plant2 Documenting the west coast Nikkei experience [and beyond] from the viewpoint of a hapa Nikkei graphic designer, editor, photographer, taiko player & teacher.


What is Hapa?

I’m a hapa.

What the heck’s a hapa?

Wikipedia defines hapa like this:
In the Hawaiian language, hapa is strictly defined as: portion, fragment, part, fraction, installment; to be partial, less. It is a loan from the English word half. However, it has an extended meaning of “half-caste” or “of mixed descent”. This is the only meaning of the term in Hawaiian Pidgin, the creole spoken by many Hawai’i residents.

Used without qualification, hapa is often taken to mean “part white“, and is short hand for hapa haole. The term can be used in conjunction with other Hawaiian racial and ethnic descriptors to specify a particular racial or ethnic mixture. Examples of this include:

  • hapa haole (part Caucasian/white)
  • hapa kanaka (part Hawaiian)
  • hapa popolo (part African/black)
  • hapa kepani (part Japanese); the term hapanese is also encountered
  • hapa pilipino (part Filipino)
  • hapa pake (part Chinese)
  • hapa kolea (part Korean)
  • hapa kamoa (part Samoan)
  • hapa sepania (part Spanish)
  • hapa pukiki (part Portuguese)

Some people don’t like the term hapa, given its somewhat derogatory roots, but many mixed Asian-Canadians/Amercians have embraced it, although it has yet to enter the mainstream vocabulary. But whatever term you want to use, hapas are here to stay. With a 90% intermarriage rate (give or take) Japanese Canadians are producing hapa children at a prodigious rate. Attend a Japanese Canadian gathering or event and chances are you’ll see hapa everywhere, ranging in age from infants to mid-thirties.

I’m somewhat old for a hapa, as when my parents got married (the mid fifties) intermarriage was still relatively rare.

I once interviewed an older hapa who spent the duration of World War Two in Vancouver. His father, who was white, was in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. His Japanese-born mother refused to go to the internment camps with the other Japanese Canadians as she held a British Passport. He did not have a happy childhood. He felt shunned by both Japanese and whites alike and had to learn to defend himself as he was beaten up on a regular basis by white kids at school, this despite having an English surname.

In contrast, I interviewed another hapa, Gordon Kobayashi, who actually served in Military Intelligence during the war, despite having a Japanese surname. He remembers being called into his commanding officer’s office one day. He remembers the conversation like this:

“I had been out here for six or eight months, and the Commanding Officer called me in and he said, ‘Kobayashi.’

“I said, ‘Sir.’

“And he said, ‘Japanese name, isn’t it?’

“And I said, ‘Yes Sir.’

“And he goes, ‘Ohhhhhhh . . .’

“And I’m thinking. ‘Oh boy, here it goes—they’re going to turf me right out!’

“But the CO told me he got a telegram from Ottawa that morning asking how the hell a guy named Kobayashi got into this highly secretive intelligence unit! (Laughs)

“I mean, in the time I was there I could have run out and blown up a bunch of stations or something! But anyway, I didn’t hear anything more about it and I was left on my own, still in the service . . . And when it was over we all split up and went home.”

These two stories help illustrate the fact that being hapa is often what you make of it, or perhaps what it makes of you. It’s too big an issue to get into here, but here are some links to sites that deal with all things hapa (please send me more links if you have them):

The Hapa Project

Eurasian Nation

MAVIN Foundation

Meditating Bunny
Home page of Jeff Chiba Stearns, whose short animated film What Are You Anyways? deals with growing up hapa.

“For, by and about Half Japanese” - okmd Resources and Information.