't recall having heard a Japanese person say use the word with vehemence.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Katakana words mean what Japanese people think they mean. スマート is a Japanese word meaning slim/slender. It does not mean what a similar sounding word in any other language, such as English, means.

Likewise, ハーフ for people means "mixed race". It does not mean that the person is a fraction that is less than a whole. That interpretation pays too much attention to irrelevant other languages.

The article on Savvy is disappointing and uses lots of words, including long ones, to give a very basic message of "there are lots of mixed race women on tv and in adverts. Their facial features are currently trendy". I couldn't find much more depth than that.

That is incredibly weak rationalising. It absolutely implies 'half-caste'.

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

This, and articles like this, is exactly why I chose to raise my bi-racial son outside of Japan. No one calls' him 'half' anything.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

Yrral

Wallace,Welsh and English are race,but culture identity,they are both Anglo Saxons

The English are Anglo-Saxons but not the Welsh, Irish, and Scottish. But they are all the same race.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

I mean, not telling people randomly but if it’s brought up or you’re talking about backgrounds how would Europeans usually say for example if their dad is Danish and their mom’s German?

I can't speak for all Europeans. Europe is a continent of 40-odd countries with different cultures.

I can't say I'm familiar with even half of them. I certainly haven't read half of the books written on even one of the countries.

Can't help you out with that one.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Used to hear half about my dear son whilst living in the sticks. Now he lives with me in central Osaka, not once you see. Possibly because there are so many foreigners about and it’s quite normal.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

Futaro Gamagori

The term hafu in Japan means someone with a Japanese parent and a non-Japanese parent.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Wallace,Welsh and English are race,but culture identity,they are both Anglo Saxons

-7 ( +0 / -7 )

@Jimizo

I mean, not telling people randomly but if it’s brought up or you’re talking about backgrounds how would Europeans usually say for example if their dad is Danish and their mom’s German?

I can imagine this is not an uncommon case

2 ( +2 / -0 )

@wallace

So it’s mainly a race thing then?

It’s probably why you almost don’t hear anyone refer to people with one Japanese parent and one, let’s say, Chinese or Korean parent as “half” as they are all asians

This is interesting for me a i never thought saying “half” would have a different meaning other than simply your parents are from two different backgrounds

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I'm a gaijin who has lived in Japan 20 years. Of course my kiddo is hafu - it doesn't bother me at all that expression - it's an expression. What did bother me was when he was on a rather advanced soccer team there was a sort of discrimination from other kiddos on the team. He was a striker - fast, pretty damned skillful - you'd have preferred he was treated as a player for his skills.

When I was a kid...owing to my father's job...we moved around alot...we were always foreigners...it never bothered me...when lived in the States, my younger sister mentioned how all her friends were different - black, white, Jewish, non-Jewish...All the other kids were in cliques based mostly on social status.

Kids are like that.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I see, so if I was in England for example and I tell someone that I am half Welsh and half English

That would be strange?

It wouldn’t be usual. It’d probably be greeted with a ‘why are you telling me that’? I suppose it could come up in a footy or rugby match between the countries when talking about allegiances. We had a bit of banter with a mate who’s half Manc.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Futaro Gamagori

wallace

   The term hafu/half is not used outside of Japan.

> I see, so if I was in England for example and I tell someone that I am half Welsh and half English

That would be strange?

No, but there is no hafu world and Welsh and English are the same race.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

Wallace,you are not even half an American,stop pretending you are

Frustrated. I think you are just lashing out here.

It’s not acceptable in adult conversations you see.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

It a woman,heard some Japanese women talking about her in Japanese,she responded in Japanese,the Japanese were utterly shocked,so you Japanese talking about Gaijin,they may know what you saying

-9 ( +1 / -10 )

People should worry about their own, children and not to try make it hard on innocent children

-8 ( +1 / -9 )

wallaceToday  08:38 pm JST

The term hafu/half is not used outside of Japan.

I see, so if I was in England for example and I tell someone that I am half Welsh and half English

That would be strange?

6 ( +7 / -1 )

The term hafu/half is not used outside of Japan.

1 ( +5 / -4 )

Is it better to say someone is "part x and part y" as supposed to describing someone as half?

I think the using term half is not a big deal outside Japan

0 ( +2 / -2 )

There is only the human race.

2 ( +6 / -4 )

Hafu is an ugly word. It's a form of discrimination.

Lots of people use the word without being discriminatory.

5 ( +7 / -2 )

In my own country the UK I object to term mixed-race to describe my daughters.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

At least it is only half.

In America, they are hung up on putting a continent, country, religion, color, or religion in front of everyone in the news.

If someone asks me what I am, I say American and add nothing to the front of it.

My kids are so-called half, but Japanese at heart except when it comes to my cooking!

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

All hail to the Occidental absolute righteousness and unequivocal wisdom!!!

Occidental (white man) moral is the RIGHT moral!!!

Honestly and all sarcasm aside, the only people that I see make a fuss about ハーフ is the occidental master race mentality people... myself as a ハーフ (Ecuadorian and Japanses), I really don't have any issues to that word.

Although I must say, is pretty sad since I am ハーフ but not pretty... please know that for each attractive ハーフ

there are like 10 who are not (like me....)

4 ( +9 / -5 )

I always felt sad for Becky that had to conform to impossible standards of conduct just because of what she looked like and what was expected from her as a character and not a real person... up to her inevitable fall in the middle of a scandal.

