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Japan's Japanese-African American Miss Universe Tests the Country’s Changing Attitudes on Race

Ariana Miyamoto. (Photo screen captured from YouTube)
Ariana Miyamoto. (Photo screen captured from YouTube)

By Matt McClellan
The selection of a half-Japanese, half-American woman as Japan's representative for the 64th Miss Universe pageant this past April has sparked a renewed domestic and international debate regarding what it means to be Japanese.

The Miss Universe Pageant also highlights the problems mixed-race Japanese continue to face in their home country of Japan.

Ariana Miyamoto, the child of a Japanese woman and an African-American man, will be the first half-Japanese contestant in the Miss Universe competition. The selection of Miyamoto as Japan's representative created a flurry of mixed reactions on Twitter.

Some of the comparatively milder reactions on social media express confusion and hesitation toward the announcement.

Interestingly, many even mildly negative tweets have been deleted by their owners, but not before being documented by news aggregation site Matome Naver:
What's up with Miss Universe Japan being half? (lol)
Another tweet, since deleted, said:
At first I thought, ‘oh they chose Japan's Miss Universe!’ But then I took a look at the results and… well, to be honest, I can't help but wonder about a half representing Japan…
Others wondered how such a selection was made in the first place:
Is it okay to choose a hafu as Japan's representative?! The Miss Universe selection process was certainly mysterious this time.
Stronger criticisms called Miyamoto's ethnicity into question:
The Miss Universe Japan representative from Nagasaki is an incredible beauty, but her face doesn't represent Japan does it?
The strongest reactions state Miyamoto is a gaijin, which is an impolite way to refer to foreigners in Japan, and that her selection is a mistake.
Even though she's Miss Universe Japan, no matter how ya look at her face she's an outsider, ain't she!
Despite research and evidence suggesting that the people of Japan are the result of different migrations of people over thousands of years from all over Asia, there is a strong belief among Japanese that the nation is made up of an ethnically homogeneous race.

Historically, mixed-race Japanese children have been subject to bullying and social ostracization ever since the fraternization between American GIs and Japanese women after the end of WWII.

The post-war American occupation resulted in ever-increasing births of multi-racial children in Japan.

In 1952, a government census determined there were 5,013 mixed-race children in Japan, while today, according to Megumi Nishikura's documentary “Hafu: The Mixed-Race Experience in Japan”, 20,000 half-Japanese babies are born every year.

Considering this history and the above reactions, it's little wonder people like Miyamoto who identify as half-Japanese continue to be subjected to social and physical forms of bullying in school.

In an interview with Rupert Wingfield-Hayes of BBC News Tokyo, Miyamoto mentions one of her friends growing up was unable to cope with the treatment he received from his peers and committed suicide.

Not everyone agrees with the sentiment that Miyamoto is not fit to be Japan's representative. In this YouTube video, many interviewees broadly support Miyamoto for Miss Universe.

Support for Miyamoto has been strong on Twitter as well:

何がどうダメなんだろう…。理解に苦しむ。/ ミスユニバースジャパンにハーフの宮本エリアナさん。ネットでは疑問の声も – NAVER まとめ http://t.co/nuDroNdN0n

— お~いし かえる (@h_oishi) March 18, 2015
What's the problem here… I'm having a real hard time understanding objections [being dredged up on Matome Naver].

Another Twitter user revealed a different prejudice while voicing support for Miyamoto:
ニューハーフならミスじゃないけど、ダブルの何が悪いのか? http://t.co/mWiZ36XidI

— yukioyamaguchi (@yukioyamaguchi) March 14, 2015
If she was transgender I could see the problem, but what's wrong with her being a “double?”

The user uses daburu or “double” to refer to what Japanese people perceive as Miyamoto's mixed-race heritage. “Double” is a less-common but politically correct way to refer to a mixed-race or hafu person in Japan.

Where “half” has the implied meaning of incomplete, “double” implies the different parts of a person's multi-racial background compliment each other.

見た目が純日本人じゃないから何?日本で育ってお母さんが日本人で、日本の文化に馴染んでて。立派な日本人だよ!素直におめでとうって言おうよ! ミスユニバースジャパンにハーフの宮本エリアナさん。ネットでは疑問の声も – NAVER まとめ http://t.co/rAmq7p7led

— Nami H Lewis (@Nammieolivia) March 14, 2015

So what if Ariana doesn't look like a pure-blooded Japanese? Her mom's Japanese, born and raised in Japan, and she said her daughter's acclimated to Japanese culture. Ariana's an elegant Japanese woman! Let's get out there and give her our congratulations!

In a video from The Hafu Project, an organization that seeks to raise awareness of multi-racial Japanese, people who identify as having both non-Japanese and Japanese heritage were asked to explain how they introduce themselves in Japan.

The responses were enlightening:

The Hafu Project also interviewed Japanese people to find out their views on hafu.

Although the responses indicate that the situation may not as grim as the negative tweets against Miyamoto might suggest, the participant's perspectives are primarily influenced by appearance. The primary words used to describe hafu include “pretty,” “cute” and “beautiful,” which only focuses on physicality and doesn't take personality into account.

However, when the participants were asked if they feel there is a difference between Japanese and hafu, all responded that there is no real difference and they are the same as everyone else.

It is safe to say there is progress being made regarding Japan's attitudes towards multi-racial Japanese; however, the mixed reactions and lack of Japanese media coverage regarding Ariana Miyamoto show that there is still work to be done in order for “halfs” to be considered “whole” Japanese.

The 64th Miss Universe Pageant's will be held later this year or early in 2016 and while a venue has not been chosen yet, possible locations include China and Columbia. Although discussion regarding Miyamoto has largely died down, the debate will likely be reignited once the contest gets underway.

Reprinted with permission from Global Voices.

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