Prove you’re Japanese: when being bicultural can be a burden

Parents' decision to add a katakana name can create issues when kids enter the big wide world


Japanese are Japanese and foreigners are foreigners, and never the twain shall meet? In many aspects of daily life in this country, there is one way for the Japanese and another for the rest of us. Like it or not, that’s just how it is. At least foreigners know where we stand.

However, bicultural individuals — the children of one Japanese and one foreign parent — may find that life isn’t quite that simple.

Although they were born, raised and educated in Japan, and as Japanese citizens are entitled to all the legal privileges that entails, society sometimes marginalizes them in ways that their foreign parents may not have anticipated. Japanese television shows and commercials might be full of cute “half” young adults, but back in the real world, being a bit “different” isn’t always such a good thing when you are trying to make your way in this country.

Hiroki — not his real name — is a university student. Having recently moved out of the family home and into his own apartment, he was relieved when he was accepted for a part-time position at a branch of Sukiya, a national gyūdon (beef on rice) restaurant chain.

The son of an American mother and Japanese father, he has both a Japanese and a Western name. “My family and some of my close friends use my Western name, but these days I usually go by my Japanese one,” he says. “I applied for the job with my Japanese name, but since my bank account has both names on it — like my passport — I thought it was best to write my whole name in the section about account details.”

From past experience, Hiroki knew that banks could be very particular about names, so he thought he was doing his employers a favor by giving his full name. Little did he know that this simple action would lead to major headaches.

The restaurant chain, which employees thousands of young people as part-time employees, runs a training center for new recruits. When someone noticed the name “John” in katakana script on the paperwork, it raised a red flag.

“They asked if I was Japanese. I assured them I was, but then they said I needed to prove it, so I was told to get a copy of my jūminhyō [residence certificate].”

Although somewhat surprised that his verbal assurance about his citizenship wasn’t good enough, Hiroki needed the job, so he complied with the request. He dropped by the branch where he was slated to work and, after discussing his shifts, handed the document to the manager and thought nothing more about it.

The next day a call came from Sukiya’s training center, asking if Hiroki realized there was a mistake on his jūminhyō, because his gender was listed as female. “I told them there was no mistake. I explained that I’m transgender and have been living as a male since high school. However, unless you have total reconstructive surgery, you can’t change your sex on the koseki [family registry] or the jūminhyō.”

Then the bombshell was dropped. Another call came from a manager, informing him “regretfully” that they were unable to offer him a job under the present circumstances. Naturally, this came as a shock, and Hiroki wanted to know the reason. “They basically told me that because my jūminhyō lists me as ‘female,’ they have to hire me ‘as a woman.’ I was asked if I would be OK with being called a female at work, and of course I was like, ‘No, it’s not OK.’ ”

His parents were shocked and angry when they heard about the affair. “They discriminated against our son twice,” says his mother. “First for asking him to prove his citizenship, and then by making a huge issue of his gender.”

Hiroki’s father called the training center. “I wanted a proper explanation of why they wouldn’t hire my son. To cut a long story short, they told me it was based on the way their hiring system is set up — if the ID says a person is female, that is how they are listed in the company’s computer system, regardless of having lived successfully and happily as a male for several years. It was apparently too difficult for them to accommodate someone like my son.” The manager’s assurance that the company was not discriminating against Hiroki because he was transgender rang hollow.

Taking a pragmatic approach, Hiroki resigned himself to looking for a different job, but his parents are still upset about the unfairness of the whole situation. “If it hadn’t been for the fact that he had a katakana name, they would never had asked to see his jūminhyō and he’d still have a job!” says his mother indignantly. “Not that I want my son working for that company now!” Upon hearing the story, many of the family’s friends and acquaintances have vowed to boycott the chain.

So what does the company have to say? An executive in Sukiya’s public relations department agreed to be interviewed.

“Basically, any potential employee with a katakana element in their name is flagged and asked to prove their nationality. This is because we hire a lot of foreigners, many of them students,” said the representative. “Employment laws have tightened up and the company has to be very careful to ensure that non-Japanese staff can legally work in this country.” The rule also applies to Japanese married to foreign nationals and using a non-Japanese last name, and Japanese with “trendy” katakana first names, regardless of citizenship or outward appearance.

As for the issue of gender when hiring, the representative says company policy needs to be reviewed. “I believe this is the first case we’ve had with a potential transgender employee,” he notes. However, since most employees are not required to furnish a jūminhyō to “prove” anything, the spokesman admits there is probably no way to tell if someone is transgender or not.