For reasons I can't possibly imagine she went back to show business, at least now with a relatively milder, more realistic personality. Not as successful economically as before, but probably with much better mental health.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

Politik Kills

I hate this word ‘half’. It indicates that only the half that is Japanese counts, and the other ‘half’ isn’t important.

I regularly slip in “mix” whenever locals comment on my ‘half’ daughter.

Totally agree with you. I always say, "half what?" My daughters and I are from mixed cultures. Every culture counts. I say that to everyone; even my Japanese in-laws. Never back down from that.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Still fixating over the 'English' meaning of Japanese katakana words? Whether it's ハーフ、スマート、トイレ、マンション, ファイト!or whatever, the word means what it means in Japanese culture, not what so-called native-speaker purists think it means in their own language.

There is nothing wrong with the word ハーフ. It does not mean 'half-human', 'less than pure' or any of the other silly meanings some people think it must have from its resemblance to 'half'.

The very idea of racial 'purity' is silly; the more we humans mix our genes, the better-looking, healthier and more vigorous we become as a species. So-called 'purity' - inbreeding - taken to extremes leads to physical deformity, mental weakness, reduced fertility, higher infant mortality and shorter lifespans.

Inbreeding across the royal families of Europe (to keep the royal blood 'pure') led to widespread haemophilia, facial abnormalities (the 'Hapsburg jaw') and the eventual extinction of the 'pure' lines due to infertility and short lives of those children that did manage to be born.

ハーフ is good. So is クワーター, and best of all is genes so mixed up the fractions become meaningless.

*
8 ( +19 / -11 )

‘Hafu’…

An ugly word, indeed…; it gives us the idea that something’s missing and/or (like Politik Kills said) that only the Japanese ‘half’ is important…; the author should’ve addressed this (the history/psychology/meaning behind this word)…; my guess is that she doesn’t wanna make anyone ‘uncomfortable’ … and that’s ok but(!) the article barely scratches the surface.

-7 ( +3 / -10 )

Japan is a country with many over-fixations. Quite a pain day in day out.

-1 ( +6 / -7 )

As a female EU woman if you said that all the girls/women on that cover of ViVi were Japanese I would not argue. But they are all beautiful as well, and as some one who is not that pretty, I am quite jealous...lol!!

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Is ViVi today promoting selective Hafu racism, there is not one dark complexion women on the cover of the magazine. Are they blind or what. I get it subliminally racist to exclude certain women if the woman didn’t have Caucasian or asian characteristics they just wasn’t part of the makeup,

0 ( +3 / -3 )

When it comes to appearance people don't look like half of one and half of another. A Japanese-American can look very Japanese or even very American. Depends on how the DNA falls.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

I think aside from using or not hafu, it would be great not to use race / biracial / racially mixed / etc.

People can have mixed heritage, different cultural backgrounds and physical appearances, but not different races.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Katakana words mean what Japanese people think they mean. スマート is a Japanese word meaning slim/slender. It does not mean what a similar sounding word in any other language, such as English, means.

Likewise, ハーフ for people means "mixed race". It does not mean that the person is a fraction that is less than a whole. That interpretation pays too much attention to irrelevant other languages.

The article on Savvy is disappointing and uses lots of words, including long ones, to give a very basic message of "there are lots of mixed race women on tv and in adverts. Their facial features are currently trendy". I couldn't find much more depth than that.

12 ( +17 / -5 )

I've noticed that it's usually only a thing if the other "half" is caucasian (and maybe black?)

I don't often hear people talk about it if the other "half" is Chinese, Korean, South East Asian

Is it because the latter doesn't appear to have a significant difference from a full blooded Japanese?

7 ( +11 / -4 )

All things said, halfs have it pretty good these days. No need to make a big deal of it anymore.

-11 ( +4 / -15 )

I think it is better to just say JAPANESE, Seems kind American which has gotta cut people up into a group, then another sub-group them again into, African Japanese, or blah blah Japanese. So it becomes identity politics down the road. More so if some groups are discriminated against Especially since the USA offers citizenship based on birth in the USA. whereas Japan bestows citizenship based on family. And I wonder, as society categorizes people, this subconsciously provides a sense of "OTHER" to the media, political groups, or the event he racists. And if this is ViVi policy, I can't help but think there are some lovely people out there, who may use the HAFU label to vent a touch of anger. Did anyone notice that there was NOT ONE HAFU BLACK FACE on the cover? Are some HAFUS/colours more beautiful than others? Could be ViVi today, but who knows what company in the future will use the HAFU/COLOR as a positive and for certain groups/people, may even be discriminated against. For my kids, I just say they are Japanese. Thats it! Anything else is between my kids, me and our government. Unless they enlist in the forces or run for office.

0 ( +5 / -5 )

Absolutely agree with you all

-1 ( +9 / -10 )

Hafu means you can only be half of one and half of another. Children born in international relationships can be full citizens of both nationalities and cultures.

9 ( +19 / -10 )

Back in the 1980s (?) someone suggested using "daburu", double, rather than half. It is indeed what people are who have a wide gene pool, wide variety of experiences, and often open minds. I do wish "daburu" had caught on.

10 ( +14 / -4 )

There are no half-people. They simply don't exist. There are children with dual nationality until they reach the age of 20 before deciding on citizenship. I guess many take Japanese citizenship while holding on to their other one.

Hafu is an ugly word. It's a form of discrimination.

2 ( +24 / -22 )

I hate this word ‘half’. It indicates that only the half that is Japanese counts, and the other ‘half’ isn’t important.

I regularly slip in “mix” whenever locals comment on my ‘half’ daughter.

-2 ( +21 / -23 )

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