Beauty Queen Wants Japan to Open Minds and Borders

Biracial Beauty Queen Urges Japan to Open Up Minds

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.

Staying Afloat

Miyamoto, who recalls school classmates asking her not to share the same swimming pool with them, says she hasn’t been surprised by the reaction. She wants to use such attitudes to stay focused on why she entered the pageant in the first place.

“If there hadn’t been this kind of criticism, there would be no point in me competing,” she said, with no trace of bitterness. “I don’t want to ignore it. I want to change those people’s attitudes.”

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.

The number of people in Japan will shrink by almost a third by 2060, when 40 percent of the populace will be over 65 from about a quarter now, the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research projects.

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.

The I-Word

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has avoided using the I-word, opting for phrases like “foreign workers,” and preferring to offer extended visas rather than permanent residence. Among his so-called Abenomics reforms for revitalizing Japan, an immigration policy is notably lacking.

That didn’t prevent one senior ruling party official from citing Miyamoto as a symbol of Japan’s changing outlook.

“The fact that a half-Japanese woman has been chosen as Miss Universe Japan is a sign of our country’s globalization,” said Kenya Akiba, head of the Liberal Democratic Party’s Foreign Diplomacy Committee. “In fact, if you think about it in terms of how much progress Japan has made in that area, the choice of a half-Japanese is quite late in coming.”

Population figures don’t support such an optimistic assessment. 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.

‘One Race’

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.

The notion of Japanese uniqueness is challenged by the fact that much of the language and early culture are derived from China, while the predominant religion, Buddhism, was imported from India.

Still, the idea has seen a resurgence with the 2012 election of the more nationalist Abe government, according to Professor Tessa Morris-Suzuki at the Australian National University in Canberra, whose recent publications include a study of border controls in postwar Japan. She says it has also been accompanied by a rise in xenophobia, and more people like Miyamoto are needed.

“It’s very good for Japanese people to be challenged, and made to think whether their stereotypes about who looks Japanese are really correct any more,” she said. “The more that people who look slightly different from the stereotypical image of Japanese come to represent Japan, the more people will get used to that idea.”

Eye of Beholder

Miyamoto says that while she has felt more at ease since moving to Tokyo, shop clerks still try to speak to her in English, even when she asks a question in her native Japanese. How does she deal with it?

“Since they’re making the effort, I try to respond in English,” she says. Rather than making her angry, “I just think it’s funny.”

A spokeswoman for the Miss Universe Japan organization told Bloomberg some criticism “is to be expected” because perceptions of attractiveness are subjective. She said the winner should possess “a beauty that is fitting to represent Japan,” but whether she should represent “traditional standards” of Japanese beauty is up to the individual judges.

Inner Beauty

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.”

Hidenori Sakanaka, head of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute and a former director of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau, believes there has been a shift in attitude.

“There are not many people who actively want to accept immigrants, but the situation now is that you can’t say you don’t like them or you don’t want them here,” he said. “We are not far from people realizing that there’s no choice but to accept immigrants.”

Miyamoto says her first challenge is to change attitudes at home. “I think there will be a lot of mixed-race children born in the future, and we need to create an environment where they can grow up free from prejudice,” she said.

Ultimately, she sees her mission as encompassing more than just Japan.

“I want to use my involvement in Miss Universe to travel to other countries and talk to people who have experienced the same things I have,” she said. “I hope to be able to give them courage.”

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