The Raising of bilingual haafu children in contemporary Japan

Barry Kavanagh, Aomori University of Health and Welfare [About | Email]

Volume 13, Issue 4 (Article 20 in 2013). First published in ejcjs on 15 December 2013.

Suggested citation: Barry Kavanagh, "The Raising of bilingual haafu children in contemporary Japan." electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies volume 13 issue 4 (15 December 2013). Available at


This paper examines the theoretical and practical issues surrounding the raising of a bilingual haafu (a child born to a Japanese and foreign parent) through a discussion of the literature and a case study of an English father married to a Japanese with two haafu children.

An examination of the literature looks at the issue of bilingualism in Japan. It is further developed with a discussion of the ethnic identity of half children and how the environment in which they are raised affects the minority language and how they view themselves, and their cultural heritage, in a society which has traditionally dictated assimilation and homogeneity over multiculturalism.

The case study aims to see how issues reflected in the literature parallel the practical concerns in how the family raises their children to be bilingual, concluding that the environment in and outside the home is imperative for the successful raising of a bilingual child.

Keywords: Bilingualism, haafu, social environment.


A great number of factors can be cited as being beneficial to bilingual development. Garcia (1986) emphasises the value of interactions in the language with family members, social networks and through trips abroad. Baker (2007) suggests that the child’s individual personality, their overall language ability, the quantity and quality of interaction with the language and a stimulating environment are necessary perquisites to support bilingualism. Arnberg (1987) claims that motivation can affect bilingual development and Hammers & Blanc (2000) discuss the value placed on the language. It can be argued that all these factors have their roots within the social environment in which the child grows up. The social environment is therefore considered to have a weighty role in the development of bilingualism, especially in children.

This paper looks at the social environment and the sociolinguistic factors that influence the raising of a bilingual haafu in Japan. The Japanese haafu, from the English word half, describes a child usually born and raised in Japan with one foreign and one Japanese parent. The data used are based on informal, semi-structured, recorded interviews with an Englishmen who is married to a Japanese woman and the father of two young haafu children, a daughter aged 3 and a son aged 5. The family lives in Japan and was observed weekly over a 4 week period. Through these direct observations of child parent interactions, and interviews with the father, the paper examines the issues facing the foreign parent in raising a Japanese and English speaking bilingual haafu in Japan in the early years of childhood.

A discussion of the literature in the first half of the paper focuses on the definition of bilingualism, its status in Japan, and the ethnic identity of half Japanese children living and growing up in Japan. A discussion of some of the practicalities and difficulties of raising a bilingual child are then reviewed in an examination of the social environment, the role of the minority language speaker parent and English within the home. This is followed by the case study which aims to show how the issues outlined in the literature review are realised and parallel the practical situation of raising a bilingual bicultural child in Japan.

The term haafu

The term haafu is now the predominant term to describe someone (usually born in Japan) who is the offspring of a Japanese and foreign parent. They are usually raised and educated in Japan, and are fluent in Japanese. With the exception of appearance, they are essentially Japanese. The label is commonly used within the Japanese media with some Japanese claiming that it is a term of endearment rather than offensive terminology. However, as Greer (2012, p.372) points out “While most Japanese do not usually use the word haafu vindictively, some international families and multiethnic people do not choose to use this term to identify themselves, often because of its implications of inadequacy, deficiency and incompleteness.” Kamada (2010) suggests that within the foreign community in Japan a rejection and deconstruction of the use of the word haafu has led to the spontaneous reconstitution and creation of an alternative word daburu (derived from the English word ‘double’), implying an additive nuance. However this term has not yet gained widespread acceptance or usage (Greer 2012) and is rejected outright by many multiethnic Japanese people themselves. For the purposes of this paper however the term haafu or half will be used.

Definition of Bilingualism

The simultaneous acquisition of two languages does not necessarily ensure equal proficiency in both of them or a ‘balanced bilingualism’. One language usually plays a dominant role which is dependent on the function that the language is used for and also the prestige attached to it (Hammers & Blanc 2000). Those that never produce the language conversationally but have a comprehension of it can be labeled passive or receptive bilinguals and those that can talk in both the languages fluently are deemed to be ‘productive’ or ‘active’ bilinguals.

