Phrases for Describing Your Background in Japanese

by Niko Catharine Watanabe Schultz

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If you’ve studied Japanese, you probably learned how to say things like 中国人です (chūgokujin desu, “I’m Chinese”) or アメリカ人です (amerikajin desu, “I’m American”). If you fit Japanese people’s image of what someone from your country looks and acts like, people usually understand these kinds of introductions without any trouble. However, if your background is a little more complicated than that, you may feel that these kinds of terms don’t accurately describe you.

Suppose, for instance, that you are a second-generation Chinese American. You were born and raised in the United States, but your parents are originally from China. If you introduce yourself to Japanese people as Chinese, they will assume that you were born and raised in China and your first language is Chinese. If you introduce yourself as American, you may be met with confused looks and prying questions because you don’t look like what Japanese people imagine when they hear “American.”

If this sounds familiar, then this blog post is for you. I’d like to provide some Japanese vocabulary that may help you when you are attempting to explain your background to Japanese people.

The Japanese language actually does have words for people who are descended from immigrants. The connector 系 (kei) can be used to indicate someone’s ancestry. For example, ベトナム系オーストラリア人 (betonamu kei ōsutorariajin) refers to an Australian of Vietnamese descent; フィリピン系カナダ人 (firipin kei kanadajin) refers to a Canadian with ancestors from the Philippines.

While these terms are useful, you may find that many Japanese people are not used to them. Many people in Japan haven’t met people with immigrant ancestry, and may be confused if you introduce yourself in this way. If you find that people are having trouble understanding your background, I recommend explaining a little about your family history. For example:

Torinidādo tobago umare sodachi desu ga, senzo wa motomoto indo kara kimashita.
I was born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, but my ancestors were originally from India.

Taiwan de umareta kedo, rokusai no toki nyūjīrando ni ijū shite, sore kara zutto nyūjīrando de sodachimashita.
I was born in Taiwan, but I immigrated to New Zealand when I was six years old, and I grew up in New Zealand after that.

Some terms that you might find useful are 移住する (ijū suru, “to immigrate”), 移民 (imin, “immigrant”), 難民 (nanmin, “refugee”), 戦争 (sensō, “war”), and 先祖 (senzo, “ancestors”).

There are some special terms that you can use if you have Japanese ancestry. People of Japanese descent are known as 日系人 (nikkeijin) in Japanese. You can put your nationality after the word nikkei: for example, 日系イギリス人 (nikkei igirisujin) refers to someone of Japanese descent from the United Kingdom; 日系ブラジル人 (nikkei burajirujin) refers to someone of Japanese descent from Brazil.

People often follow the term nikkei with a description of their generation. 日系一世 (nikkei issei) refers to someone who emigrated from Japan to another country. 日系二世 (nikkei nisei) refers to someone who has at least one parent that is originally from Japan. 日系三世 (nikkei sansei) refers to someone who has at least one grandparent that is originally from Japan.

When people hear nikkeijin, they often think of someone whose parents are both ethnically Japanese. I have heard debates about whether multiracial and multiethnic people can use this term to describe themselves. Personally, I am a multiracial Japanese American and I have used nikkeijin to describe myself. However, I have found that Japanese people are more likely to understand terms such as ハーフ (hāfu, “half”) and クオーター (kuōtā, “quarter”).

These terms are also the subjects of frequent debate. Some multiracial and multiethnic people in Japan object to the words “half” and “quarter,” arguing that they make mixed-race people sound like fractions of human beings. Some people and groups have attempted to introduce terms such as ダブル (daburu, “double”) and ミックスルーツ (mikkusu rūtsu, “mixed roots”).

These terms have caught on in certain circles, and I have even had a Japanese teacher advise me to use the term “double” instead of “half” in a report. However, I have found that the terms have not spread much among the general public of Japan. In my experience, Japanese people who have not had education or training about social issues are likely to use the term “half” rather than “double” or “mixed roots.”

The term “quarter” can be particularly confusing. It is often used to refer to someone who has three Japanese grandparents and one foreign grandparent. However, many Japanese people seem to be confused about its meaning. I have three foreign grandparents and one Japanese grandparent. When I tell Japanese people that my father is “half,” they often take a moment to process this information, then ask me, “So you’re a quarter?” I usually just say yes to avoid getting into a complicated discussion about terms for mixed-race people. However, I have a Japanese friend who, if she is present for this conversation, often corrects the person, calling me a 逆クオーター (gyaku kuōtā, “reverse quarter”).

Because people of my particular background are still uncommon in Japan, I usually avoid using terms that might confuse people and prefer to simply explain my family history. This usually sounds something like:

Amerika de umerete sodatta kedo, sobo ga nihonjin de chichi ga hāfu desu.
I was born and raised in the United States, but my grandmother is from Japan and my father is “half.”

This description be difficult for people to process, so I usually supplement it by pulling up family pictures on my phone. When people see pictures of my German American grandfather and Japanese grandmother, they seem to find it easier to understand my background. I usually show them a picture of my grandparents when they got married in 1951 and a picture of me, my parents, and my grandparents at my college graduation in 2017.

This is how I personally explain my background. Ultimately, however, the terms people use to describe their identities vary from person to person, and only you can decide what is right for you. How do you explain your heritage in Japanese? Let me know!


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