British | Okinawan-Japanese
I describe myself as half British and half Okinawan-Japanese. My Mum is from Okinawa, which is a small tropical island chain off the south-west coast of Japan. My Dad is from the UK, but his Dad was born in Guyana. My parents met in Tokyo whilst they were both living and working there. They got married out in Japan, after which they moved to the UK. I was born in York, England but then we moved to Okinawa, Japan when I was around 3 years old. My earliest childhood memories stem from that time living in Okinawa on the island of Minnajima where my Mum was born. It’s an island of around fifty people. We moved back to York when I was about 6 which is where I spent the rest of my time growing up. I didn’t go back to Japan again until I was 22.
I’d say I first became conscious of the fact I was mixed-race when we moved back to England. I went to an all-White primary school of about 100 kids in rural North Yorkshire, where we were the only non-White family and bento boxes for lunch were really alien. These were pre-Itsu days. I only spoke Japanese at the time, so was made to recognize my difference pretty early on!
Living and working in Japan in my adult life presented a whole other set of unique challenges to what I experience here in the UK. Japan is one of the most monoethnic countries in the world and the term ‘Hafu’ is used to describe people like myself, literally meaning ‘half’ in relation to your non-Japanese parent. I therefore always found it very difficult to ever fully feel accepted as Japanese when working there and living on the mainland. I’m far more comfortable when down in Okinawa with my extended family and feel much closer to the culture there. There’s differences between Japanese and Okinawan culture, from tradition through to language and even the way people look, all of which I think plays a big part in instilling that sense of belonging.
My parents were good at combining their different cultures; Japan and Japanese culture was always pretty present in the home whilst we were growing up in the UK. Whether it was food, music, television, it was always quite a pervasive presence growing up. We were given our Mum’s maiden name to carry as our middle name, so there was always that connection to the culture, family and our heritage despite growing up mainly in the UK.
For me, there’s always been that inherent tension between identity, longing and belonging. In the U.K, you’re always ticking the ‘other’ box and in Japan as a hafu, you can never really be Japanese enough. Whatever context you’re in, I feel like you’re neither in nor out. You’re always halfway in-between and so much of it is dependent on how people perceive you. It’s like you occupy a third space or culture that doesn’t have fixed geographical boundaries. Sometimes I feel most at home when I’m on an airplane. I also feel like a huge part of the challenge of being mixed-race is the language (or lack of) that surrounds the experience. I often wonder how, if we are constantly expected to describe as ourselves as half this and half that, then how can we ever expect to experience ourselves as whole? It’s like society expects us to split and carve up our inheritance, usually for the benefit of other people, because it’s easier for them to understand. Ignorance and racism are of course something I’ve experienced, right through into my adult life, even in the work place. I’ve had to find my own ways to challenge and educate people around the different sides of my mixed-race identity. This exercise of constantly having to justify, validate, defend or explain your existence and heritage can be exhausting, but one I’m sure many can relate to.
I think being mixed-race gives you an additional sensitivity or sensibility when it comes to an understanding and experience of people, culture, the lens through which you look at and experience the world. You’re able to occupy multiple spaces at any one time, to see and feel things from multiple perspectives. I think you become increasingly aware of yourself and the spaces you find yourself in, as well as the way your sense of identity can fluctuate and change over time. Nothing is fixed being mixed. It’s definitely impacted the kind of places I’ve wanted to work at and the types of people I want to be around, both professional and in my personal life. It’s directly informed the issues I’m passionate about, the values that I stand by.
I can speak Japanese to a decent enough level, but it could always be better. I tend to understand a lot more than I can speak, but I think a lot of that is down to confidence. I was fluent as a kid but lost it over time after having moved back to England. I’m told that I refused to speak Japanese as a kid when we moved back to England because I wanted to pick up English quickly. When working in Japan, I definitely felt like it limited me in some ways not being fluent, but I think it also impacts the degree to which you’re perceived as ‘Japanese’, so there was that additional pressure that I used to feel around my language ability there.
I feel like I don’t really know what it means to be ‘British’ anymore, or perhaps it’s more that my version or understanding of ‘Britishness’ now no longer feels aligned to dominant discourse/ rhetoric surrounding it. It’s maybe come as no surprise therefore that I’ve leaned more towards my ‘otherness’ in my adult life. I take a lot more comfort from the Japanese part of my culture than I think I ever have done before, which is interesting given that as a kid I think I tried to play it down. Technology has really helped me feel far better connected to Japan and Japanese culture, whether that’s access to TV, film, music as well as being in more frequent contact with family through messaging apps like LINE.
When asked where I’m from it usually depends who is asking the question, as you can normally get a read off that person of the intent which sits behind the question. Some people are genuinely interested, whereas for others it’s an exercise in resolving something for themselves. I feel like we live in a culture where people like to project what they want to see or what they want you to be on you, even before you’ve had an opportunity to answer that for yourself. But mostly I will just say I’m half-English, half-Japanese.
I love being able to draw from multiple cultural reference points, the ability to explore, understand and deep dive on my inheritance. You learn that the world isn’t just Black and White, it’s far more nuanced than that. If you can listen to and understand the world through that more nuanced lens, then I think you read it in a very different way. I love learning the history that came before me from the point of view of family, thinking about how different my life growing up in the UK was from my Mum’s or my Grandparents’ lives in Okinawa. There’s a lot to be inspired by and there’s a lot to feel proud of.
I think it’s starting to feel like an exciting time, especially being half-Japanese with people like Naomi Osaka really representing on a global stage. It’s interesting seeing how her very presence is forcing people to ask questions about identity and representation on a much bigger scale. It’s a conversation that I think can only be healthy. In many ways, I feel like mixed-race people represent an inevitable future, so the more we can be visible and articulate our experiences, the better. I wouldn’t change a thing if I were to be reborn.