On the Origins of the Word ハーフ, or Hafu (Half): Belonging and Not Belonging at Once

Miss Japan Ariana Miyamoto at the Miss Universe pageant Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

In the final installment of her Catapult column, “Mistranslate,” author Nina Coomes writes about the word, ハーフ, or hafu,“the Japanized pronunciation of the English word half. It is used primarily to describe biracial people who have one parent of European descent. While unraveling the word’s origins, Coomes thinks through evolving ideas of citizenship and beauty in Japan, and brings us along her journey to understand what it means to come from more than one place.

When I began writing these essays months ago, I wanted to write toward ease in an uneasy place. I was trying to reconcile my two tongues by going beyond the limits of dictionary definitions, telling stories of reverence and recognition along the way. I assumed my work would mean tying things together; taking what felt disparate and attempting to make it fit into a larger lexicon.

So I wrote the first essay, and the next, and the one after that, and what I thought was going to be a body of work focused on finding harmonies between two voices instead evolved into cacophony. I found myself scrawling a veritable dictionary of mistranslation in my notebook, the margins darkening as my handwriting turned frantic. It is actually laughable—I wanted to try to make my home in a place of mistranslation, and yet here I am surprised by the home I’ve begun to write.

Similarly, when I began writing about the term hafu, I initially thought I would write about an identity that was more than simply half of something, blending English and Japanese to explain the other. Instead what I’m finding is that I have no easy conclusion in any language. I am just beginning to sink my teeth into all the uncertainties I’m discovering.

Read the essay