“Our company is proud of our record of offering employment to many foreign people around Japan and we definitely do not wish to discriminate against anyone, Japanese or non-Japanese, men or women. I hope we can use this opportunity to re-examine our hiring system and improve things.”

Life isn’t always easy in the business world, either. When people first meet Stephen, they assume he is Japanese. Having spent much of his life in this country, he is perfectly at home with the culture and takes after his Japanese mother in appearance, so there is nothing to make him stand out from the crowd.

However, as soon as he hands over his name card and people notice he has katakana for both his first and last name — inherited from his Canadian father — the walls go up.

“My name throws people because it isn’t what they expected — it doesn’t ‘go’ with my face,” explains the sales executive, now in his 40s. “Doing business in this country is about connections and traditions, and sometimes Japanese people aren’t willing to give me a chance based on my name. They tend to think I’m not here for the long haul, and that I will be going back ‘home’ sooner or later. They don’t realize that home for me is here!”

Parents of bicultural children often think long and hard about whether to bestow a name from the non-Japanese partner’s culture on their children. Along with the joy and pride of passing on a name or names that reflect the child’s twin heritages comes the concern that it might cause inconvenience, embarrassment or even discrimination down the line.

Alison, an Australian mother of two, decided to go with Japanese first names only. Since her children use their father’s surname, their names can be written totally in kanji, blending in with the majority.

“My kids stick out enough as it, so I didn’t want to make things any harder for them,” she says. “I’d heard some stories from other mums of ‘half’ kids with middle names. Every time the kid goes to a new school, the teachers insist on reading out both names, because it’s listed on their official records. For a kid trying to fit into a new environment, it’s just one more hassle they don’t need.”

In some cases, however, having a non-Japanese name may actually be desirable for bicultural children. Germany, for example, has guidelines for parents when naming their babies, including the stipulation that it should be easy to distinguish the child’s sex. A name such as Kim would not be accepted by officials as a first name.

Birgitta and her husband chose the name Shunya for their son, who was born in Japan, but couldn’t be sure that this would be acceptable when they applied for the child’s German passport.

“If we lived in Germany, we could just go to the local town office and sit down with an official, and they would decide if the name was OK. But since we were here in Japan and the passport was handled back in Germany, we didn’t want to run any risks — (so) we added a German middle name to be on the safe side,” she says.

Hair can be another bone of contention. In this day and age, when there are arguably more young Japanese people with dyed hair than without, it may seem odd that naturally lighter hair could be a problem. However, many schools still maintain strict “no dyeing” policies, without making allowances for students who came by their hair color naturally.

When Trina’s daughter entered a private junior high school, she was piqued to receive a letter asking parents of students with naturally curly or brown hair to indicate this in an official statement. Such students were then subject to a teacher “inspection” to ensure their hair was naturally not straight and black.

Moreover, the school also has a student committee whose job is to promote and police school rules amongst their peers. The final straw came when her daughter reported there was a hand-drawn poster by the student committee on the stairs that asked, “Your hair isn’t brown, is it?”

Trina and her husband found this stance rather incongruous for a school that promotes its study-abroad program, and arranged to meet with the teachers. However, while the teachers listened respectfully to the couple, they did not agree that the policy caused unnecessary grief for bicultural students, insisting there was no discrimination behind the move. “But they did at least apologize to our daughter for hurting her feelings over the poster, and it was taken down,” Trina says.

Hair was also an issue for Yuta, a bicultural high school student, when he applied for a part-time job at a traditional Japanese pub. All employees must follow a strict code that includes no dyed hair, with no allowances made for someone whose hair happened to be naturally brown.

“They said they would only hire him if Yuta dyed his hair black, and he was ready to do it. He wanted the job,” says his mother. “Luckily, his older sister talked him out of it. We knew his high school might go along with him having black hair — he would fit in with everyone else then — but even if he quit the job, he’d then be stuck dyeing his hair all the way until graduation. We knew the school wouldn’t accept a two-tone look while his natural hair color was growing in again.”

While Yuta is looking at other employment options, his mother raises an interesting point. With the exception of his lighter hair color, her son “looks” Japanese and she thinks this worked against him. “At first glance, my kid looks like a Japanese with dyed hair. If he definitely looked more ‘half,’ then people wouldn’t expect his hair to be pure black. I suspect that the izakaya wouldn’t have given him such a hard time in that case.”

With one in every 20 marriages in Japan now involving one foreign partner, there will be an increasing number of bicultural adults entering society, and there is a growing need for Japanese society to review the way it deals with them.

Let’s leave the last word to Hiroki, who has the following message for the restaurant chain that wouldn’t hire him: “I want Sukiya to realize that there are all kinds of people in Japan. Having policies is fine, but they need to be flexible enough to change them as needed. Being open to change is very important for the future.”

Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • Ron NJ

    Good to know that Sukiya has been deputized by the Ministry of Justice to enforce immigrations regulations.

  • JusenkyoGuide

    I think they’re reaching for the first example, that’s discrimination against transgender.

  • Miura_Anjin

    Great to see that the principles of the “Volksgemeinschaft” are still alive and well in 21st century Japan. I wonder if the private junior high school mentioned above also offers racial science classes?

  • King Rat

    This is an issue of bureaucracy more than anything else and I have faced it in Asia, in the USA, and in Europe.

    In the end, “Hiroki/John” made the choice not to be hired as
    “Hiroko/Joan”. To say that “… Having policies is fine, but they need
    to be flexible enough to change them as needed…” misses the point
    because it does not factor in Sukiya’s perspective. To Sukiya,
    “Hiroki/John” misled them twice which is not the best of first
    impressions. If “Hiroki/John” is really that great of a guy, he can
    learn from his experience and get a job elsewhere.

    I was asked to resign from my position because I failed to disclose important information to my CEO. In an effort to pad her resume my supervisor falsified reports of my accomplishments without my knowledge. When review time came up and my “accomplishments” turned out to be false, I got blamed for lying, disobeying orders of my supervisor, and also for her poor performance caused by my alleged dishonesty.

    At the time I was furious and I felt betrayed. In retrospect, asking me to resign was the best thing that organization ever did for me. Once I got over the shock, I was so relieved to find employment for others grateful to have me and enjoy me for being me. That will happen to Hiroki too. I have never had a Sukiya near me although I had Yoshinoya, Nakau Hokka Hokka Tei quite frequently. Maybe one of those would be hiring.

  • Frank Thornton

    I was reading the article with interest because my son is also in college, name is in katakana and has dual citizenship…until I got to the “transgender” and “living as a male since high school” part. At the very top it says “…katakana name can create issues when kids enter the big wide world”… Should be more like “living as a male since highschool when your jūminhyō and koseki says you’re female can create issues in any world…”

  • Hanten

    Isn’t it enough for the school and traditional Japanese pub that everyone wears uniforms? Is it also necessary to also have the same hair colour?
    Surely a sense of community comes from the way the members act towards each other not from the colour of their hair or skin or where their parents are from.

  • 思德

    The transgender red herring aside, this article was good in pointing out how a system designed around more than just cultural homogeneity needs to change.

  • Buntan

    Since the article brings up the subject of appearance in Japan I would like to mention how funny it is that many people judge the Japaneseness in someone’s looks by how much “shoyugao” (the kind of plain face lacking distinct features and which is somehow considered the norm) the person has. I suppose most people mean ‘typically Japanese’ referring to this kind of physical appearance when they say Japanese, but it is as if every trait that differs from this automatically is categorized as something foreign. Even a lot of both-parent Japanese people are asked if they are foreign just because they have unique or different facial features. Absurd as it may sound, you often hear comments from Japanese people about other Japanese people not looking Japanese. For example, the whole cast for the Roman roles of the Japanese film “Thermae Romae” were Japanese. These men obviously don’t look very Mediterranean to a European, but in the eyes of many Japanese people they were considered very fitting just because their facial features are considered koi (deep, thick, heavy, distinct). Funny thing is that one of the so-called “fathers” of modern Japan, Saigo Takamori, would probably also be offered a role in this film if he was a modern actor, and would hear comments about not looking Japanese just because he didn’t look like a painted character from the tales of Genji.

    Physical appearance aside, there are many norms for what is accepted as Japanese in Japan, but the sad reality is that probably most Japanese people, regardless how much they try (and if you live in Japan you know they do) don’t fit into most of them which leaves Japaneseness to being a mere ideal that is actually unattainable.

  • Frank Schirmer

    Should those kids enter the actual “big wide world”, they’ll be fine. It’s only as long as they try to get somewhere in a certain small-minded country when they run into problems.

  • disqus_vK1X0x2nho

    It’s funny how some people are against discrimination on the basis of
    culture or ‘race’, but not on gender identity. Punishing people
    based on not fitting into what the dominant group in society gets to define and assume as ‘normal’ can be hurtful to any person, whatever that basis might be. (and there’s a difference between viewing something as “normal” vs simply “common”). Is the pot calling the kettle black? Well, most of us pay attention to only the things that affect us personally, but not necessarily extend that same sympathy to other human beings dealing with similar issues on another front…

  • Doug 陀愚 덕 ☸

    Of course, this sort of thing never happens in places like the US or the UK if someone happens to have a name like Mohammed, wears a headscarf or just “looks” dark in general. You know, because racial profiling is wrong.

