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Biracial beauty queen strives for change in mono-ethnic Japan

TOKYO – When Ariana Miyamoto was crowned Miss Universe Japan 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.

Miyamoto is one of only a tiny handful of “hafu,” or Japanese of mixed race, to win a major beauty pageant in proudly homogeneous Japan. And she is the first half-black woman ever to do so.

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 hopes her appearance – and better yet, a victory – would push more Japanese to accept hafu. However, she said, Japan might 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 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 U.S. Navy and a local Japanese woman, 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 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 anti-racism 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 Miyamoto’s victory as proof that Japan is slowly embracing a more multicolor image of itself.

With outright immigration still restricted to a trickle, much of Japan’s new diversity comes from the ethnically mixed children of marriages between Japanese and foreigners. These hafu – a term that comes from the English word “half” – have gained increasing social prominence, especially in sports and on television.

Japanese of mixed race also account for a small but growing portion of the overall population: According to the Health Ministry, some 20,000 children with one non-Japanese parent are now born here annually, about 2 percent of total births.

Miyamoto said she endured slurs growing up in the gritty southern naval port of Sasebo, where her mother’s family raised her after her father left Japan when she was an infant.

She said everything changed at age 13 when she decided to reach out to her father, who invited her to his home in Jacksonville, Ark. She said she will never forget the moment she first saw her father and his relatives.“They had the same skin and the same face as me,” she said. “For the first time, I felt normal.”

“Ariana has a personal story that other Miss Japans just don’t have,” said Maki Yamaguchi, a contestant in the 2014 Miss Universe Japan pageant. “She is a beauty queen with a mission: to eliminate discrimination.”