What are words worth: Hapa, Hafu or Mixed-Race?

My beautiful mixed-race niece, Sage, who calls herself "hapa." This photo was taken on Christmas Day 2014 during a family meal at ... where else? ... a Chinese restaurant.

My beautiful mixed-race niece, Sage, who calls herself “hapa.” This photo was taken on Christmas Day 2014 during a family meal at … where else? … a Chinese restaurant.

I’ve recently finished writing revisions for a new edition of my book, “Being Japanese American: A JA Sourcebook for Nikkei, Hapa … & Their Friends,” which will be published this June by Stone Bridge Press.

I mention this not just to pimp the book to you all (speaking of which, you can pre-order the book now), but because I wrote in the new foreword how I have decided not to use the word “hapa,” at least for now.

Instead, I wrote that I’ll use “mixed race” instead.

Hapa is a word originally used in Hawaii to describe mixed-race people, like half-Asian, half-Hawaiian. The term was used as a slur, but over the years it’s become commonly used even by mixed-race people. In fact, I’ve heard mixed-race people other than Asian combinations refer to themselves as hapa.

But in 2008, when I moderated a panel in Denver titled “The Bonds of Community: Hapa Identity in a Changing U.S.” for a conference sponsored by the Japanese American National Museum, a man stood up during the question-and-answer period and said he thinks it’s a racist term. At the time, I pushed back gently and noted that it’s already a pretty common term.

But the interchange with this man has stayed with me ever since.

There are lots of uses of “hapa” on- and offline, including mixed race author, filmmaker, standup comic and certified lifeguard (really) Kip Fulbeck’s “Hapa Project” (a celebration of mixed-race people) and one of his well-received books, “Part Asian, 100% Hapa,” of photographs of mixed-race subjects along with their personal statements about their identity. There are websites including hapavoice.com, which invites mixed-race people to post stories about their identities, or about growing up mixed-race. Hapa in its original context is also used as the name of a popular Hawaiian music band.

In Japan, “hapa” isn’t used. Instead, it’s a more negative word in Japanese, “hafu” (half). Last year, I moderated a mixed-race panel following a screening of the powerful documentary “Hafu,” which follows the experience of mixed-race people in Japan. The screening was sponsored by the Mile High chapter of JACL, and most of the panelists were profoundly moved by the movie, even to the point of tears. A majority of the panelists agreed that they thought “hapa,” like the Japanese term “hafu” was a slur.

In December, NPR’s “Code Switch” team that covers racial issues ran a story about being hapa. I shared the story on Facebook, and it generated a lot of responses addressing both sides of the issue.

I asked the commenters if I could use some of their comments and their names:

Patrick Yamada was forthright about using hapa. “I think eventually someone will be offended by any words we use. We’re a nation of over-sensitive monkutare (complainers),” he said.

Rob Buscher made a good point, though I’ll continue to use “mixed race.” “I prefer to use the term multiracial,” he wrote, “because mixed race conjures images of racial purity.”

The Hawaiian origin was expressed by Stacey Shelton Ferguson, who said, “My family has been using the term hapa for as long as I can remember, with family members living in Hawaii. They always used that term referring to the mixed kids in the family. Growing up in the ‘70s half Japanese, half Caucasian I never fit in, living in a very Caucasian neighborhood as child I often felt like an outcast.

“I identify with the term hapa and I always felt proud to be able to call myself hapa! I am not offended by the term at all, It’s my vehicle’s license plate!”

“My son is half-Korean and on census records crosses out all the racial identities and writes in ‘American,’” explains my friend Justin Mitchell, who is Caucasian. “Years ago there was a pretty good mixed Western-Asian cuisine restaurant in Boulder called ‘Hapa’ that he and I used to occasionally frequent and he wore their t-shirt for awhile. But it was because he liked the restaurant and not out of any sense of bi-racial pride.”

Emily Kikue Frank says, “I sort of feel like only other hapas and Hawaiians know the word hapa, so I don’t generally use it, though I’ve always liked it. I’m fine with biracial, too, and have been known to self-identify as a mutt.” She adds, “Mostly people just assume I’m white until they see my mom.”

Linda Allen doesn’t like individual labels. “I was recently asked: white, Hispanic, Asian, African American, other: I chose ‘other.’ Depending on the situation, if they need the affirmative action: I use Asian most of the time. When in Hawaii – hapa — I love that term.”

Janis Hirohama writes, “I prefer ‘multiracial’ or ‘multicultural’ to ‘biracial’ or ‘mixed race.’ ‘Biracial’ implies a mixture of two races, and some people have more than two races in their backgrounds. ‘Mixed race’ . . . I may be overanalyzing, but to my ear it sounds a bit like “miscegenation” (an antiquated term) or ‘race mixing’ (a term used by white supremacists).”

