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Un-appropriating ‘Hapa’: Returning the Word to Its Roots

I had the honor and privilege of speaking virtually for a Nembutsu seminar in Hawaii. One participant tasked me with making my presentation relevant to people who lived there.


I then dove into the history, and if anyone is unfamiliar, I highly recommend looking into it as there are a multitude of issues that need attention. Because of the limitations of this article, I will focus on something that I did not know previously to be problematic: the term “hapa.”


Growing up, the term “hapa” meant anyone who was half white and half Asian. It was popular among the Japanese American community as there is a high rate of outmarriage and, thus, people who are half. I figured it was just commonplace and didn’t think about of the history of it.


But, in my research I found that it had roots in the native language of Hawaii. It was adapted there from the English “half” used in math in Christian missionary schools during the 1800s.

As laborers began coming to Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations, there was intermarriage, which was condoned with the welcoming spirit of Aloha.


As the languages mixed and created new words, “hapa” became shorthand for “hapa haole,” meaning “half foreigner,” with the implication that the other half was Native Hawaiian. The nature of this term wasn’t negative as certain words in American culture are when referring to mixed people in a pejorative way. Rather, since genealogy was more important than race, being able to trace your lineage to an ancestor was more important than a percentage.


However, as this term was taken and appropriated, the meaning has been stolen. Without the understanding that “hapa” means half Hawaiian, it loses its essence. It would be like if the other countries of the world began calling anything with meat between two pieces of bread a “hot dog.” Cheesesteak, ham, burger, turkey, fried chicken: all of them “hot dogs.” The very thing that makes a hot dog a hot dog is absent. This is a silly metaphor, but the terrible things done to the Kingdom of Hawaii are more somber. To better understand why we shouldn’t use the word, first we must understand the history of erasure of Hawaiian culture by the United States.


Obviously, the scope of this is too large for this article, so I implore readers to find out more on their own. But for over a century, the United States has occupied Hawaii after overthrowing the internationally recognized Hawaiian Kingdom.


During this time, many aspects of the culture receded, including the system of governance, diet, traditional clothing, and art, among other important things. It also includes the erasure of language as they were not allowed to teach Hawaiian under penalty of law.


Luckily, during the 1960s and 1970s, there was a Hawaiian renaissance movement paralleling an international movement for oppressed and indigenous people’s rights, driven by artists seeking to reclaim traditional music and dance. Because of the grass-roots support, restrictions on the Hawaiian language were removed and made the official language. The study of Hawaiian in universities then skyrocketed.


Part of the reclamation of their culture is the language. A growing number of Hawaiians object to the rest of the world improperly using it. While I, as a half Japanese, half Filipino person, sympathize with mixed-race people’s identification with the word “hapa,” to me it doesn’t matter what argument anyone makes to use the term.


If we truly believe that AAPI is not a monolith, that representation matters, then to ignore the Hawaiian’s request to not improperly use “hapa” would be to silence their voices and be willfully ignorant to the struggles illegal occupation brought upon them.


We don’t often talk about Bodhisattva Kannon, but their name means “the one who hears,” implying that they hear the cries of the suffering and chooses to help. We all have a choice if we want to listen to those who are suffering and must decide if we want to be compassionate or not.


While I do not expect my choice of words to change the world, it is my hope that bringing awareness will spark a fire that will spread to those who are willing to listen.


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