Japan’s half-black Miss Universe says discrimination gives her “extra motivation”

Ariana Miyamoto entered the Miss Universe Japan beauty contest after a multiracial friend committed suicide. She endured abuse after winning the crown because of her skin color. (Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images)

Ariana Miyamoto typically maintains the sort of deferential politeness you’d expect from a beauty contestant in a country that embraces formality.

And yet, the biracial beauty queen — who was crowned Miss Universe Japan in March and then immediately criticized for not being Japanese enough — has signaled her willingness to fight back against racism and other traditional attitudes that have led to criticism and even discrimination in the wake of her selection.

In an interview with Agence France Presse, a newly assertive Miyamoto — the daughter of a Japanese woman and an African American man — referred to herself as “stubborn” and said she intends to use her burgeoning fame to break down antiquated cultural barriers.

[Why some critics think Japan’s Miss Universe contestant isn’t Japanese enough]

“I was prepared for the criticism,” the 21-year-old model told AFP. “I’d be lying to say it didn’t hurt at all. I’m Japanese — I stand up and bow when I answer the phone. But that criticism did give me extra motivation.”

The criticism stems from the fact that in Japan, Miyamoto is known as hafu (or haafu) — a word that refers to multiracial or multiethnic people who are half-Japanese. And there is a pervasive feeling in Japan, which is considered one of the most homogeneous places on Earth, that mixed-race people are not fully Japanese, according to NBC News.

“It’s possible that some conservative people might feel Ariana Miyamoto doesn’t fit the traditional Japanese image to represent the country,” Yoko Haruka, a psychologist who makes regular appearances on Japanese TV, told AFP.

“It’s just the shock of the new. But she certainly has the chance to be a pioneer, and it’s an excellent opportunity for Japan to become more globally aware.”

The stigma of being biracial in Japan can be so great that it leads some people — like a close mixed-race friend of Miyamoto’s — to take their own lives. Though Miyamoto was bullied growing up in the port town of Sasebo in Nagasaki prefecture, she told AFP that it was her friend’s suicide that ultimately convinced her to enter the Miss Universe Japan contest.

“I didn’t feel any added pressure, because the reason I took part in the pageant was my friend’s death,” she said. “My goal was to raise awareness of racial discrimination. Now I have a great platform to deliver that message as the first black Miss Universe Japan. It’s always hard to be the first, so in that respect what Naomi Campbell did was really amazing.”

Campbell, a black supermodel, spent much of her career breaking barriers in the fashion industry.

Mixed-race people are frequently featured in magazines and on television in Japan, where their looks are considered novel and attractive, according to Megumi Nishikura, whose film, “Hafu: The Mixed-Race Experience in Japan,” explores the lives of multiracial Japanese citizens. The film points out that 20,000 half-Japanese people, including both multiethnic and multiracial people, are born in Japan each year, according to NBC.

But Miyamoto told AFP that she was keenly aware of the lack of substantive black media personalities in her home country. She said she wanted to help transform Japan into a place where people won’t worry anymore about their own racial backgrounds.

When she was younger, she noted, she felt pressure to hide her background and fit in. Now, with her stature rising, Miyamoto said she’s no longer afraid to draw attention to herself and speak her mind, especially when it comes to race.

“I want to start a revolution,” she told AFP. “I can’t change things overnight but in 100-200 years there will be very few pure Japanese left, so we have to start changing the way we think.”