Biracial Beauty Queen Challenges Japan’s Self-Image

Martin Fackler, New York Times, May 29, 2015

When Ariana Miyamoto was crowned Miss Universe Japan 2015, participants said she stole the show with a saucy strut, an infectious smile and a calm self-confidence that belied her 21 years. But it was not just her beauty and poise that catapulted her to national attention.

Ms. Miyamoto is one of only a tiny handful of “hafu,” or Japanese of mixed race, to win a major beauty pageant in proudly homogeneous Japan. And she is the first half-black woman ever to do so.

Ms. Miyamoto’s victory wins her the right to represent Japan on the global stage at the international Miss Universe pageant expected in January. She said she hoped that her appearance–and better yet, a victory–would push more Japanese to accept hafu. However, she said, Japan may have a long way to go.

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{snip} After she won, some people posted messages online criticizing the judges for choosing someone who did not look Japanese.

“Shouldn’t the Japanese Miss Universe at least have a real Japanese face?” demanded one.

But even larger numbers of Japanese seemed to rally to her defense: “Why can’t a Japanese citizen, who was born and raised in Japan, just be regarded as Japanese?” asked one typical posting.

The child of a short-lived marriage between an African-American sailor in the United States Navy and a local Japanese woman, Ms. Miyamoto grew up in Japan, where she says other children often shunned her because of her darker skin and tightly curled hair.

That experience has driven her to use her pageant victory as a soapbox for raising awareness about the difficulties faced by mixed-race citizens in a country that still regards itself as mono-ethnic.

“Even today, I am usually seen not as a Japanese but as a foreigner. At restaurants, people give me an English menu and praise me for being able to eat with chopsticks,” said Ms. Miyamoto, who spoke in her native Japanese and is an accomplished calligrapher of Japanese-Chinese characters. “I want to challenge the definition of being Japanese.”

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With outright immigration still restricted to a trickle, much of Japan’s new diversity comes from the ethnically mixed children of marriages between Japanese and foreigners. These hafu–a term that comes from the English word “half”–have gained increasing social prominence, especially in sports and on television.

Japanese of mixed race also account for a small but growing portion of the overall population: According to the Health Ministry, some 20,000 children with one non-Japanese parent are now born here annually, about 2 percent of total births.

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Ms. Miyamoto said it was a personal loss that motivated her to join the Miss Universe competition last year. She said one of her friends, a half-white American who was born and raised in Japan, hanged himself because he was tired of being mocked for being unable to speak English despite having non-Japanese features.

“He said there was nowhere where he felt at home,” Ms. Miyamoto said. “I thought that if I can win, I could prove that Japanese don’t all have to look the same. I could prove that this is our home, too.”

Ms. Miyamoto said she also endured slurs growing up in the gritty southern naval port of Sasebo, where her mother’s family raised her after her father left Japan when she was an infant.

In school, she said, other children and even parents called her “kurombo,” the Japanese equivalent of the N-word. Classmates did not want to hold her hand for fear her color would rub off on them.

“I used to come home angry at my mother,” Ms. Miyamoto recalled. “I’d ask her, ‘Why did you make me so different?’ ”

Ariana Miyamoto

Ariana Miyamoto

She said everything changed at age 13 when she decided to reach out to her father, who invited her to his home in Jacksonville, Ark. She said she will never forget the moment she first saw her father and his relatives.

“They had the same skin and the same face as me,” she said. “For the first time, I felt normal.”

She said that in the United States, she came to speak of herself as black. But here in Japan, she still calls herself hafu. As Miss Universe Japan, she has played down her African-American roots, presenting herself instead as a representative of ethnically mixed Japanese from all backgrounds.

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