  • bartonim

    So far, my kids (I am Caucasian from Canada; their mother is Japanese) have had no problems. The schools they attend are very welcoming. Perhaps we got lucky, but I won’t rule out problems in the future, just in case.

  • Bernd Bausch

    The article says the following about German names: “A name such as Kim would not be accepted by officials as a first name”. There are many Germans named Kim (famous in Internet circles: Kim Dotcom, born in German as Kim Schmitz), or Eike, or Kai, or other names that can be both male and female. The German-Japanese couple could have checked with the embassy what names were acceptable.

    More to the point of the article, it seems to show that Japanese are reluctant to even slightly bend rules. Whatever is written must be observed to the letter, otherwise one might be in trouble. Once rules are written without consideration to “marginal” cases, the damage is done – no flexibility allowed, with ridiculous consequences. And, as can be seen from the case of Hiroki, it is not only bicultural Japanese that are affected, but anybody not fitting the norm.

    “With one in every 20 marriages in Japan now involving one foreign partner, there will be an increasing number of bicultural adults entering society, and there is a growing need for Japanese society to review the way it deals with them”. This will happen. It is inevitable. But the problem is not how to treat bicultural people, but anybody not fitting the description of “standard” Japanese.

  • Brandon Brown

    “With one in every 20 marriages in Japan now involving one foreign partner…” I find this a little difficult to believe. Anyone have a source for this? Or know from personal experience?

  • Megumi Nishikura

    I have met Hafus with all sort of name combinations. I have heard good and bad things about each combination, so I think there is no perfect solution when parents are naming their kids. For some of those who have completely non-Japanese names, they feel that they have been denied part of their Japanese heritage. For people like myself with fully Japanese names, I am often stared at in disbelief when I had over my meishi in work situations. Because of the way I look, I get questions like “Is your husband Japanese?” I have softened my answers to “My father is Japanese”, when I really want to say “It’s because I AM Japanese”. More insulting people have said bluntly, “You are Japanese, with that face?” 「その顔で西倉めぐみなの?」
    I am grateful to Kittaka-san for this article as this is much needed discussion in Japan. I hope to ignite the same sort of discussion with the release of the upcoming documentary 「ハーフ」”Hafu: the mixed race experience in Japan”

  • Scott Newby

    Feel the author of this important issue has , intentionally or not, clouded this issue by using a transgender example to open the topic. I do know a number of people who have taken the huge decision to tell their family and friends and in some cases, their partners, that they no longer feel comfortable in their own skin. This shouldnt be confused with at its most innocent, ignorance, and at its worst, racial discrimination. Not employing someone because theyve decided to change sex and not employing someone cause of their hair colour, whilst both absurd, shouldnt be confused if we do, in reality, want things to change,

  • wanderingpippin

    While I do sympathize with Hiroaki, it just seems beyond naive to think that he could apply for a job as a male and then just drop off a document listing him as female with explanation without flags being raised. And of course any company should be doing what it can to prevent the accidental illegal hiring of foreigners without the legal right to work. I now that they have their explanation from Sukiyaki, the parents should be getting busy lobbying the government to allow the hiring of anybody, anywhere, anytime.

  • Toolonggone

    The article well describes how deep public misperception of ‘Japanese’ is penetrated in its secular society. Many people are well aware that the society keeps producing and re-producing the myth of Japanese as predominantly homogenous race by caucasianizing Yamato(Wajin), who is actually neither mono-ethnic nor mono-cultural. The great contraction is that the society has historically mistreated (and is still mistreating) indigenous people (i.e., Ainu, Buraku, Okinawans), while their great ancestors and founding father of Japanese culture are the immigrants of Korea and China. And see what some crazy people are acting out of such cultural ignorance—i.e., bashing people of Korean and Chinese descents (including Zainichies) as a national threat (huh!?) — makes me wonder what kind of race they are, and what kind of society keeps us silent on discrimination and social injustice.

  • tomi

    I think it was more about the gender issue than Katakana name issue….

  • FF

    Japan is a homogenous society. Foreigners are a bit of a novelty. But the truth is, immigration is a truly amazing thing. I truly the USA could fix our immigration system. Millions come here, and many want to come here, and I think they should all have the ample opportunity to.

