Newly crowned Miss Universe Japan Ariana Miyamoto had to spend her first media appearance after winning her title on March 8 apologizing for her identity. Why? Born to a Japanese mother and an African-American father, Miyamoto is haafu, or biracial — a fact that did not sit well with some residents of one of the least ethnically diverse nations in the world.
Miyamoto is Japanese. The 20-year-old was born and raised in Sasebo, a town in Japan's Nagasaki prefecture, grew up in the country and speaks the language fluently. But while many have celebrated Miyamoto's historic victory, there has also been a thread of criticism suggesting the beauty queen is not "Japanese enough." As the Daily Mail reports, some on Twitter questioned if it was "okay to select a hafu to represent Japan." The Mail continues, "Others commented that she didn't 'look Japanese', her face was 'too gaijin,' meaning literally 'outside person,' or that the country deserved a 'pure-blooded Japanese' beauty."
The problem, of course, is the conflation of race with nationality, and the egregious misconception that only one type of face can represent a country.
This criticism has been driven by racism. Fear of difference is the root of the racism-tinged tweets questioning Miyamoto's validity as Japan's representative in a female beauty pageant. As translated by the Washington Post, tweets saying things like, "Even though she's Miss Universe Japan, her face is foreign no matter how you look at it!" all perform the same function: refusing to assign a Japanese identity to someone with Miyamoto's skin color.
The reactions to Miyamoto's crowning reflect what Vox described, in an examination of the ritual of blackface, as Japan's "bizarre, troubled relationship with race." Kyle Cleveland, a sociology professor at Temple University's Japan campus, told Vox that the country's modern blackface "is emblematic of a larger problem of Japanese politics and civil society in which diversity is not recognized, or cultivated, or respected."
A necessary dialogue: Japan, theGrio reports, "is one of the least ethnically diverse countries, with 98% of its people Japanese nationals." As such, Miyamoto's biracial identity seems to have produced something of a cultural crisis, and has compelled many to rethink their identity in an increasingly multiethnic, multiracial world. As such, Miyamoto's victory is momentous not simply because it is the first time a biracial woman has won the title of Miss Japan, but also because of what her victory enables in terms of Japan's dialogue around race.
"The selection of Ariana Miyamoto as this year's Miss Universe Japan is a huge step forward in expanding the definition of what it means to be Japanese," Megumi Nishikura, co-director of the film H?fu, 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."
The good news: While some have reacted less than positively to Miyamoto's win, others have been quick to defend her — an outpouring of support that suggests this dialogue is helping to move Japan's conversation about race in a positive direction.
One thing is clear: Miyamoto, as with anyone else of mixed heritage, should never have to apologize for who she is.