Psst. Let me tell you a secret. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but my boyfriend is a little bit… asian!
Well, half Japanese, half white British to be exact. Thankfully, for the majority of our relationship race has been a massive non-issue. And why would it be? We are both born and raised in south England, both from middle class backgrounds, both attended university and are now in graduate jobs. Demographically, far more is the same than different.
But even though we couldn’t give less of a shit, sometimes outside influences get it into their heads to attempt to make race an issue. Moving to Japan together has complicated this, so I thought it was about time I shared our experiences.
In the UK, the worst things people have said to me are creeps in bars. Oh creeps in bars. What perplexes me is that they think being incredibly rude is a viable strategy to get me into bed. Yes, speculating on my boyfriend’s dick makes me so wet for you. You don’t look like an insecure, ignorant arsehole at all.
Anyway, I can handle these losers but what is harder to deal with when it’s your girlfriends saying wide-eyed, “But I don’t understand how you can find Asian men attractive.” “I’m happy for you but personally I don’t find ‘them’ sexy.”
“Don’t you ever think about… you know?” “Julia has yellow fever hahaha.”
I can be a coward and a poor ally because, although I can put creeps in bars in their place instantly, I find it incredibly difficult to call out people I like and respect. In fact, this is the first time I’m openly admitting to receiving some of these comments and how much they can hurt.
What is a surprising consistent is that these comments are in the vast majority of cases directed at me, not my boyfriend. I think I understand why. They are coming from people who wouldn’t like to think of themselves as prejudiced and if they direct the comments at the white girl instead of the person of colour it’s somehow not racist anymore.
Moving to Japan has brought new dimensions to the issues, though perhaps not as much has changed as you might think. It is a sad aspect of many mixed race people’s experience that the country you are in tends to identify you with the ‘other’ part of your identity. In the UK, my boyfriend is the ‘Asian one’ (though he says that, happily, he has faced minimal discrimination at home). In Japan he’s the hafu. Before you gasp in horror, yes hafu is derived from ‘half’ but it’s not as offensive as you might think. In fact, for many mixed race Japanese hafu is their preferred term to describe themselves. I’m not the best person to go deeply into this for obvious reasons, but if you are interested I would recommend the film Hafu: the mixed race experience in Japan, in which mixed race people tell their own stories.
From what I’ve seen though, hafu are treated like minor celebrities in Japan, in both a good and bad way. Indeed many mixed race people are on TV and we had a hilarious incident in which the man who came to fix the water was convinced that my boyfriend was an actor or something. The point is, mixed race people are often treated as something cool and exciting to look at but are not fully accepted into Japanese society. Not all hafu are extroverted kakkoi types guys, some work in boring office jobs and just want to blend in and be left alone. An example of the fetishisation of mixed race people is this gross advert by Can Make. This billboard was in Ikebukuro station for ages and, to my knowledge, no one complained or said anything. The make up range is called ‘Half Face’ and the advert claims you can get ‘trendy foreign eyes’ if you use it. Urgh.
Gross Canmake. 'Half Face,' are you serious?? The bit at the bottom says, "Get trendy foreign eyes." This is not a compliment. Even today, mixed race Japanese people face widespread discrimination in Japan. Their ethnicity is not a trend you can put on with make up. #ハーフメイク #外国人風 #canmake #everydayracism #japan #ignorant
It is undeniable that, even if he is not fully Japanese, living with my boyfriend has given me privileges that many foreigners in Japan don’t enjoy. It was far easier for us to rent a flat (though still bloody difficult), for example. He can be my guarantor on immigration forms and other official documents and generally flashing his Japanese name and passport gets us taken more seriously. Less rational assumptions abound too though. Just the other day, I was chatting with a colleague who told me how good my Japanese was (it’s not). Later in the conversation I mentioned that my boyfriend was half Japanese and she responded, ‘Oh that’s why you speak so well.’ I shouldn’t need to explain how ridiculous this is – my boyfriend didn’t start learning Japanese until he was 18 and although he’s bloody good now, the idea that we wouldn’t speak in our first languages is bizarre (though he does help me with my homework occassionally). It’s as if she thought by hanging around him I would soak up some Japanese-ness by osmosis and start spouting fluent sentences in the lingo. But family and kinship ties are important to the Japanese it seems and so a Japanese(ish) cohabitor has brought me a measure of social acceptance in many situations.
So it’s good with the bad. Thank you to everyone who treats our racial difference as the massive non-issue it should be, and a high five to everyone in white female/asian male relationships. Let’s continue to put the creepy guys in bars in their place and try to be better at challenging our friends and families when they say stuff that isn’t ok.
Because my boyfriend and I are champions.