Hāfu: Being an NBA star between two cultures

What does it mean to be Japanese? Evan-Thomas May looks at NBA player Rui Hachimura and his challenges as a mixed race athlete.

One of my favorite yearly traditions is heading out with my dad to catch a Lakers game. Unfortunately due to COVID-19 we were not able to go for a couple of seasons, but I decided that this would be the year we start things back up.

Because tickets can be so expensive, my father and I are usually pigeonholed into seeing small-market opponents come to town, and this year ended up being no exception. It was a Sunday night in mid-December, and we were graced with watching them face-off against the Washington Wizards.

To even the most diehard NBA fans, this is hardly a matchup to get excited about. To me though, picking this game wasn’t random — I mean I just as easily could’ve seen them play the Orlando Magic. No, I wanted to see the Washington Wizards, because it meant I could see one of my favorite players in action: Rui Hachimura.

At face value, Rui Hachimura is just an NBA role player looking for his opportunity to shine. And that’s not an incorrect evaluation. The reason I admire Hachimura isn’t for what he’s done on the stat sheet, nor is it for any of his athletic achievements, really. Of course his talents are what caught my attention, but for years now I’ve been following his journey, and I deeply empathize in how he’s endured the cultural duress in making it out of Japan.

It is truly a different country — and for people like him, and people like me, being Japanese in Japan doesn’t always mean that you’re home.

Being Hāfu

Rui Hachimura is Japanese. Born in the Toyama Prefecture to a Japanese mother and Beninese father, Hachimura was graced with athleticism that would quickly carry him up the national basketball ranks. It wasn’t long until Western associations began to take notice, and in 2016 Hachimura would leave his home country to join the decorated basketball program at Gonzaga University.

Hachimura is hāfu — that is, he is only half-Japanese. As aforementioned, he is also half-Black, which in most, if not all, Asian countries makes for a very tough upbringing. This perception is perhaps magnified in Japan where classism and racially homogenous conformity are still fundamental standards.

While much of the xenophobic societal norms are not as violent or extremist as some Western counterparts, the belief system runs deep and is maintained in contemporary society to ensure a social stratification by the shrinking purist majority. It’s disappointing, but there are far too many instances to be dismissive of it.

With this rise to fame, Hachimura became the recipient of incredible public scrutiny. The man who was the sole reason for newfound attention on the Asian basketball scene was also being chastised by his Japanese brethren. Everything from his public demeanor, to how he dealt with his mental health, and down to his physical characteristics were criticized. Why? Because he’s not full Japanese.

Altruism or stunt?

At the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, Hachimura was selected to hoist the Japanese national flag at the opening ceremony. I assume most people didn’t think twice about it. And who could blame them? Hachimura is the first Japanese born player to be picked up in the first round of the NBA draft, and is currently one of the most internationally recognizable athletes hailing from the country.

Within Japan, this image elicited a polarizing, fervorous public response and begged the enigmatic question: What does it mean to be Japanese?

When reexamining Rui Hachimura being the flag bearer for Japan, it called into question the true motives behind the selection. In a country that still practices discriminatory physical appearance policies in schools, and even recently had a Deputy Prime Minister refer to the nation as one of “one language, one ethnic group,” it becomes easy to question if this was altruistic, or merely a propaganda stunt.

What’s for certain is that placing Hachimura in the spotlight further highlighted the disparity between Japan as they want the world to view them, and the reality of Japanese attitudes towards anybody whose looks or actions deviate from the norm.

Tolerance for Diversity

It’s admittedly easy to nitpick the Japanese Olympic committee’s actions based on historical context with the country’s aging population. This very well could have been an outward facing effort to invigorate the citizens into embracing multiculturalism.

The steps need to start somewhere, and something Japan is known for, both internally and externally, is their careful curation. Whether it’s fashion, food, sports — there is intention behind everything. Though the public may scowl at a hāfu carrying the rising sun on the world’s stage, and desecrating some self-perceived sense of purity in the process, it was executed understanding what backlash would arise.

Although the true intentions will remain a mystery, labeling this as merely performative is tough considering the emboldened responses from both sides of the aisle. Because yes, as much negativity has arisen from the situation, there are many folks who are finally finding representation in what it means to be Japanese.

What does it mean to be Japanese?

In a society where individualism and heterogeneity is frowned upon, seeing the current prominence of people like Rui Hachimura gives new meaning to the ever-evolving, younger generations of Japan. And that’s no hyperbole. It is a country that has seen mixed-race births climb from one in 135, to now one in 50 over the course of just a few decades.

The country is changing, whether those in the arbitrary ruling class want to acknowledge it or not. So while instances of controversy surrounding racial purity will inevitably continue, hāfu individuals like myself must remember that we are only now visible because of people like Rui Hachimura rewriting the very definition of what it means to be Japanese.

As time goes on, I’m confident that one day I will have a reason to see the Lakers play the Orlando Magic.

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