When Ariana Miyamoto was crowned Miss Universe Japan earlier this month, she met a public torn over her victory.
Born to a Japanese mother and an African American father, Ms. Miyamoto’s features reflect her mixed heritage, and they have caused some critics to voice concerns over whether a multiracial contestant could truly represent the East Asian nation in the prestigious pageant. Supporters, on the other hand, see her win as a step towards acceptance of multiculturalism in traditionally homogenous Japan.
“Even though she is Miss Universe Japan, her face is foreign no matter how you look at it!” one person posted in Japanese on Twitter, according to The Washington Post.
The mixed reactions, which have spread online via social media and commentary, have revived dialogue about Japan’s openness to diversity and its treatment of people with multiethnic heritage such as Miyamoto, who are referred to as “hafu” or “haafu.”
Part of the challenge facing advocates of multiculturalism in Japan is an ingrained concept of nation as racially distinct and homogenous – an idea whose roots go at least as far back as the mid-1600s, when the ruling Tokugawa shogunate decided to sequester Japan away from the rest of the world. Under Japan's "sakoku" policy, enacted in 1635, no foreigner could enter Japan and no Japanese person could leave, under pain of death.
"There’s a whole discourse on what’s called the Galapagos effect – that Japan, having been isolated from foreign influence, developed its own kind of insular norms and values," Kyle Cleveland, associate professor of sociology at Temple University’s Tokyo campus, told Vox.
It doesn’t help that despite growing numbers of foreign residents in Japan, the nation remains among the most culturally homogenous in the world, with less than 2 percent of the country identifying as non-Japanese.
About 5.5 percent of all marriages in Japan were of mixed race in 2004, and a majority of those were marriages between Japanese and other Asian nationalities, according to The Hafu Project, which advocates dialogue about race, culture, and ethnicity in Japan. By comparison, 14.6 percent of US marriages in 2010 were interracial, according to a Pew survey.
In 2005, the United Nations released a report that documented racial discrimination in Japan, noting how minorities were sidelined not only in economic and political structures, but also in culture and historical accounts. The report recommended, among other things, “the recognition of the existence of racial discrimination in Japan, and the expression of the political will to combat it.”
Taken together, these realities present a distinct challenge for someone like Miyamoto who, despite her mixed ethnic background, was raised in Nagasaki prefecture, speaks fluent, unaccented Japanese, and is an accomplished Japanese calligrapher, Tokyo-based news outlet RocketNews24 reported.
Ariana is facing challenges that no other Japanese Miss Universe contestant to date has had to face, with those opposing Ariana voicing their dissent online with statements such as [sic] “She has too much black blood in her to be Japanese.”
Still, Miyamoto’s supporters have said her win speaks to changing perspectives in Japan.
For instance, while the popular Japanese site GirlsChannel, which allows readers to vote on comments, was replete with skepticism, some netizens said that “criticizing [Miyamoto] because she wasn't ‘Japanese’ enough was ‘pathetic’ and outdated thinking,” according to the news blog Kotaku.
The 2013 film, “Hafu: The Mixed-Race Experience in Japan,” also – for the first time – gave voice to the nation’s multiracial minority and explored what it means to be multicultural in a nation that once prided itself on its homogeneity and insularism.
Miyamoto’s victory speaks to that “expanding definition of what it means to be Japanese,” Megumi Nishikura, the film’s co-director, told NBC News.
"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,” Ms. Nishikura added.