  • longtermjapan

    I am American man and have 3 children with a Japanese mother. They are native in both English and Japanese and attend Japanese schools. They are well treated in lnearly all situations and find that their bicultural identity is a plus.
    If the juminhyo states sex they are referring to the accurate bioligical definition. Should Sukiya allow women and men to use each others toliets? Do women always feel confortable with men hanging out in their toilets? Should we inconvenience many for the sake of just one person?
    This transgender person is going to face even more difficulty once they graduate and try to enter the proper work force. It would be much easier just to get the sex change operation and spare everyone the confusion.
    Dont put the burden on Sukiya or the ward office.

  • Mark Makino

    Surprised no one has mentioned yet the author’s ignorant conflation of race with culture. If it’s true that most international marriages in Japan are between Japanese men and other Asian women, I suspect most of these “biracial” kids are being raised monoculturally.
    We should also leave behind the notion that societies can either be homogeneous or not; it would be more accurate to say that societies can consider themselves homogeneous or not, and that illusion can be created and reinforced through education and culture.

  • Saya

    Japan is actually really great in terms of equal treatment of foreigners. Foreigners get the same national heath insurance, can enjoy the same public schools as citizens, etc. In Singapore, it’s just accepted that foreigners (whether you’re American, Japanese, British, and regardless of how much taxes you pay) have to pay extra, are not eligible for a lot of things, and even if your child is born and raised in Singapore, if they’re not citizens, they can’t get into local public schools (law stipulates citizens get absolute priority, so although as a “foreigner” you can apply for local schools, they only give you a place in schools that no one wants to go to.) As a foreigner raising kids in a foreign country, I’d much rather live in Japan than in a lot of other countries.
    I think this article is a bit sensationalist by using how a transgender boy/girl was treated. That’s kind of irrelevant to how “half” Japanese are treated…

  • Olivier

    Well, the most important point in this article, at least in my view, is the fact that the hiring law system has “tightened” in the last years. Meaning that the government is at the core of the discrimination increasing cases.
    Seems pretty much in line with all the other latest changes or attempt of changes in the constitution and laws.

  • sing_or_die_1818

    so your whole premise is… life can be tough? wow, how revelatory. i also find it more than a bit disingenuous that you make the article all about biculturalism and then proceed to spend a huge chunk of time on an exceptional case involving a transgendered individual.

    can’t the whole situation be summed up as it often can be? exercise your best judgment and common sense, and prevail upon those around you–and, ultimately, the society in which you live–to do likewise.

    as the father of a young girl with a Western last name (mine) and a japanese first name (also mine–as in given by me), i think that the best that a parent can do is raise his or her child to know who she is and where she comes from, as well as where she is and what the norms are. this offers her best chance to be known for who she is rather than what she is. it really isn’t that complicated…

  • vasu

    Should they have this privilege of personal opinion on the issue they are interested in ? Don’t forget more you go places more strangest opinions the local people entertain .so Japanese are not only odd ,the world is instead.Refresh own knowledge on such subject before professing final verdict.

  • Gee Daigo Kawai

    as a Japanese employer, I can defo learn from these monocultural-racial problems.

    I’m saying that my company is an equal opportunity employer that would never enforce my employees NOT to dye or bleach their hair, sift out some bright people regardless of their gender, sexuality, religion, social stat or race…as long as they do the assigned job, i am so fine with it. we don’t raise much voice in the real world just because it’s just so natural to us. intolerance is evidence of impotence, at least that’s one of my company don’ts.

    Honestly this makes me sick to stomach that there still are(and mostly) many narrow minded business going on in the 21st century.

  • dcello

    There really is no reason Sukiya couldn’t hire him and treat him with dignity.
    Normally companies address employees by name and then the polite suffix “san.”
    Why did Sukiya even ask him if it’s alright to humiliate him by calling him a woman at work? They have his private info on an application- period.

    The excuse Sukiya gave is simply a lie. If companies are really that inflexible how will TEPCO clean-up Fukushima?

    The boycott on Sukiya makes sense, not just because of outrage over discrimination, but because they lied about it and became un-trustworthy. Would you eat their beef? You can assume they are buying the cheapest barely within government limits legal beef they can and serving it to you on like-quality rice for a nice FAT profit. If you ask about it’s origins and quality, you’ll get another indigestible tricky answer that will make you sick.
    Do yourself a favor and support the boycott.

  • Glen Douglas Brügge

    I still get the impression that haafu are only trendy, not because they are seen as equals, but because they are seen as oddities to be gawked at, akin to 見世物. “So Japanese, but still so foreign, wow!” It isn’t a sincere form of acceptance.

  • Richie Bartlett

    “…and there is a growing need for Japanese society to review the way it deals with them.”

    I disagree… Japanese should not just *deal* with us… Rather they should simply _accept_ us.

    After all, who else is going to repopulate this greying society?