When Ariana Miyamoto was crowned Miss UniverseJapan 2015, participants said she stole the show with a saucy strut, an infectious smile and a calm self-confidence that belied her 21 years. But it was not just her beauty and poise that catapulted her to national attention.
Ms. Miyamoto is one of only a tiny handful of “hafu,” or Japanese of mixed race, to win a major beauty pageant in proudly homogeneousJapan. And she is the first half-black woman ever to do so.
Ms. Miyamoto’s victory wins her the right to represent Japan on the global stage at the international Miss Universe pageant expected in January. She said she hoped that her appearance — and better yet, a victory — would push more Japanese to accept hafu. However, she said, Japan may have a long way to go.
Even after her victory in the national competition, local journalists have had a hard time accepting her as Japanese.
“The reporters always ask me, ‘What part of you is most like a Japanese?’ ” said Ms. Miyamoto, who has the long legs of a foreign supermodel, but shares the same shy self-reserve of many other young Japanese women. “I always answer, ‘But I am a Japanese.’ ”
“I had hoped winning Miss Universe Japan would make them notice that,” she added.
That may yet take some time. After she won, some people posted messages online criticizing the judges for choosing someone who did not look Japanese.
“Shouldn’t the Japanese Miss Universe at least have a real Japanese face?” demanded one.
But even larger numbers of Japanese seemed to rally to her defense: “Why can’t a Japanese citizen, who was born and raised in Japan, just be regarded as Japanese?” asked one typical posting.
The child of a short-lived marriage between an African-American sailor in the United States Navy and a local Japanese woman, Ms. Miyamoto grew up in Japan, where she says other children often shunned her because of her darker skin and tightly curled hair.
That experience has driven her to use her pageant victory as a soapbox for raising awareness about the difficulties faced by mixed-race citizens in a country that still regards itself as mono-ethnic.
“Even today, I am usually seen not as a Japanese but as a foreigner. At restaurants, people give me an English menu and praise me for being able to eat with chopsticks,” said Ms. Miyamoto, who spoke in her native Japanese and is an accomplished calligrapher of Japanese-Chinese characters. “I want to challenge the definition of being Japanese.”
HER self-proclaimed mission has raised eyebrows at a time when race relations are receiving new scrutiny in Japan, which had long seen itself as immune to the ethnic tensions of the United States.
The Fuji Television Network’s plans for a musical show featuring singers in blackface was canceled only after pressure from antiracism groups. A right-wing novelist and former adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also raised hackles at home and abroad for advocating apartheid-style segregation of races.
However, many here see Ms. Miyamoto’s victory as proof that Japan is slowly embracing a more multicolor image of itself.