I felt an almost star-struck excitement at the chance to interview the newly crowned Miss Universe Japan, Ariana Miyamoto. I mean, she’s all the rage, right?
Her name has lit up social media like the constellations since her coronation. Black media can’t stop talking about her. To many, she is yet another global validation of black beauty in the flesh, a young woman who overcame prejudice and race-based adversity to achieve the previously unachievable. How do you not talk about her? Even some of the big dogs, like CNN and Reuters, have given her the time of day, spreading her name and compelling story to media markets everywhere.
Well, almost everywhere.
According to Ariana, most of the major news outlets here in Japan have yet to give her story its due. Beyond the announcement of her having won the pageant — and the obligatory allusions to her not being a full-fledged member of the Japanese race — there hasn’t been much said or done. No one has taken a comprehensive look at this remarkable woman’s journey, nor has there been any discussion of what an Ariana victory at the Miss Universe contest could (potentially) mean for the future of Japan. Her manager, seated beside her, whipped out a stack of business cards he’d collected from media people on their interviewing spree, and he, too, lamented the under-representation of their homeland among them.
“Japanese people don’t even recognize me. Only foreigners recognize me!” Ariana said, clearly to her chagrin, though her brilliant smile never faltered.
So, I said — because I sensed that this underexposure was more than just a surprising development to her, but a disheartening one as well — that our newspaper is read widely. I almost added jokingly, “so even more foreigners in Japan will recognize you at the konbini,” but, true as it may be (this being a paper read primarily by English speakers), I didn’t say it, ’cause it bordered on sarcasm, and I’ve long since learned that sarcasm — at least my brand of it — is wasted on most Japanese people.
And that’s the thing! Looking across the conference table at this beauty, with that “butter pecan Rican” skin, with that kinky new hair growth sprouting out from beneath a perm, with a nose and lips like the “high yellow” girl that me and all the guys wanted to get with in high school (who never gave any of us the time of day, cuz she was into college cats with cars and cash), it would have been very easy to get it as twisted as many Japanese have.
But my very first impression of her, before question one crossed my lips, was this: Despite her appearance (and, as evidenced by the compulsive bowing, that standard awkwardness people here tend to have when there’s a gaijin in their midst or English is being spoken in the vicinity, and her use of some of those heavily accented Japanese go-to English phrases) standing before me was undoubtedly a Japanese soul . . . encased in the chassis of the next black supermodel!
The next day at work, I showed a picture I’d taken with Ariana to a co-worker.
“She’s beautiful,” the co-worker said. “Is she your girlfriend?”
“No,” I said, a grin frozen on my face. “She’s Ariana Miyamoto.”
“Miyamoto? She has a Japanese name?”
“She’s Japanese!” I said, still grinning, though I felt a pang shoot through me. “She’s the reigning Miss Universe Japan.”
“Oh? Oh, yeah! She’s hāfu (half), right? Yeah, she is pretty, but I don’t think she is Japanese enough to represent Japan, you know? I mean, she doesn’t look Japanese and she isn’t . . . do you know junsui?”
“Pure”? My mouth dropped. I was speechless. She just flat out, matter-of-factly, disqualified Ariana for the title already in her possession, using her blood status as the reason. And this was from the sweetest woman in the office.
I had my own struggles with her appearance. Throughout the interview, I had to remind myself she was a Japanese woman. Especially when she said things I’ve never heard any other Japanese person utter in my 10-year tenure here.
Even answers to perfunctory questions like, “If you were to win, what kind of message would you like to share with the world?” garnered answers like, “I’d really like to spread awareness around the world about racial discrimination.”
In my research for this interview, it seemed every story focused primarily on Ariana’s biracial background, the disapproval of other Japanese at the pageant selecting her to represent Japan, and the tribulations of her upbringing here on this purportedly homogeneous archipelago.
