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Rola altering DNA of pop culture

24-year-old celebrity at the forefront of mixed-race stars shaking up concept of 'cool'

AFP-JIJI

In celebrity-obsessed Japan with its conveyor belt of 15-minute stars, fashion icon Rola is blazing a meteoric trail at the forefront of a galaxy of mixed-race stars, changing the DNA of Japanese pop culture.

Turn on the TV and there’s no escaping the bubbly 24-year-old of Bengali, Japanese and Russian descent — she even dominates the commercial breaks.

A marketing gold mine, Rola smiles down celestially from giant billboards, her wide eyes and girlie pout grace magazine covers and she even greets you at vending machines.

But Rola, who settled in Japan when she was 9, has done it by turning the entertainment industry on its head, her childlike bluntness slicing through the strict convention that governs Japanese society.

“Whenever people told me to speak politely, I never worried about it,” she said in an interview. “I’m not talking down to anyone. I’m not a comedian, it’s just how I am. It’s just being open-hearted and trying to make people open theirs.”

But it is not just her quirky charm that is breaking down barriers. Japan’s largely monoethnic society — a culture where skin whitening creams are still huge business — has long been mirrored by its entertainment industry.

Rola and a host of others are beginning to change that.

Half-British singer and actress Becky is another superstar with model looks and a huge fan base in Japan, while half-French newscaster Christel Takigawa helped Tokyo win the 2020 Olympic vote as the city’s ambassador for “cool.”

Their rise to fame mirrors a shift in attitudes in Japan, which only opened its doors to the outside world in the middle of the 19th century and where those without Japanese nationality, even if they were born here — make up less than 2 percent of a population of 127 million.

“Being of mixed race was once looked down upon,” said sociologist Takashi Miyajima. “Now foreign entertainers are admired in Japan as something untouchable. You could even say they benefit from positive discrimination.”

Rarely now do you see TV shows without at least one “haafu” (the Japanese pronunciation of “half,” meaning “mixed race”), such has been the shift.

“Young Japanese women want to be like Rola,” said psychologist Yoko Haruka, a regular on Japanese TV. “They buy the same clothes, bag. It’s like a cartoon world, the baby-face effect.

“She has the foreign look: long legs, small face, but because she is ‘half,’ she’s not an object of envy at all. She’s an idol like Madonna was, but closer and easier to relate to.”

Rola’s trademark puffing of the cheeks, ditzy catchphrases, infectious giggle and carefree charm have helped make Japan’s most famous ‘It Girl’ a smash hit with legions of adoring fans.

She believes the shifting landscape has had a positive effect on Japan.

“Nationality isn’t important,” she said, dressed in tight blue jeans under a floral one-piece. “I used to think Japanese people weren’t open and should lighten up. But Japan has become brighter.

“People copying me is cool,” she added in her helium voice. “If I can do one thing to help bring a tiny improvement to Japan, that’s great.”

Born of a Bangladeshi father and a half-Japanese, half-Russian mother, Rola’s eccentricities helped overcome the language barrier when little, once turning up at elementary school in pajamas she mistook for her new uniform.

“Normally if you can’t communicate it’s frustrating but I only have fun memories of childhood,” she said. “When I was small I’d play with Barbie dolls and the next day I’d jump in the river with boys catching crayfish or playing with turtles. Maybe that’s why I use a lot of hand gestures. I naturally just made friends.”

In a culture that once might have passed over her darker tone, Rola’s exotic looks have clearly helped — she was scouted by a modeling agency on the streets of Tokyo when she was in high school.

Following in the footsteps of mixed-race glamor girls such as Jun Hasegawa and racing driver Jenson Button’s fiancee, Jessica Michibata, Rola has also taken prime-time TV by storm.

Japan can take its celebrity worship to extremes, though. David Beckham once had a giant chocolate statue dedicated to him in Tokyo while his mohawk hairstyle triggered a personal grooming craze among local women during the 2002 World Cup.

“I don’t get stressed (by fame),” said Rola. “People come up to me on the street and go ‘Hi, Rola!’ as if I’m their friend.”

  • Mark Flanigan

    All this and no mention of the groundbreaking project and film “Hafu” by Megumi Nishikura and Lara Takagi?

  • Stephen Kent

    It’s all very well having celebrities whose slightly different appearance provides fashion companies with an eye catching walking mannequin to help young women decide what clothes to buy and TV stations with a temporary new object of interest, but I personally can’t stand the fact that (on TV at least) most young female celebrities exhibit intellectual abilities that can at best be described as simple and at worst downright cretinous. It’s as if they’ve all been assigned a single, unified personality.
    Stop teaching young women that cute and stupid is best I say.

