How dating my boyfriend helped me embrace my Japanese heritage

Malia Ogawa is half Japanese, half Hawaiian—but not in the way that most hapa are. Read about her story, and how her boyfriend helped her to connect with her Japanese heritage.

I’m half Japanese—but not in the way that most people are half. 

I don’t have one full Japanese parent and one white parent—both of my parents are half Japanese. Out of all the other hapas (Hawaiian word for “half”) I know, I’m the only one who has mixed heritage like this. And it makes it difficult to completely relate to other hapas. Sometimes it makes me feel like I’m alone.

See also: Young Canadian inventor Ann Makosinski on her experiences as a mixed race creator

I’m also part Hawaiian. My mom and dad are from Hawai’i (my mom was born in Virginia and moved there as a kid, while my dad was born and raised there), but my father is the one who has some Hawaiian blood. It’s why I have such curly hair and full lips.

Even though everyone in my family is biologically half Japanese, we’ve always been more culturally Hawaiian. 

Although I’ve never lived in Hawai’i, my siblings and I were brought up in a very Hawaiian-centric manner. Our house is decked out in Hawaiian decorations, pineapples, and ‘ukuleles, and we all have Hawaiian names (including our dog).

My brother and dad wear Aloha shirts when they need to dress up. We usually have some sort of luau-themed party at our houses. We always got leis for our graduations. My dad plays the ‘ukulele, paddles, and stand-up paddleboards. My family was, for most of my life really only in touch with our Hawaiian heritage.

The author giving a side-hug to her boyfriend in May 2018
Photo submitted

Enter: my boyfriend. Well, let’s be real, he’s really more of a partner. He’s so much more than just a boyfriend—we’ve been together for four years as of September 26th, 2020. He’s the best person I know and my life has drastically improved upon him entering it.

He is also the reason I’ve been able to embrace my Japanese heritage more. Through being with him, I’ve connected with the culture, food, and mannerisms that I might not have experienced otherwise.

Dating another hapa

Back in 2015, I was getting my master’s degree at King’s College London. I met him at an “around the world” themed party. Two of our mutual friends were dating at the time, which is how we met. I can still remember the first thing I said to him: “Welcome to the half Japanese club”.

Callum is also half Japanese. Unlike me, he’s British Japanese and his mom is from Japan. We are both biologically half Japanese, but our backgrounds couldn’t be any more different.

Black and white pictures of the author's grandmother and family during her time in Japanese internment camps, with text describing the pictures
Photo submitted

During WWII, my maternal grandma and her entire family were in Japanese internment camps, and my paternal Japanese side was in Hawai’i, living under martial law. The majority of my academic focus involved researching internment during this time.

Every Japanese American descendant I’ve met shares this heritage with me—except for Callum. 

I am yonsei (fourth generation); Cal is nissei (second generation). Aside from our respective nationalities, Cal grew up culturally Japanese; I grew up culturally Hawaiian. 

My paternal grandfather only understood some Japanese, and my maternal grandmother married a white man and didn’t teach her children Japanese. She wanted to prove that she was an American. Locking someone up on the basis of what they look like and who they are can do that to people.

As a result, neither my mother nor my father learned Japanese growing up, and I only learned how to speak French. Cal grew up speaking Japanese at home with his brother and parents.

The author, her boyfriend, and his mother in Kyoto in 2019
Photo submitted

Cal also grew up doing kendo – a traditional Japanese sport that’s similar to fencing, but more badass in my opinion.

See also: Ketchup and Soya Sauce is an intimate exploration of interracial relationships in Canada

Meeting the fam

Upon meeting Cal’s family I noticed some very Japanese characteristics. Shoes are taken off at the entrance of the house and house slippers are available if your feet are cold. Everyone wears hantens in the winter, and consistently speaks Japanese. 

As they are also a British family, I did notice some very English characteristics as well—most noticeably, the classic British notion of serving up a cuppa multiple times a day. I had stepped into a lovely Japanese-British hybrid environment—one that I began to embrace as my own.

Being immersed in a Japanese-heavy setting led me down a journey to visit my own Japanese family in California. My maternal Japanese grandma passed away in 2013, but a lot of her siblings still live in close proximity to each other in LA.

the author and her family in Japan, in April 2019
Photo submitted

During the two or three years I spent living at home in Seattle (2016-2019), I went down to visit them with my mom a few times. On my 26th birthday in 2018, my parents and I travelled to interview my living Japanese relatives.

But, lo and behold, someone else had decided to join our trip as a birthday surprise—Callum! He came with me and my mom to meet my Japanese relatives and speak with them about their time in the camps and growing up in the US. They gushed over his British accent.

We were able to learn more about what the Kawashiris (my mom’s Japanese family) went through immediately following the camps. This was information that I had never heard before and found very compelling.

Embracing my heritage

Along with a renewed interest in my Japanese cultural heritage and family history, I also noticed little things that had been incorporated into my life via Callum. I started wearing a hanten around the house when I was cold. His mom got me some kawaii Japanese socks that I enjoy wearing. Cal got me a kimono-inspired robe from Japan that I would use as a lightweight cover. 

The author and her family dressed in traditional Japanese garb, taken during a 2019 trip to Japan
Photo submitted

My parents even found a renewed interest in their Japanese culture as well. My mom began watching tv shows in Japanese, my dad began looking into his family history. What’s more, my mom and I began taking Japanese language classes together at the local community college. 

Also—I’m obsessed with Gudetama. But that’s not because of Callum – it’s because of Gudetama (Gudetama is life.)

Most importantly, we made plans to move to Japan together. We had to suffer through long distance for a few years because I wasn’t able to obtain a UK work visa. This was our way of reuniting and living together again, as well as our chance to immerse ourselves in a truly organic Japanese environment.

A new beginning

Flash forward now to July 2019 – a time before coronavirus ever existed. Cal and I landed in Tokyo on July 4th and began our adventure together in Japan. 

It’s been about a year and a half now, and so much has changed. I’ve learned so much about Japanese people, culture, heritage, and history. It’s interesting to see and experience the world that my ancestors came from, as my past two generations have been such an interesting American mix.

The author and her boyfriend at Kyoto at Fushimi Inari in November 2019
Photo submitted

I can see the origins of the mannerisms that my Japanese family in the US have incorporated into their lives. The experience has been fulfilling so far, but at times, it also feels more isolating—another casualty of being hapa.

Nonetheless, Callum and I have been able to build our own life up together, with our own experiences of being Japanese Westerners—and it’s become something pretty special.

Cal has been able to teach me a lot about Japan and I, in turn, have actually been able to teach him a bit more about Japanese people. As an English teacher, I interact with all types of Japanese people all the time; meanwhile, Cal’s interactions are more limited to his office.

We’ve met English-speaking foreigners from all over the world who’ve expanded our world views even more. And we’ve made all types of Japanese friends who’ve introduced us to new experiences.

I had no idea how our move to Japan would turn out—it was all shrouded in mystery for me. But now that I’ve been here for over a year, it’s turning out to become something quite wonderful.

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