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.