What it means to be a mixed-race model in Japan

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in November 2017.

Tokyo, Japan CNN  — 

For 18-year-old model Rina Fukushi, Tokyo is home. But growing up as a mixed-race child in Japan wasn’t always easy. With a Japanese-American father and a Filipina mother, Fukushi was one of a growing number of biracial individuals identifying as “hafu” – a phonetic play on the English word “half.”

“I was teased when I was in elementary and junior high school because I looked foreign,” she recalled in an interview with CNN.

Successful hafu models like Fukushi -- and contemporaries like Kiko Mizuhara and Rola -- have become fashion week regulars, their faces regularly splashed onto international fashion campaigns and magazine covers. Here, Rina poses for Vogue Japan.

The term hafu was first popularized in the 1970s as Japan loosened its approach towards foreign residents, giving them better access to public housing, insurance and job opportunities. An increased number of US soldiers in the country also contributed to an upsurge in mixed-race marriages and biracial children.

Despite increasingly progressive attitudes towards race in Japan, the country’s immigration numbers have remained comparatively low. Foreigners and their hafu children often live as outsiders, a topic explored in the 2011 documentary “Hafu: The Mixed Race Experience in Japan.”

“As much as hafus try to immerse themselves, they still feel like foreigners and are treated as such,” said Lara Perez Takagi, co-director of film. “The constant topic of people being bullied because they look different, the stereotype that all hafus speak two languages, the stereotype that all hafus are beautiful and are models (and) the topic of hiding your heritage.”

Successful hafu models like Fukushi – and contemporaries like Kiko Mizuhara and Rola – are using some of these stereotypes to their advantage. They have become fashion week regulars in recent years, their faces splashed across international fashion campaigns and magazine covers.

“I guess Japan has changed,” Fukushi said. “It might be because I’m doing this job, but people now say ‘being mixed is cool.’ I suppose the number of those who have confidence and their own style has increased.”

Hafu models’ chameleon looks have helped defy categorization – and even national identity. Editorial director of Numéro Tokyo, Sayumi Gunji, estimates that 30% to 40% of runway models in Japanese fashion shows now identify as hafu.

“Almost all top models in the their 20s are hafu, especially the top models of popular fashion magazines,” Sayumi said in a phone interview.

“(In) the Japanese media and market, a foreigner’s flawless looks aren’t as readily accepted – they feel a little distant. But biracial models, who are taller, have bigger eyes, higher noses (and) Barbie-doll-like looks, are admired because they are dreamy looking but not totally different from Japanese. That’s the key to their popularity,” added Sayumi.

It is apt that Fukushi, one of the most popular hafu models in Japan, is interviewed at Frescade, a vintage store in central Tokyo. Vintage shops have been popular in the country since the postwar influx of Western pop culture, from music to fashion. Carefully procured items by Frescade’s well-traveled owner, Kaori, present a mix of cultural influences and eras.

“Young people are attracted by one-off pieces, as opposed to mass-produced clothes,” Fukushi explained, wearing a dress she found on an earlier visit. The dress, inspired by the cut of a kimono and bearing a print of hinomaru – the Japanese motif of the red sun — wasn’t actually made in Japan.

“It surprised me at first, but I guess the slightly different take on the traditional kimono makes it more charming,” she said. “It’s Japanese-ish – but not exactly.”

CNN’s Momo Moussa and Naotomo Umewaka contributed to this report.