AS THE SON From a Japanese mother and a Beninese father, Hachimura Rui stood out from her classmates in Toyama, a small town about a six-hour drive from Tokyo. Other kids laughed at him, he once reminded The Undefeated, a sports website, “You’re black, go away.” But his talent on the basketball court has helped him gain respect. Now a star in America NBA, Mr. Hachimura will carry the Japan team flag at the opening of the Olympics on July 23.
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The selection of Mr. Hachimura as standard bearer reflects how attitudes to race and identity are changing in a country where the idea of racial homogeneity has long prevailed. He belongs to a cohort of prominent Métis athletes who are forcing Japan to consider its diversity, from Haitian-Japanese tennis champion Osaka Naomi to Ghanaian-Japanese sprinter Sani Brown Abdul Hakim and Iranian-Japanese baseball star. , Darvish Yu. “They become models that they did not have themselves,” says Miyazaki Tetsuro, a Belgian-Japanese photographer who documents other hafu (half), as the half-breeds are often called in Japan.
The idea that Japan is a racially homogeneous nation has always been a myth. The Japanese are from many parts of Asia; Japan is home to the Ainu, Okinawans (both from islands once separate from Japan), and Koreans, among others. The Empire of Japan was a multi-ethnic society (although the Japanese ethnicity was at the top of the hierarchy). But the myth of homogeneity has found enthusiastic acolytes, both among Japanese looking for a post-imperial identity and among foreigners looking for explanations for Japan’s economic miracle. A whole literary genre has emerged around her: Nihonjinron, theories about the Japanese. Such ideas “have excised the multicultural past and elided the existence of minority populations,” says Michael Weiner, editor of “Japan’s Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity”. The Conservatives still cling to it today.
The history of a pure people leaves little room for hafu. Being considered truly Japanese usually means having two Japanese parents, being fluent in Japanese, and “playing Japanese”. “Most of us have this constant feeling that we aren’t Japanese enough,” says Miyazaki. Hafu are often seen as foreigners, although they hold Japanese passports. Ms. Osaka’s grandfather disowned her mother when she first revealed that she was seeing a foreign man.
To this day, racism remains a big problem. This is why the celebration of champion athletes can smell hypocrisy. Mr Hachimura said he receives hate messages on social media “almost every day”. Nissin, a noodle maker, lightened Ms. Osaka’s skin and hair in an advertisement. (After a backlash, the company withdrew the ad.) Some on the right are still wondering if the two are really Japanese. The situation is even more difficult for those who don’t have strong forehands or smooth leaps. Métis children are brutally bullied; some schools still have rules requiring students to dye or straighten their hair if it does not meet the black and straight Japanese standard. Racial discrimination in hiring and accommodation is widespread. Japanese law lacks teeth to prevent it, laments Shimoji Lawrence Yoshitaka, a sociologist who studies hafu. Minorities have few representatives in Japanese politics.
Yet Japan’s more diverse reality is harder to ignore, especially with stars like Mr. Hachimura. It helps that the new generation of athletes does not hesitate to broadcast their experiences. “Hearing such voices openly speak of discrimination, people realize that they are not alone,” says Mr. Shimoji.
There are also more foreigners in Japan than at any time in its post-war history. A stealthy immigration drive to offset the shrinking Japanese population has seen the number of foreigners living there drop from about 2 million ten years ago to nearly 3 million today. This is only 2% of the total population, but the share is much higher among city dwellers and young people: at least 10% of those aged 20 and over in Tokyo were born abroad. (Japan does not collect statistics on the ethnic origin of its citizens, only on their nationality.)
The stigma surrounding marrying foreigners is fading: in 1993, 30% of Japanese people approved of international marriages, while 34% disapproved; in 2013, the latest year for which data is available, 56% approved and 20% did not. One in 50 babies are born to mixed couples today, up from one in 135 in the late 1980s. As Mr. Hachimura and his peers show, their potential is enormous.
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “The Changing Face of Japan”