Alice Yoon gives a West Coast perspective. “Living in LA, there’s quite a lot of hapa kids here. My son’s preschool has at least three and it’s a small preschool. His particular class is about half white, half other. It’s interesting that my husband is pretty much a result of a lot of Western Europe and half Polish, but he’s always going to be called white. He’s more of a ‘mutt’ than I am.”

Sandra Mizumoto Posey has the last word. “Ultimately, I think *we* choose how we want to identify and be identified. I like hapa. It was always affectionate in usage and gave me something to claim when neither white nor Asian seemed to completely fit me. It was only around other Hapas that I felt like I belonged somewhere.”

After that story aired on NPR, I was at a family lunch on Christmas Day at one of our favorite Chinese restaurants (where you can always find a lot of Jewish and Asian people on the holiday) and I mentioned this Facebook thread to my niece Sage, who is mixed-race herself. She said she’s comfortable with being called “hapa,” and I agreed that as the term becomes more and more mainstream, I’ll probably go back to using it.

For now, I feel uncomfortable with it because I don’t know who might be feeling a twinge of emotion at being labeled with the word. Call me overly PC, but I know that words matter, and they can affect people deeply. I’ve been called enough slurs in my life to know understand that.

Many thanks to everyone who joined the discussion! What do YOU think about these terms? If you’re mixed race, how do you describe your identity? Let me know in the comments below!

Note: A shorter version of this post was originally published in the Pacific Citizen newspaper.

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19 Responses to What are words worth: Hapa, Hafu or Mixed-Race?

  1. Justin Mitchell says:

    Excellent piece Gil. And thanks for including me and Julian.

  2. Leslie Nakajima says:

    Gil, great post. I appreciate you writing this and taking the time to consider all perspectives. Sadly, slurs about those of Asian backgrounds are still somehow considered “okay” in some circles, so awareness is helpful (yes, I have still heard folks say, “Jap,” and other terms and being shocked to hear that wasn’t okay). I have no issue with “hapa,” as it has always been a bonding description between myself and other mixed-race Japanese friends and acquaintances, particularly in Hawaii. After having moved to California when I was younger, and spending so much time in Hawaii, it has become a regular part of my vocabulary. My Korean-American friends use it, too.

  3. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks, Leslie — this one’s definitely still evovling!

  4. Gary Jang says:

    What upsets me is that no matter what words you use someone will find fault. Generally the term Hapa goes with Haoli. Together is is very melodic and sounds good. I also use the term oriental and chinaman to refer to my dad with the older people who may have known him. I see nothing derogatory about this. I was a hapa haoli in all white areas from grade school to high school and met my first asian in College.
    I don’t understand why people spend there lives trying to make a big thing out of nothing.

  5. Russell says:

    My kids spent much of their childhood in Japan and raised in a bilingual and bi-cultural environment. My wife and I taught our children that they are not hafu, but double. They benefit from both English and Japanese language, both cultures, and the beauty of their mixed features.
    In recent thought, my wife and I have started considering them as “hybrid kids.” “Installed with multilingual and multicultural capabilities. Designed for mobility and efficiency, incorporating the best qualities of Japan and America” and beyond.

  6. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks for your comment, Gary. I think when people hear certain terms as a slur all their lives it does become a bit deal. You’ve been blessed to grow up and live in communities where some of these words didn’t carry the negative weight.

  7. Gil Asakawa says:

    “Double” instead of “half” is an awesome concept for kids, Russell! “Hybrid” sounds a bit sci-fi, but maybe that is the term for the future… 🙂

  8. George Niles says:

    I’m not mixed about my race… I’m not a mutt. I’m hapa (hafu)!

  9. Eido Inoue says:

    In your post, you write that “In Japan, “hapa” isn’t used. Instead, it’s a more negative word in Japanese”. However, based on the “h?fu” I know (Japanese raised in Japan, not Japanese raised overseas or in English environments where they are raised in a non-Japanese manner), very, very few consider it negative or a slur. Many more consider it to be a compliment and self-identify as “h?fu”. That’s primarily because the word “h?fu” is more often used like a modeling term to describe a desirable physical attribute… much like the words “fair complexion”, “Eurasian”, “international [appearance]”. Many of the most powerful and popular celebrities and models in Japan today are self-described h?fu and people idolize them.