The cultural identity of the bilingual can also be defined in a socio-cultural context. If the speaker can identify with both languages and values them highly this can lead to a stable cultural identity accompanied by an advanced proficiency in the second minority language. Lambert (1977) calls this additive bilingualism. In contrast if the language is devalued in terms of status and prestige then cultural identity and linguistic development will be dramatically impaired leading to what Lambert (1977) terms subtractive bilingualism. The role of the social environment therefore can play a significant role in how the language(s) are viewed and ultimately developed.

Bilingualism in Japan

According to Grosjean (1982), Japan has been long been considered a monolingual / mono-cultural country. Although there have been strenuous efforts over the last 30 years since Grosjean’s observations by the Japanese Ministry of Education to improve students’ English communicative ability, it is still far from being successful (Kavanagh, 2012). Sakamoto (2010) notes that the Japanese Ministry of Education mission statement in 2009 aimed to reform English education and internalisation in order for the country to reach international standards and to become more competitive. However, she states that Japanese TOEFL scores still rank among the lowest in Asia with no immediate improvement evident. This, she suggests, is reflected in the results of a Benesse Educational Research & Development Center survey of Japanese attitudes toward English education. Answers were mostly negative with respondents stating that they have no confidence in their English ability and that English education (in Japan) is not particularly useful or beneficial. The Japanese education ministry now plans to make English classes at primary schools compulsory from the third year instead of the current 5th year. The aim, they suggest, is to inculcate basic English skills to children from an early age, with the long-term goal of nurturing skills for working on the global stage in the future.

Morita (2010) suggests that in Japan, English is considered a prestigious language due to its international status, but that English usage within the country has no “range or depth” and there are few domains where English is used or even supplants Japanese. She concludes that despite the fact that English has a strong visual presence through the media and advertising within Japan, the language itself has no official status and the majority of Japanese citizens do not need to be fluent in the language in their everyday lives.

Births of the so called ‘half-Japanese’ babies have escalated rapidly along with the rise of international marriages in recent years. With this rise the study of multi-ethnic identity has gained increased attention. These haafu children attempt to fit into a Japanese education system that has traditionally dictated assimilation and homogeneity over multiculturalism (Okano & Tsuchiya, 1999, Takahashi & Vaipae, 1996). This rapid escalation in the number of bicultural babies has led to many families being raised to speak the language of both parents. Kittaka’s (2013) newspaper article gives an account of Mrs. Nobuoka, a director of the Bilingualism special interest group (an offshoot of the Japanese association for language teaching), who suggests that while interest in bilingualism for children is rising in Japan, it is still a struggle for parents. In the article, Mrs. Nobuoka states “A lot of people assume that it is just a natural process to learn two languages in a bilingual home, and in some countries it is, since the community supports that. But Japan is still such a monolingual society that parents really have to make an effort.”

It is within this backdrop that the challenges of raising a bilingual haafu become apparent and will be given further consideration within the case study.

Ethnic identity and the haafu

Baker (2007) suggests that the ethnic identity of a child begins at around three to five years old and that this identity has a role to play in the motivation to learn a second language. The attitudes that a child has towards the target culture and language and their own ethnic identity are important. When a child does not identify with the culture then they become withdrawn, what Lambert (1977) calls “subtractive bilinguals.” The social environment and attitudes toward the target culture prove to be very significant indeed, especially when you take into account two cultures as diverse for example as America and Japan. Through discussions with non-Japanese parents who are married with children to Japanese partners, they suggest that reaction to their half children has always been positive in the initial pre-school years. Expressions such as kawaii or cute along with ego ga dekiru kara ii ne, uraimashi (I envy the fact that they can speak English) are often aimed at these half children. These positively inclined ‘prejudices’ as complimentary as they are can often lead to the child not ‘living up’ to these ‘expectations’. Some fathers of half children have recited stories of their children playing down their English ability in English class or pleading with their fathers not to speak English with them in front of their friends, as it is embarrassing. Such anecdotes point to the fact that these half children don’t wish to be different; their desire to assimilate into Japanese culture parallels the proverb Deru kui wa utareru which literally means “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” a proverb that emphasises the importance of group identity and conformity.

Kamada (2010) gives accounts of how Japanese born halves are treated differently. She describes how her own son was made to feel different and teased for his stand-out curly hair. Similarly she describes how an Australian father of a 12 year old child in Japan of Japanese and white mixed heritage recounts the treatment of his son at school.