“Do you want to talk about this hāfu business or would you prefer to talk about something else for a change?” I asked, trying to be considerate, though keenly aware of the irony (as I’d like to think she was) that if she didn’t have this “race angle” to her story, and the foulness it has revealed about some of her compatriots’ thoughts on the matter — if she were just another beauty queen and a card-carrying member of the tanitsu-minzoku (racially homogeneous) — her fortune might likely be the reverse: Japanese paparazzi, admirers and autograph seekers stalking her every step, and likely not a peep from the controversy-hungry Western media.
So it came as no surprise that she wanted to talk about her blood status.
“In Japan, without using that term “hāfu,” I don’t think I’d be able to communicate the viewpoint of someone who is mixed,” Ariana said. “Even if I introduce myself as Japanese, it will most likely not be accepted.”
But she is Japanese, I reminded myself again. It was getting easier. Especially considering every word that came out of her mouth was in Japanese at full speed, only a third of which I could catch.
I mentioned to her that I knew quite a few hāfu and had read about the experiences of others, and that some of them had come to resent a culture and people who’d sooner “otherize” than embrace them. I was curious how she managed not to develop a dislike of life here, thinking perhaps she might offer some helpful tips for my friends and readers here raising biracial, particularly half-black, children.
“I was born in this country and I grew up here, and I could only speak Japanese. This is my home country; it’s not a matter of ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes,’ ” she said simply. “Since my dad is an American, I look like a foreigner, so I used to think, ‘It’s cool having U.S. citizenship,’ and so I went there. But in America I couldn’t understand the culture, and it was then that I realized, ‘Without a doubt, I’m Japanese.’
“Growing up in Japan was really tough, as I had a complex about being hāfu,” she said. “But my mom would tell me, ‘Your skin is wonderful,’ and ‘You’re one of a kind.’ And, when I was getting bullied, she’d say, ‘They’re only bullying you because they’re jealous.’ ”
And this maternal kindness did assuage some of the pain. But it wasn’t her mother’s platitudes that spurred her to take action. It was the suicide of a good friend, a fellow hāfu (half-white) she’d attended school with.
“I’ll never know the full story behind why he killed himself,” she said. “But certainly he had had counseling — he couldn’t speak English, and had developed a complex about that. In terms of looks, he really looked like a foreigner, but because he couldn’t speak English, people made fun of him. On top of that, Japanese people wouldn’t accept him.”
And it seems that this tragedy was the final straw, for since that time, she has been on a mission to change the face of her beloved Japan.
The residual American in me would like to think that her two years in the U.S. also helped shape her vision and informed her that if she waited in the shadows for a society that has been known to be stagnant at times to accept her and other hāfu as they are, she’ll likely be waiting in vain. So she decided to go out and get herself a platform so that her message could be heard broadly, using the assets at her disposal — namely, her wits, self-determination and the aforementioned chassis. Gotta admire that. Now she has an international megaphone.
She spoke of her time in America as a much-needed breather.
“There are lots of people from all kinds of countries (in America), so I felt relaxed,” she said. “My family is all black, so I felt relieved. I was like, ‘Wow, these people are the same color as me!’ Over there, I definitely felt a sense of peace — it was easy to live there.
“I’d like Japan to be an easier place to live,” she added, “but Japan has some fundamental problems that it still hasn’t solved, in my opinion. These problems need to be dealt with right now. One thing is that the Japanese population is shrinking, and if foreigners come and aren’t accepted, I’d be concerned about what will happen to Japan, and so I’d like to see Japan adopt a more global outlook.
“And with more and more international marriages, more children will be born from these marriages, and in this way I hope Japan will become an easier place to live.”
I’m very proud of this young woman’s accomplishments thus far, and I wish her success in the coming months as she represents Japan in the international pageant. I also admire her courage for standing up for what essentially is her birthright, and the birthright of all hāfus in Japan who’ve been treated like tourists or even trespassers on their own land.
As a black American, and the product of a country that has treated its black citizens similarly for centuries, I can readily identify with her struggle. She’s sure to draw the ire of her own people for speaking out on such a sensitive subject, and that makes her even more remarkable.
Progress occurs when people of substance assume the mantle of leadership, and it appears Ariana Miyamoto is equal to the task.
Black Eye appears in print on the third Monday of every month. Your comments and ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org