Beauty Queen Wants Japan to Open Minds and Borders

Kevin Buckland and Isabel Reynolds, Bloomberg, April 6, 2015

Japan’s first biracial beauty queen doesn’t see her crowning as a sign the country’s ingrained aversion to immigration is softening.

“Japan is always saying it’s globalizing, but I feel it hasn’t yet dealt with basics such as racial discrimination,” said Ariana Miyamoto, who has a Japanese mother and African-American father. “Things may have changed in places like Tokyo, but if you go into the countryside, things haven’t really changed at all.”

Popular opinion is against opening up Japan to foreign workers, despite having a population that is aging at the fastest pace in the developed world and dying off at a record rate. Miyamoto disagrees with this prevailing view. “We should invite in people from all over the world to share their cultures with us,” she said.

In person, the 20-year-old exudes the same self-confidence that helped her beat 43 others to take the 2015 Miss Universe Japan crown last month. It’s a quality that’s come in handy, given that her brown skin and curly hair made her a target of racial abuse in her native Nagasaki Prefecture and, more recently, on social media.

“What is a half-Japanese doing representing Japan?” exclaims one of the highest-rated postings on the website GirlsChannel, a kind of Reddit for local news and gossip. “She looks like a foreigner,” complains another. “What a disappointment,” laments a third.

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The importance of racial purity held by some Japanese is codified in a genre of writing called nihonjinron, or theories of Japaneseness. And it illustrates the challenges to opening up the country’s borders to immigrants–something that many economists say is a must.

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The challenge is that widespread aversion to immigration makes the topic effectively off limits in political circles. Participants in a government survey conducted in August last year were asked to choose as many answers as they liked from a list of options for how to address the decline in Japan’s working-age population. Less than 12 percent suggested importing labor.

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{snip} The number of registered foreign residents has been virtually unchanged since 2006 at just over 2 million, according to the Justice Ministry. That means only 1.6 percent of the country is non-Japanese.

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Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso sparked some controversy in an October 2005 speech when he described Japan as “one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture, and one race.” He was the minister for internal affairs at the time, and became foreign minister later that month.

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Miyamoto hopes to wear a kimono at the Miss Universe competition, but says she really wants to convey the inner beauty of the Japanese to the world.

“If people say they are Japanese, that’s enough to make them Japanese in my opinion,” she said. “It’s not a question of what they look like, it’s what’s in their hearts.”

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