… my son is being verbally abused and discriminated against because his name sounds foreign and he looks a little different. There are one or two children in his class with extreme influence over the other children who say to my son in Japanese, ‘Foreigners are stupid! Die foreigner!’ (Kamada, 2010: 1)

Kamada (2010) examined the construction of the identity of children of mixed-parentage who attend regular Japanese schools. Her analysis describes how young adolescent girls negotiate the marginalised and privileged aspects of their identities. The marginalised concept refers to their appearance and for not fitting in, essentially being the nail that sticks up. The privileged aspects relate to their ability to be global citizens with connections through their heritage to influential English speaking countries such as America. These descriptions and studies examine the psychological aspects of bilingualism and of being a half in Japan. The review will now examine the social environment and the practical side of raising a mixed heritage bilingual in Japan.

Minority language status and bilingual development

It is argued that the minority language needs to be perceived equally in status as the majority language. Ben-Zeev (1977) has pointed out that if the status of the two languages is both high and relatively equal, and if both of the languages are used for interaction with the child by individuals important to them, then the child’s prospects of becoming bilingual increase.

Shum (2005) suggests that families that actively encouraged maintenance and interest in the heritage language and its culture seem to produce very successful bilinguals. As English is a global language with the majority of film, music and the arts conducted in English, English-speaking bilinguals may be able to relate to their minority English speaking culture better than a bilingual who is a speaker of ‘minor’ language that is not as widely spoken outside of the country that it originates from.

Dopke (1992, p.53) writes that “Traditionally, the success or failure of bilingual first language acquisition is related to sociolinguistic factors such as the amount of exposure to the minority language, the need to talk the minority language and the status of the minority language in the society at large.” Within Japan the status of English has always been high with the amount of English conversation schools aimed at pre-schoolers rising as well as the number of their students. The image of bilingualism is also seen positively (Yamamoto, 2001). However, exposure to the language outside of the classroom or the bilingual home is limited.

Pulvermuller and Schumann (1994) point out that even though parents can expect some degree of bilingualism when the minority language is spoken in only the home, the child can only acquire a receptive competence at best with the language. This is the situation faced with most families trying to raise a bilingual child within Japan as the minority language including English is rarely spoken in everyday contact and social interaction outside the home. Even with a concerted effort on the part of the parents it may still not result in a near balanced bilingualism as other influential factors such as having English speaking peers that aid in their bilingual development are missing. Pulvermuller and Schumann (1994, p.689) argue that “the completely acquired language will be the one frequently used in interactions that are socially more significant for them, whereas the socially less significant language will not be acquired properly.” A half child, for instance, who after speaking the minority language within the home since birth, may find that once he or she is integrated within the Japanese education system, the need to speak and use the minority language in social situations, such as talking and playing with friends, will be greatly diminished. This may result in this socially less significant language not being advanced further despite the initial stages of early promise.

The one parent, one language platform

Dopke (1992) states that the two main factors in the home that foster child bilingualism are the parents’ consistency in their language choice and their insistence that the child respects the one parent-one language “principle.” Arnberg (1987) argues that if both parents speak the minority language to the child then a higher level of proficiency in the language will be attained. This is evident with Japanese wives or husbands who have some proficiency with English, and have the confidence to use it with their children. In addition to their native English-speaking partner this can lead to the home language being predominately English. Dopke (1998) however does concede that those most successful with raising their children bilingually seem to be families who are surrounded by a close network of minority language speakers (living near a US army camp base camp in Japan, for example) but where this is not possible the one language one person principle is a necessary prerequisite.

Arnberg (1987) emphasises the role of social networks and the linguistic models they provide for the child. Playing with other children who speak the minority language, interaction with the extended family, and grandparents are all cited as benefits to the development of bilingualism. The accomplishment of a high degree of proficiency in the minority language where the input is limited to one adult within the child’s environment is consequently considered difficult to achieve.

The increasing number of international marriages in Japan has led to the emergence of foreign or half communities where half children play and socialise together. Parents consider these opportunities to get involved with such communities a chance for the children to converse naturally in the minority language. However, from the first-hand observations that will be discussed later within the study these children do not always adhere to using English within interactions consisting of much code switching. There is data to suggest however that this code switching, rather than keeping languages apart, is a natural progression of competent bilinguals (Romaine, 1995).