    • zer0_0zor0

      This is a more to the point comment, as young idol girls are definitely little more than fodder for the banality promulgating machine of the entertainment industry.

  • Stephen Kent

    “It’s like they are praising them on how Japanese they can act even though they are half” – I think you have a good point there, and I think it could be refined further by saying it’s as if they are being held up by the media as examples of women of mixed ethnicity who have succeeded in achieving the childlike mentality that it is desirable for Japanese women to have.
    It’s the mentality part of cute culture that I find particularly annoying (and troubling). Fair enough if you want to dress to make yourself look cute, but if you are encouraged by celebrities and the media to act like a child because people will look at you and think “ahh, isn’t she cute, she doesn’t understand what’s going on” in the same way that someone does when a child gets confused then surely that is going to have an adverse effect on an individual’s development somewhere along the line.

    • zer0_0zor0

      You means as opposed to, like, Brittney Spears or Miley Cyrus “knows what’s going on”?

      • Stephen Kent

        Fair point, but the celebrities you mentioned are not valued because of their stupidity; that they are vacuous simpletons is secondary to the fact that they are willing to wear more and more revealing clothes and make ever more explicit music videos to get publicity.

  • disqus_78r6IPfptX

    Japanese pop culture talents like Rora, Becky, and Jun Hasegawa are Japanese citizens despite being ethnically “half.” The Nationality Law does not recognize half citizens. A person is either a citizen or not. Since 1984 daughters of bi-racial couples as well as sons have been permitted to hold dual citizenship. Contrary to the popular misunderstanding one citizenship does not diminish or discredit the other. But that is an impossible lesson to communicate, I think. These hafu talents are entirely, completely Japanese. And yet a considerable amount of their publicity seems predicated on a fascination with how Japanese they sound and behave. But they are Japanese, so how should they behave? My own two Japanese children are often and constantly praised for how good their Japanese speech is. Maybe they should become media talents.

    Citizenship, nationality and race are all separate things, not one thing. But in Japan the confusion of nationality and race is common, firm and metastatic. But
    I expect educated, urbane people to be mentally nimble and subtle enough to
    know better. So I am disappointed that an educated person like sociologist Takashi Miyajima makes exactly this error by appearing to call Rola a “foreign entertainer.” I want to grab the Japanese nation by the lapels and shake it fiercely while screaming “Wake up!! These people are not foreigners!”

    Rola is right when she is quoted saying “Nationality isn’t important,” but I can’t
    be sure if her motive for saying so is the same as mine. For me nationality is mostly a matter of administrative convenience, documentation and bureaucratic procedure. My nationality says nothing at all about my loyalties, convictions, preferences or behavior. I do not represent any country, although for employment purposes I usually pretend that I do.

  • zer0_0zor0

    Cute is better than slutty ala Hollywood, and though your comment demonstrates a degree of insight, DNA is not restricted to skin color.

  • Jeffrey

    “Rola altering DNA of pop culture”

    Hardly. Just the latest flash in the pan in Japan. Otherwise . . .

    Japan cycles through all manner of fads faster than any Western culture, so I doubt she’ll be a fixture or have any lasting impact. She’ll be popular as long as her handlers can come up with a new visual wrinkles for her (beyond being “haafu”) because she certainly isn’t unique or interesting musically (or otherwise) and that’s what it’s really about, right?

    And as far as “Being of mixed race ONCE (being) looked down upon . . . ” See what otoo-san and okaa-san say when their little Yukou brings home a nice Japanese boy of Korean ancestry.

  • Max_Tokyo

    I’m not sure whether this really is progress or not. Is Rola famous despite her being half, or BECAUSE she his half ? People used to be rejected because they weren’t 100% Japanese but if they are now praised for the same reason, i’m not sure it’s better. “Race” is still the major factor here, where a “normal” situation should be when race doesn’t matter at all. It’s not about Rola’s case in particular, and she does have the positive spirit to change things (although it’s sometimes sad to see her confined in a set of gimmick that make her look less stupid), but I would consider Japan to be on the right path when mixed artists will stop being referred to as “Half” and just be in the center of attention due to their talent.

  • DoctorZin

    I think Rola is fantastic, but this article is stupid. Rola’s popular due to her charm, and there have been many half-Japanese performers in the past whose popularity is commensurate with their charm.

    By the way, you race-baiters, she’s only a quarter “white,” so why don’t you can it with your enguiltment of everybody? Stop trying to “reform” Japan according to all the bulls*** they taught you in your critical theory class.