Being Black in Japan: Biracial Japanese talk about discrimination and identity

TOKYO — From an early age, Japanese children learn the importance of conforming and fitting in.

“The nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” is a well-known proverb.

But also tied up in the idea is Japan’s prevailing self-image as a mono-ethnic nation. It has hung over the heads of many biracial children growing up in Japan, commonly known as “hafu,” meaning “half.”

Gradually, though, biracial Japanese sports figures and celebrities — including Rui Hachimura of the Washington Wizards, tennis star Naomi Osaka, Olympians, rugby players and models — are beginning to show that a different, more diverse, representation of Japan is possible.

Osaka’s support for Black Lives Matter ruffled some feathers in Japan, but it is also helping to open conversations about race and identity in this island nation.

Professional baseball player Louis Okoye posted an essay online in June about the bullying he had faced as a child of a Nigerian father and Japanese mother. The same month, thousands of people marched in support of Black Lives Matter in Japan.

Amid this growing debate on racism in Japan, we spoke with four biracial Japanese people about their experiences. Their comments have been lightly edited.

Raimu Kaminashi, 23, IT professional and model

Born in Nigeria to a Japanese mother and Nigerian father, she moved to Japan as an infant and grew up in the city of Gifu. By junior high school, Kaminashi competed at a regional level as a sprinter.

“In my nursery school, my father was an English teacher and kids loved him, so I felt proud of my roots in those days. But my parents divorced when I went to elementary school and there weren’t any other biracial kids at that school, so the other children looked at me very curiously. ‘Why is the color of your skin black?’ ‘Why is it different from your mother’s?’ As I learned about Africa in school, issues like slavery and poverty, slowly I began to feel negative about my roots.

“As they got older, children around me would make fun of me more often. To protect myself from getting hurt, I would take it as a joke.

“I grew up with my mother and a grandmother nearby, so Japanese culture took deep roots in me. Even though I grew up just like any other Japanese child, people would call me ‘gaijin’ ['foreigner']. However well I spoke Japanese, I was told, ‘You speak good Japanese’. Going through those experiences, I had an internal struggle. Was it how I looked that made it hard for me to be recognized as Japanese?

“My [track] teammates weren’t happy to see me win. They said, ‘It’s because you are foreigner. It’s not fair to have to compete with you.’ They didn’t respond when I said ‘hi,’ they hid my spikes or hid my number bib, or booed when my name was announced.

“At times, I even felt like I didn’t want to win. But my mother told me to greet them with a smile. Every morning, I would look in the mirror before going to school and practice my smile. I felt scared, knowing I would be ignored, but as I continued, I became tougher.

“What my mother told me has always stayed with me. She said, ‘Be the nail that sticks out so high, they can’t hammer it down.’ She told me to get to a level where other people wouldn’t be able to hold me back.

“By the time I got to run at the national level, people stopped trying to hold me back and started to root for me.

“I‘ve been volunteering in Gifu, where there are still a few children with roots in Africa, to help build a community for them. Many of them are unable to feel positive about themselves, be it the texture of their hair or the color of their skin. I think I have been able to show them that if you work hard with a firm belief in yourself, you will be recognized for who you are.”

Ayaka Brandy, 24, artist

Born in Congo to a Japanese mother and Congolese father, she moved to Japan as an infant. Now, she works in graphic design and illustration.

“I started to struggle with my identity at the age of 11 when I moved to a new school where there weren’t any children in my class with roots overseas. I tried to get along with my classmates, but I felt I didn’t belong.

“Whoever says whatever, my identity now is as a Japanese person who has African roots and I am an embodiment of those cultures. I believe my very existence will become a catalyst for others to broaden their world.

“I’ve seen comments like, ‘You should assimilate to Japanese culture,’ ‘It’s because your hair is in braids that you face difficulties,’ ‘You should live more like Japanese people.’

“But being Japanese depends on your inner self, and elements like modesty and caring for others.”

“Rather than discrimination, I mostly experience indifference. I ask people what they think about Black Lives Matter, they say, ‘It has nothing to do with me, I don’t discriminate against Black people.’ Even people who work in African fashion, most of them are not interested in Black Lives Matter and don’t mention it on their websites.

“Naomi Osaka had a significant impact on Japan. Seeing her, I thought I wanted to become like her.

“The definition of Japanese hasn’t changed in the older generation. But it is changing among people in my generation. Now, we see biracial Japanese who are active globally, including Miss Universe finalists. Japanese society is changing, but in order to make it change faster we need to keep working at it.”

Jun Soejima, 36, actor and television personality

Born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother and an African American father, he was raised by his mother in Japan and now appears regularly on a morning show on public broadcaster NHK.

“As a boy, I first became aware of discrimination after being transferred to another school in third grade. I experienced isolation, both verbal and at times physical violence, was made fun of for my hair and the color of my skin. Once, someone touched me and called me a ‘germ.’

“At first, I resisted. I said, ‘I have skin of a different color, I am the same human being.’ But the verbal violence continued. So I soon became resigned to it, and came to feel nothing. I just endured, like a sandbag.

“Today, I don’t suffer such overt discrimination. But on social media, a small number of people can be somewhat severe, saying, ‘Don’t have a Black person on a television show at the start of the day.’

“I thought it was great to see such a powerful response and energy come about finally in response to Black Lives Matter in Japan. But I think in Japan a large majority of people tend to think discrimination doesn’t exist. I think there is a gap in perception between those who are discriminated against and those who are not, and that is what lies at the root of the very discrimination.

“I was so delighted to see [Naomi Osaka] send the message out with such strong determination. To see someone like her to send that powerful message served as a great opportunity for those who really didn’t know about Black Lives Matter to know about it. I was deeply impressed.”

Aisha Harumi Tochigi, 24, Miss Universe Japan 2020

Born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Ghanaian father, she lived in Ghana between the ages of 10 and 17, but otherwise resided in Japan. She has done volunteer work in Ghana and Japan with children and in support of women’s rights.

“Every time people ask me where I am from, I can’t just say Japan, because I know I have the Ghanaian side in me. I really value both sides.

“My high school was really a good environment for me, they were so kind to me. Even though I forgot some of my Japanese words, not only my teachers, but my friends helped me out.

“I know some people suffer because they are mixed. My sister had a hard time in her Japanese high school. But at the same time, there are good environments, and there are good people.

“My father came to Japan when he was 25, and now he is 55. For some of the Japanese people he met, it was their first time to meet foreigners. So I do understand it was hard for them to accept him. When he first came to Japan, it was hard for him to rent a house, it was hard for him to get a job because he was a foreigner. Still today, every time he walks around, people call the police and say, ‘There’s an African in front of my house,’ and the police come and ask what he’s doing.

“When I became Miss Universe Japan, I heard some comments that I’m a mixed person, maybe I don’t deserve to be Miss Universe Japan. But at the same time, there are so many people texting me that I encouraged them because I’m mixed. That shows Japan’s changing and it’s becoming a diverse country. I have so many negative comments and positive comments at the same time — that’s when I realized that Japan needs to change more.

“I like how [Naomi Osaka] is using her position as a platform. I really respect and admire her. But every time I open Twitter and see comments about her, there are some people who say ‘She’s not Japanese,’ and ‘She doesn’t have to talk about [racism] here in Japan, because in Japan that’s not happening.’ And that’s when I also realized that some people don’t know there is racism here in Japan too.”

Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.

Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Design by Emily Sabens.

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