English within the home

If exposure to the minority language outside of the home is limited, then the role, use and exposure to the language within the home becomes hugely important. Exposure to the minority language through the media can act as an aid to early childhood bilingual development. Arnberg (1987) agues the status of the minority language is elevated in the child’s eye when it is used in the mass media. TV viewing if not used passively is described as an activity that should not be overlooked as a medium for language learning. Anderson et al (1986) found that parents regularly use the television as a language teaching device with programmes such as ‘Sesame Street’. Clark and Clark (1977) and Hoff-Ginsberg and Shatz (1982) discovered that when the TV is on, children aged 1 looked at the screen 6% of the time, children aged 3-4, 56% of the time and 5-6 year olds 70% of the time. Whether this has an influence on bilingual development is very much dependent on whether it is the minority language that is being viewed during that time.

Arnberg (1987) states that although the media are useful to learn English, interaction with adults and other children who speak in the minority language is far more productive for bilingual development. She concludes that television and video programmes in the minority language give the child little training in learning to communicate because the child assumes a passive role.

These studies were written at a time when there were no iPads or the Internet. The iPad now boasts numerous educational and language learning applications; there are read-along books; and the Internet itself is often quoted as being a source of bilingual education by many Websites dedicated to advising parents on how to raise bilingual children. Most schools and homes within Japan are connected to the Internet, enabling potential bilinguals to access language and other resources not only to enhance language proficiency, but also for cultural identity with the minority language.

Reading, although traditionally thought of as a passive activity when done alone, can be used when the reading to a child can emphasise the cultural, linguistic, and the cognitive aspect of bilingual development (Harding-Esch & Riley (2003). Reading in the minority language helps the child to participate in their second cultural world, and reading in both languages can heighten cognitive abilities. Linguistically, exposure to a variety of styles within the minority language means the child is not just restricted to the way the native speaking parent communicates, but is given access to a wide range of spelling, grammar, idiomatic language and cultural reference.

Having reviewed the issues surrounding bilingualism, the ethnic identity of the haafu in Japan, and concluding with a look at the practical situation of raising a bilingual child, the next section examines the case of a family who are dealing with these very issues when trying to raise two bilingual half children.

Research Methods, Procedures and Informants

The bilingual family: a case study

The father of the family is English, married to a Japanese woman and has two children, a daughter aged 3 and a son aged 5. He has lived in Japan for around 10 years and has intermediate Japanese ability. He and his wife have aimed to raise their children as bilinguals from birth. The father states that he speaks to them in English 95% of the time even when replied to in Japanese.

The table below gives a brief description of the family with pseudonyms given, rather than the informant’s real names.

Table 1: The Jones family.
Father Mother Son Daughter
Name Mr. Jones Ms Jones John Jessie
Nationality English Japanese Japanese born Japanese born
Age Mid 30’s Mid 30’s 5 3

The interviews and direct observations

Initial background interviews were carried out with Mr. Jones before visiting the Jones’ family home and directly observing interactions between Mr. Jones and his children. The focus of the study was aimed primarily at how the one parent speaker of the minority language tries to create and foster an environment that can encourage the growth of bilingualism within his children. Mrs. Jones speaks little English, although she expresses a desire to learn the language, but converses with her children mostly in Japanese.

The initial background interviews were given with the aim to establish the linguistic and cultural environment that the children were brought up in and to attain from the father’s perspective an evaluation of the childrens’ bilingual progression.

After initial interviews I then paid visits to the Jones’ household. Mr. Jones was an acquaintance of mine and I had also met his children before. This allowed me to observe the naturally occurring spoken English interactions that he had with his children without being considered a stranger. The visits spanned a period of 4 weeks, with a total of 4 visits which totaled around 12 hours. The visits were informal in nature and I came as a friend of the family. Observations were recorded with a voice recorder and latter written up and after each session or visit. Follow up semi structured interviews were conducted with Mr. Jones based on what had been observed.

A Discussion of the results

The answers given in the semi structured interviews prior to and after the observations are broken up below into the dominant issues which were also discussed and highlighted in the literature review.

