By most of the rest of the the world’s standards, Ariana Miyamoto is thoroughly Japanese.
The 20-year-old model is a Japanese citizen, a native of Sasebo in Nagasaki prefecture with an advanced mastery of the art of Japanese calligraphy, according to RockeNewst24, a Tokyo-based news blog. Have you heard her speak Japanese, the language spoken by the people occupying the volcanic archipelago known as “Japan”? She does it really well — like a native speaker, without a trace of a foreign accent, because she is, in fact, Japanese.
And yet, Miyamoto made a point of preemptively, if politely, defending herself during her first meeting with the Japanese media after she was crowned Miss Universe Japan last week. The biracial beauty queen — the daughter of a Japanese woman and an African American man — said she may not “look Japanese” on the outside, but on the inside, her soul is replete with Japaneseness, according to the blog Kotaku.
In Japan, Miyamoto is known as hafu (or haafu) — a word that refers to multiracial or multiethnic half-Japanese people. And there is a pervasive feeling in Japan, which is considered one of the most homogeneous places on Earth, that mixed-race people are not fully Japanese, according to NBC News.
Those feelings were reflected on social media after Miyamoto was selected as Miss Universe Japan.
“Is it ok to choose a haafu to represent Japan? Sometimes the criteria which they use to select Miss Universe is a bit of a mystery”
“The contradiction that is having a haafu Miss Universe Japan …”
“Even though she’s Miss Universe Japan, her face is foreign no matter how you look at it!”
“Beauty contest. Miss Universe Japan is….wha? What kind of person? She’s ….not…..Japanese…right?”
The Japanese like to think of their society and culture as having a unique identity that is “inaccessible to foreigners,” according to Theodore Bestor, a professor of anthropology and Japanese studies at Harvard University.
“One of the ways in which Japanese think of their own society as ‘unique’ is to emphasize the homogeneity of Japanese society, and indeed by lots of comparisons, Japan is certainly a much more homogeneous society than say the United States,” Bestor told Columbia University‘s Asian Topics.
“And, it’s often said by Japanese that they are ethnically homogeneous, that there are no real foreign populations in Japan.”
Miyamoto’s selection as the first-ever biracial Miss Universe Japan comes at a time when Japanese attitudes about race are beginning to change, according to Megumi Nishikura, whose film, “Hafu: The Mixed-Race Experience in Japan,” explores the lives of multiracial Japanese citizens. The film points out that 20,000 half-Japanese people, including both multiethnic and multiracial people, are born in Japan each year, according to NBC.
Mixed-race people are frequently featured in magazines and on television, where their looks are considered novel and attractive, the film notes. Some Japanese women, hoping to replicate the Western beauty standards that are reflected in Japanese pop culture, are even seeking out foreign men for children, according to RocketNews24.
Nishikura told NBC that Miyamoto’s selection as Miss Universe Japan “is a huge step forward in expanding the definition of what it means to be Japanese. The controversy that has erupted over her selection is a great opportunity for us Japanese to examine how far we have come from our self-perpetuated myth of homogeneity while at the same time it shows us how much further we have to go.”
Miyamoto, who grew up in Japan but moved to the United States for high school, has cited Mariah Carey as a major inspiration because of the singer’s multiracial background, according to RocketNews24.
“She went through a lot of difficulties before becoming a popular singing sensation,” Miyamoto said.
“She faced some racial hurdles, similar to myself, but she overcame them and became a top star, so she’s been a big influence on me.”
Kotaku noted that “many of the highest-rated comments” about Miyamoto on the Japanese site GirlsChannel “said that they wanted a more ‘Japanese’ contestant to represent Japan — with the explicit implication that half-Japanese people do not reflect the country.
“However, not everyone thinks that way. This is extremely important to point out. There were comments supporting her selection, with people saying that the only thing that matters is whether or not she’s a citizen and loves this country or whether or not she was born and raised in Japan. Others said criticizing the selection because she wasn’t ‘Japanese’ enough was ‘pathetic’ and outdated thinking.”
And according to RocketNew24, some of Miyamoto’s fans have taken to social media to push back against the discrimination she’s endured.
After scanning some of the tweets criticizing Miyamoto’s selection, Emi Foulk — who was born in Japan, has Japanese citizenship, speaks the language fluently and is finishing her doctoral studies in Japanese history at UCLA’s Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies — told The Post that there is something absurd about criticizing a beauty contestant for not looking average.
“Many of the negative tweets protest that Miyamoto isn’t representative of Japan, of the ‘Japanese face,’” Foulk said. “But of course there’s an inherent contradiction here: Is a beauty contest about picking the most representative — which is to say, the most average-looking — contestant, or is it about picking the most exceptional one?”