For a white person who grew up with some serious white privilege in a predominantly white city with a history of segregation, the problem of Japanese racial discrimination of children isn’t one I have any real vocabulary or experience to deal with. But last week I had something of a classroom break through. It came from the Japanese language itself.
There is no way to say a person has parents of two different ethnicities, nationalities, or ancestries that does not have a negative bias attached to it. Sure, there are milder words in English like “biracial”, but even that sets some people ill at ease. There are plenty straight up terrible ones, too. The entire reason we have these terms is to to isolate and separate people from each other. It serves little to no legitimate purpose.
The Japanese language,lately, has settled on the term, “half”, to describe children with one Japanese parent and one non-Japanese parent. I hate it. As the foreign language teacher, whether I’m prepared for it or not, small children in my elementary school assume I am the arbiter of all things foreign. So, frequently, in class or at lunch, small children will come up to me and “out” their friends as secretly foreign, like me.
When a child points to their peers and tells me, an authority figure, that, “they are not like me, they’re like you!” in one way or another, my heart breaks. Don’t you see, kid? You two are both here, now, experiencing the same childhood. You are exactly alike.
The laundry list of things that are “foreign” to Japanese children gets longer the more years I spend teaching. Recently I had to shut down a second grader who insisted at lunch that his friend could secretly understand English because he was born in New York. Are you kidding me? His father’s work brought the family stateside for a few years, and he was born in New York. He lived there less than a year, as an infant, and then came to Japan. He has no memory of America, nor knowledge of English. But, he was somehow tainted by not being born on Japanese soil. To his peers, that needed to be pointed out. You are different. You are not as Japanese as us. It gets worse the longer you spent abroad. But, returnees (kikokushijo) are a whole different issue.
I digress. Heaven forbid you actually have a parent who is not ethnic Japanese! Because they you are, to the Japanese world, a “half”. You are not a complete person. You are half. Only half of you belongs here and now prove you’re worth keeping. I even had a kid ask if I was a half, once, because I spoke the language. Kid, language is not genetic. Catch up! We study a foreign language in my class literally every class.
But this isn’t the only way to describe a person with one Japanese parent and one non-Japanese parent. There’s also “~kei nihonjin”. A Korean-Japanese person would be a Kankoku-kei Nihon-jin. An African American would be an Africa-kei America-jin. I’ve known this for a long time but this past week I finally, while sick and kinda loopy, had a chance to act on it.
It was the 3rd grade. The teacher of the class is very international-minded. She speaks passable English and likes to drop random English words and phrases into conversation with me in the teachers’ room. Her class has one Returnee and one kid of multiple ancestries. The lesson was about telling time. Of all the things! But, apparently the Returnee kid is going back abroad for dad’s work, soon, so it was on all the kids’ minds. Some kid got a number wrong and another kid laughed at them because weren’t they not entirely Japanese? This should be easy for them! They’re a HALF!
Oh, I lost it in my head. What the hell, kid? I’m not even sure the kid actually had any ancestry other than ethnic Yamato Japanese. But, suddenly class stopped and all the kids started buzzing about how sensical this assertion was. Why, yes. English must be in your blood! And so I did what we’re not supposed to do in my school district: I switched from speaking English to Japanese. I’m on cold medicine, kids! No filter. Here we go.
Nani sore?! Haafu?! Imi ga nai desho! Han-bun ningen wa kono sekai ni ikinai yo! Kazoku ni, gaikoku kara kita hito ga ittara, nantoka-kei nihonjin to iu, desho? Kankoku-kei nihonjin toka Amerika-kei nihonjin toka. Saigo no kotoba wa itsumo “nihonjin”, ne? Dakara haafu jyanakute, minna wa nihonjin da.
What’s this about?! A half?! That means nothing! There are no half-humans living in this world! If a member of your family came from abroad, it’s called “something-something Japanese” right? Korean-Japanese or American-Japanese. The last word is “Japanese”, right? So, not half, you are all Japanese.
When the kids started to go off I could see the homeroom teacher sort of sigh and cringe but after I gave my matter-of-fact tirade in broken Japanese, I saw her visibly soften. The kids gave me a few looks, like they considered what I had said, and we moved on.
It was… exciting. They accepted it! From now on I plan to challenge any kid who uses the word “half” to come up with a better way to describe what they mean, and indeed to challenge if they need to point out differences in their peers at all. The social balance gets more delicate as they get older, not less. After all, just because a kid has parents of two different ethnicities or born in different countries from each other, doesn’t make it their responsibility to teach their peers how pig-headed language and society are in regards to them and their family. Sometimes that responsibility falls on actual teachers, like me, who their peers respect as authorities on foreignness.
Adding this to my personal crusade to normalize the mention of same-sex relationships in daily life. Small children, you won’t even know how open minded you’re becoming!