Creating a bilingual home

When asked what his definition of bilingualism was Mr. Jones was concerned that his children not only reach a good level of ‘language competence’ in the minority language but to assimilate easy into both cultures without undue stress as quoted below.

The ability to successfully communicate and interact with two cultures and their various traditions, customs, ways of thinking, etc, without undue stress or offence to others, and to attain a high level of personal fulfillment. Ultimately it is important that they should feel completely comfortable in both cultural environments without imposing value judgments from the perspective of one culture upon another as many language learners are prone to do.

These are interesting comments, and although still young at 5, John could be seen struggling with his own ethnic identity and the need to fit in rather than stick out. During observations I saw him express a wish to have black hair; he resented the fact that he was sometimes called a gaijin (foreigner) by strangers because of the way he looked. Even at a young age the need to fit in and assimilate into the dominant Japanese culture was prevalent here. This was not demonstrated in anything the younger sibling Jessie said or did, who at the age of 3 was perhaps not conscious of her ethnic identity.

Are you raising your children to be bilingual?

Mr. Jones spoke at length regarding this issue and outlined the strategies he uses to maintain an English environment when he is present within the home. His wife speaks very little English and although has some passive understanding of it communicates mostly in Japanese with their children. Mr. Jones however acknowledges the effort and support she shows in the promotion of English.

My wife is very supportive. She has limited English but she uses any phrases that she knows the kids will respond to such as, ‘bedtime’ etc. However she often mixes English with Japanese saying such things as ‘sit down shite’ (shite means the verb ‘to do’ in Japanese) and the kids often speak this way too, but as to whether they do this as a natural consequence of listening to two languages everyday or merely copying their mother’s use of the language I am not sure.

Examples of this code switching or the mixing of the two languages was evident in observations as in ‘go to bed ni shio’ which has the English verb ‘go’ starting the sentence and the Japanese verb suru meaning ‘to do’ closing the utterance. Examples like this were often uttered within the house when the children addressed their father and mother and as implied in the above quote Mr. Jones puts this down to his wife speaking in a similar ‘mixed’ way in an attempt to support a bilingual household.

Table 2 gives a summary of how the Jones family attempts to foster an English speaking environment.

Table 2: Methods employed by the Jones family to promote bilingualism.
Daily English exposure 2 to 3 hours of English a day, most of which is via television and 20 minutes through ‘intelligible conversation’ with their father.
Formal English education John (5) attends an English conversation school on a weekly basis
Community The children have little contact with native speakers outside the home environment except for social gatherings (4-5 times a year). The pre-school they attend is a complete Japanese speaking environment.
Overseas experience The family has yearly 3 week visits to England.

In an overview of his strategies Mr. Jones tries to maintain and adhere to basic rules when he is in the home with his children. These consist of:

  1. DVDs are allowed but only in English along with English cable TV.
  2. Foreign movies / songs and games are watched via the Internet in English.
  3. He speaks to his children in English 95% of the time.

Through these strategies he feels that their English is improving and regards watching TV or DVDs as educational as well as being entertaining. He endeavors to not just let his children watch these DVDs passively and tries to interact with them with questions on the content they are watching. He did this often when I was present and these conversations seemed to not only improve the children’s inclination towards English speaking interaction but also cultural understanding of other cultures and countries.

Mr. Jones tries to stay clear of Japanese animation DVDs, in favour of the English equivalent. There are however very few English cartoon DVDs available to rent in comparison to the wide choice of Japanese language cartoons and so encouraging his children to watch English DVDs can be challenging. As his children go to pre-school while their mother and father work the children are only exposed to Japanese throughout the day which has led to the ‘only English in the home’ rule, at least with their father. It is something that is stressed on a daily basis. However he is conscious of the fact that being too strict or ‘obsessed’ with this may lead to his children viewing English negatively.

This reflected in his answers to the following questions.

1. Do you think the best way for your children to learn a language is through total immersion and within an environment which provides that?

—Yes, provided the learning environment does not provide undue stress.

I speak to them in English 95% of the time, and even when they answer in Japanese I, in turn, reply in English. Also whenever they want something from me or want me to do something I make them ask in English. I tell them what to say sometimes, or if I think they know what to say I ask, ‘What do you say?’. I am careful not to be too strict about this however as I’m sensitive about them picking up a negative image of English.

