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I was in Queens, New York a couple of weeks ago to clear out the home I grew up in. The house sold, we had to dump decades of stuff. One of the items that turned up and was most thankfully not thrown away was this commemorative collection of iron-on patches from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. My father, who was on the NBC News team that helped broadcast the Tokyo Games, undoubtedly picked this up when he was there that October.

The title on the cover page called these items wappen (ワッペン), generally, iron-on patch, a word I was not familiar with. I learned that wappen is a German word that means “coat of arms”, which is why these Japanese patches have their particular shape and design.

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This exercise made me think of all the foreign words that have become part of everyday Japanese, many that were imported during intense foreign interactions with the Japanese: the European influence in the Meiji Period, or the American occupation in the years after World War II.

Here are a few examples below:

  • Abekku means a man and a woman who are dating, or romantically involved – a couple, in short. This word comes from the most romantic of romance languages, French. Abekku is derived from avec, which means “with”.
  • Ankēto (アンケート) is the Japanese word for a survey, what you fill out when a company wants to know what you thought of its service, for example. This word comes from the Dutch word, enquête, which means “survey” as well, but originally derived from the French word of the same spelling that means “investigate”.
  • Arubaito (アルバイト), which means part-time work in Japanese, is often abbreviated to baito (バイト). It derives from the word arbeit in German, which means “work”.
  • Gipusu or gibusu (ギプス or ギブス), which means a plaster or plastic cast, used when one breaks a bone. This word comes from the German word gipsverband.
  • Oh-rai, oh-rai, hai stoppu“, is one of my favorite Japanese phrases, which is essentially a phoneticized version of the English words, “All right, all right, OK, stop!” which you hear very often in Japan when a man is directing a large truck to continue to back up into a parking area. This was likely a phrase that Japanese heard a lot during the American occupation in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
  • Randosel (ランドセル) is the cute, leather daypack you see on the back of school children in Japan. It is derived from the Dutch word, ransel, or “backpack” in Dutch.
  • Tempura (天ぷら), that uniquely Japanese dish of deep-fried seafood or vegetables is actually an import from Portugal. The Portuguese have a similar dish called tempero or temperara, which was likely brought over to Japan by Portuguese sailors and missionaries centuries ago.

So now that you’re an expert in Japanese words borrowed from overseas vocabularies, here is your test. If you understand this, who knows, maybe you can fake your way through a Japanese conversation one day.

I left my arbaito to go to my manshon. On the way I stopped at the konbini to buy some bata and biru. I dropped my hankachi there accidentally, and was so worried because it was mother’s gift to me. My mazakon kicked into high gear, so I ran to the depaato to find another hankachi just like the one I had. Unfortunately, while I was running across the street, a basu startled me with his kurakushon, and I fell. I tore a hole in my pantsu. Even worse, I broke my arm and had to wear a gipusu for a month. “Oh, mistake!

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aska cambridge in rio
Aska Cambridge

When around 98% of a nation is perceived to be of the same ethnicity, it stands to reason that nationality and ethnicity are viewed as one and the same.

But Japan has been a magnet for those seeking opportunity as well as for Japanophiles, particularly since the economy boomed in the 1980s. As the influential Japanese television entertainment industry increasingly viewed diversity as a way to get more viewers, Japanese-speaking foreigners became more popular. Children of mixed marriages, those who essentially grew up Japanese, have now become de rigeur on Japanese television.

I was one of those foreigners who came to Japan in the 1980s, but because I am of Japanese ethnicity, I have been able to blend in. I get neither fingers pointed at me, nor praise for my Japanese proficiency. But even though my cultural background is American, I can see why the attention of Japanese still, to this day, perk up when a non-Japanese is in their midst. The non-Japanese is such a tiny population that they really do stick out. Like the majority of the film, Lost in Translation, the minority experience for the “gaijin” in Japan is clichéd. And yet true.

So when the Japanese men’s 4X100 relay team very unexpectedly took silver at the Rio Olympics, losing only to the vaunted team from Jamaica, it was a very special moment for Japan. Not only did the Japanese excel in an area they are not customarily strong in – the sprint – a 23-year-old named Aska Cambridge (ケンブリッジ飛鳥), the child of a Japanese mother and a Jamaican father – was a proud member of those Japanese speedsters. He ran for the Japanese squad, he speaks fluent Japanese, and yet, he doesn’t fit the everyday look of what most Japanese perceive as Japanese.

Mashu Baker and his mother
Mashu Baker and his mom.

When a 21-year-old Japanese won judo gold in the 90kg weight class at the Rio Olympics, Japan cheered. At the 2012 London Games, no Japanese won gold in judo, the most Japanese of all the Olympic competitions. In fact, no Japanese had won the 90kg weight class since it was introduced in 1980. So who brought back the glory? A person named Mashu Baker (ベイカー茉秋), the son of a Japanese mother and an American father.

At first glance, he looks Japanese. But it’s the name that sticks out. Baker is clearly not a Japanese name, and it is written in the press in katakana, the script reserved for foreign words. Interestingly, the first name “Mashu”, while spelled out in Chinese characters, was likely chosen because of its close approximation to the name “Matthew”. I don’t know what’s written on his US passport, but it’s possible the Bakers decided they wanted their son to be identified in Japan as a “ha-fu”, a child of mixed parentage.

“Ha-fu” over the decades, perhaps centuries, have on the whole experienced more prejudicial than preferential treatment. But I do not underestimate the power of role models. I am sure that the brilliant examples of Aska Cambridge and Mashu Baker will continue to help revise how Japanese, and the rest of the world, perceive what a Japanese is.

And that’s a good thing.