    To an native-English person’s ear, the Japanese word h?fu may sound like a slur because native speakers hear the word “half” and think “half”, which to us sounds like “incomplete” or “not whole”. However, if you look up the word “h?fu” in a Japanese-Japanese dictionary, the word is not defined as “half Japanese, half something else”. It is defined as “mixed race person”. Native Japanese minds due not automatically jump to the meaning “incomplete” or “not whole” because the language programmed deep into their brain is not English and thus they don’t have all the deep English meanings and nuances programmed and associated with their imported loanwords. This is similar to English speakers. English speakers have thousands of foreign words in their language that they’ve imported (and the spelling and pronunciation is changed) yet native English speakers are blissfully unaware of the deeper, and sometimes unpleasant, connotations that their words have in other cultures and languages.

    I realize that in English language politically correct culture, h?fu sounds offensive because it sounds like (yet isn’t) the word “half”, which has connotations and nuances that the not-English Japanese word h?fu doesn’t have. However, don’t be surprised if Japanese who live in Japan… especially h?fu adults and children themselves, ignore or reject English language pleas to avoid the term as most of them view it as a compliment. Like being said you have “nice skin”.

    One last thing: beware describing kids as “double”. There are two problems with this word (in English) in my opinion:

    #1. It has the English language connotation of racial/ethnic superiority. As in, “we doubles are twice as good as those poor ordinary inferior ‘single’ people.”
    #2. And I got this comment actually from the director of “H?fu”, who was asked what she thought of the word “double” during a Q&A at a screening of the movie in Tokyo: “Double” places a huge expectation on children that they’re required to be perfectly bilingual / perfectly bi-ethnic / perfectly dual identity, and most people who raise children who deal with identity issues know that when parents make public presumptions about living up to a standard that few kids can achieve.

    I once asked my teenage daughter (who is proudly and self-identifies as “h?fu”: she cannot speak English and was born and raised in the Japanese non-international school system) what she thought of the word “double”. Her reply: “Yuck! Do I have two heads? Twenty fingers? Two sets of DNA? It makes me sounds like a sci-fi monster. Something with excess baggage! Don’t ever call me that!”

  10. Proud Mother of a Hafu says:

    Having a hafu daughter, reading the above comment by Eido Inoue put down into words, perfectly, what I have internalized for years.
    Whenever my daughter and I went to Japan to visit relatives, people would always ask if she is “hafu.” And, I never put much weight into the term; I always perceived it as both a genetic descriptor, as well as a cultural one. I put no ethnically/racially weighted thought into thinking of her as hafu.
    And, while she is still quite young, in our experience in the Denver area her mixed background has not been an issue to address (yet). Part of this stems from her belonging to a community where there is a good mix of hafu kids – of all ethnic/racial backgrounds. And, as such, since non-hafu kids have been ‘exposed’ to hafu kids, I can only hope they they all see themselves as a whole community, full of diversity and acceptance of differences.
    Of course, as kids grow we all know that things change. I hope that my ‘unicorns and rainbows’ view of how I hope to see my hafu grow up has planted a seed of the acceptance and joy of diversity wherever we are.
    The one caveat I see is that as long as we have labels, we’ll discriminate; if we don’t label, we lose a part of our ethnic/racial identity. Yes, we are all humans and that should be enough to eliminate hateful thoughts, processes, and actions. But, the reality, time and again has shown that just being human is not enough.
    Kyoko Wilson

  11. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks for your comment, Kyoko!

  12. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks for posting a Japanese perspective, Eido!

  13. This is a great post on how a simple word can mean so much. Gary Jang is correct in saying that people will still take offense on using words, and it all boils down to how one’s culture has molded him to perceive such a “title.”

  14. Nadia says:

    This reminds me of my Japanese friends.

  15. Marie says:

    As a child my dad told me I was Eurasian. He was German, born in USA from 2 german parents that were born in Germany. My mother was Japanese, born from 2 Japanese parents in Japan. I was born in Japan in the 50’s. I actually never knew the term Hafu or Hapa until a few years ago. I am proud to call myself any of these, including German!

  16. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks for your comment, Marie! When I was a kid in Japan in the early 1960s, my mother was already familiar with “hafu” as a negative word for mixed-race Japanese. It would be interesting to research when these terms began being used….

  17. Rie says:

    Hapa has NEVER been a derogatory word here in Hawaii. Most people say it with pride and unlike the rest of the united states and may countless places and countries like Japan, we see nothing wrong with biracial children and adults. I also dislike, even as a Japanese “American”, the word Hapa being overtaken and overused by Asian Americans who have absolutely no connection the islands.

  18. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks for your response, Rie – I’ve heard that before fron Hawaiians. It’s good to know how people on Hawaii feel about the user of the term.

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