2. Do you tell your children off for not using English?

—No, but they may not get something they want until they ask in English (again if they are in distress for example I would not insist on them saying something it in English as this may result in English taking on a punitive or negative connotation.

Mr. Jones is very conscientious in how he attempts to bring up his children bilingually. He suggested that he is always concerned but not necessarily worried as he is always pro-active and actively seeking ways to to promote his children’s bilingualism. He reads through the bilingual literature and evaluates his children’s English progression. He stated that

John now has a strong inclination as to what is English and what is Japanese, but not so with Jessie. John will often say a word in Japanese and then say for example, ‘nihongo de tabete iru, English eating’. This seems to be mimicking my tendency to repeat everything they say to me in English – but the order of the translation clearly suggests that his main language is Japanese. When I seek to confirm something or ask a question in English, he will often say something like, ‘so, so, so’ in Japanese and then repeat what I have said in Japanese, thus clearly demonstrating to me that he understands the English I am using, but that it is clearer to him in Japanese.

In terms of sibling interaction Mr. Jones claimed that about 70% of their ‘role play’ interactions are in English but is “often garbled and patchy at best” and he guesses that these ‘role-plays’ are the consequence of the TV programmes they watch which gives support to his view that the TV is a powerful tool for language learning.

I treat it (TV watching) as an important language study tool, and from their role playing it seems to be more effective than anything I say to them. Of course I encourage and participate in the role playing to help promote it.

Apart from these role plays however Mr. Jones does concede that his children mostly interact with each other in Japanese. This was evident in observations and once the father was not present the children conversed in Japanese which seemed more natural. Conscientiously or not, it seemed that the children considered English the language used with ‘Daddy’.

Mr. Jones also allows his children to use his “expensive toys” such as the ipad and the laptop for language games and TV programmes but likes to maintain a supportive eye on how they use these tools.

I also use simple games and story sites on the internet like Sesame Street and BBC Stories, which they love. I would like to use this more but they tend to argue over seating and who holds the mouse etc when we do as we only have a laptop. Jessie, at age 2 years and 10 months was finding her own way around the Internet, and could such things as colour-in games very competently—John tends to like Super Mario kind of things—which are useless for English so I discourage them.

His son John (5) now attends an ‘English conversation school’ once a week where his father hopes he can “just have fun with using the language with his peers” but does concede that the Japanese children do use more Japanese than English at the school but he views the experience positively as they are taught by a native instructor. He considers it as an environment that promotes more English exposure rather than being of important educational value.

Language progression

Mr. Jones suggested that his children’s English usage sometimes surprises him which he implied is a vindication of his repetitive and insistent approach of English use around the house. Mr. Jones often reads to his children but within observations the children often preferred Japanese books. The older child John often wanted Japanese language books to read which lead to his sister Jessie also opting for Japanese books over English ones.

Within the literature some older studies (Streets, 1976) suggest that bilingualism in childhood can impair cognitive abilities and even hinder the development of the first language. Although this has been put forward as a myth by many researchers (Genesee, 2009) this issue was addressed to Mr. Jones with the following question

1. Do you think your children’s exposure to two languages within the home will confuse them or possibly delay the acquisition of Japanese, their majority language?

I’m unsure about this one, but I’ve read that learning the second language from an early age retards first language development by a couple of years. That is, that although my kids will be behind the other kids in first language development up until age 4 or 5, by the time they reach the age of 6 they will be on the same level as their peers.

When comparing his children’s English ability with those of monolingual English born children he suggested that they have about a third of the vocabulary that native speakers would have and about half the ability in terms of listening comprehension. He realises that the non-English speaking environment outside of the home can hinder their English language progression. He therefore attempts to make English language interaction with his children as meaningful as possible. He stated

I try to create the situation at home where English is ‘socially significant’. At this early age their home environment is still the most influential in these terms, so I think it is vital to get them ‘tuned in’ before their peer influence becomes more significant as this is inevitable.

He suggested that his children are motivated to learn English providing that the material and stimuli are relevant to them. He continually assesses their interests and searches for the equivalent thing in English. For example, his son likes action heroes so he tries to buy DVDs in English that revolve around this theme and he stated that “it seems to be working.” He admitted however that his children at present are passive / receptive bilinguals who are certainly capable of coming out with good, coherent English at times but that the majority of their output is Japanese.

Travel and foreign environment exposure

In Japan, apart from their father, the children are exposed to other English native speakers through friends and party gatherings. However these are not frequent affairs. Through observations it became apparent that if the children knew the foreigner could speak Japanese they often conversed with them in Japanese even if the foreigner spoke to them in English. This paralleled the linguistic behaviour they often showed with their father.

They do try to go back to England on a yearly basis or their relatives come to stay. Mr. Jones stated that with the visits back to England there is a marked improvement in his children’s English. He accepts however that because his wife only uses Japanese with the children when in the UK that this “negates some of the exposure to a foreign country environment.” Mr. Jones suggested that “within interactions with my (his) family however, who are non-Japanese speakers, my children were more likely to communicate in English because they had a reason to.” This reflects the literature (Pulvermull & Schumann, 1994, Arnberg, 1987) that social interactions with persons that are socially significant for the children promote use of the minority language.

Ethnicity and bilingualism

Mr. Jones acknowledges that his children are brought up as Japanese but they have certain western characteristics embedded in how they behave and interact with other children.

According to their Pre-school teachers they tend to be more open, bright, friendly, and interactive than the other kids. On the negative cultural transfer side of things, John tends to be overly physical with the other students and occasionally makes them cry by kissing and hugging them too much. This is basically because we are kissing and hugging the kids all the time (my wife is very physically affectionate towards them too – perhaps more than the average Japanese person), so it is natural for him to be doing so. These are coming out as aspects of character based in the culture at home, but in manners and habits they adhere to all things Japanese.”

The ‘negative cultural aspects’ discussed above he suggests can get his children into trouble at school as he encourages his children to behave in a ‘western way’ and to be “to be creative and imaginative above things like conformity.”

Mr. Jones insisted that his children have a positive view of their heritage and stated that “Although they do not have a strong awareness of ‘using English’ there is definitely an affirmation with their English heritage.” He concluded that his children are “ethnic halves.” They are Japanese and have a Japanese identity (although this could change if they were to relocate back to the father’s home country) but because of their cultural heritage there are subtle differences in their behavior compared to Japanese which occasionally makes them stand out.


This paper has tried to evaluate in its discussion of the literature and through the case study the importance the role of the environment plays in the raising of bilingual children in Japan. The data was intended to show a snapshot of how these environmental conditions influence or impede the growth of bilingualism within a multicultural family in Japan.

Although Japanese society is changing and becoming more diverse with the increasing number of international marriages and haafu children, the linguistic environment is still a monolingual one which as demonstrated within the case study and literature is not the ideal situation to foster bilingual development. The cultural and linguistic identity of these children is also a concern as they strive to assimilate into Japanese culture that prides itself on uniformity and group identity. They do not wish to be the nail that sticks up.

The case study reflects the literature on how the environment plays a bearing on bilingual development and how the role of the parent is essential in maintaining a level of consistency with the minority language in order to create not only linguistic competence in the language, but also to bring the child closer to their second cultural heritage. Observations of the two children over the short period that this study was conducted in seemed to validate and reflect issues within the literature that stipulate the importance of ethnic identity and bilingualism. John, aged 5, was beginning to show signs that he felt more Japanese than English with his significant social environment being nursery, where only Japanese is spoken and the children play games where they imitate they favourite Japanese animation heroes. The one parent, one language rule was adhered to by the father who only spoke to his children in English but the children did not always respect it and the lack of English speaking social networks parallel observations by Baker (2007) who suggests that the family, community and educational circumstances sometimes dictate that the acquisition of the second language and consequently the bilingual journey stops at a passive bilingualism.

The social environment which the Jones family has created within the home may therefore not be strong enough to help combat the inevitable and far stronger outside influences which will come into effect once the children start attending formal education at elementary school. A longitudinal study will need to be developed to see how the children develop in English as they get older.


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About the Author

Barry Kavanagh is a lecturer teaching English, Intercultural communication and Media literacy courses at Aomori University of Health and Welfare in Aomori, Japan. He is also a PhD candidate at the Graduate school of International Cultural Studies of Tohoku University. His research interests include sociolinguistics, discourse analysis and bilingualism.

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