TOKYO — At first glance, Ariana Miyamoto might not be instantly recognized as a Japanese woman. But the 21-year-old model and former bartender — who in March became the first mixed-race contestant to be crowned “Miss Universe Japan” — was born and raised in Japan, and Japanese is her native language.
But because of her darker skin she was criticized online for “not being Japanese enough” and there were those who wanted to know why a “pure” Japanese had not been chosen.
Even Miyamoto had her doubts when she was declared the winner out of 44 finalists. “Is it really all right that it’s me?” was her first reaction.
She admits she worried a lot about what people thought.
But when she came to see that there were far more people supporting her than putting her down, she became brighter about the future and the kind of role she could play. “I’d like to participate in movements that fight against racism and stereotypes,” she says.
“My mother is Japanese and my father is African American. Probably that’s why I got so much attention,” Miyamoto says with a laugh. Some of her classmates in Sasebo, Nagasaki, used to bully her, saying things like, “Don’t swim in the same pool ‘cause your skin will rub off on me.”
As a biracial child wondering where she should fit in, Miyamoto would frequently turn to her mother, who would encourage her by saying, “Everyone envies you for your beauty.”
Miyamoto’s parents divorced when she was very young. When she went to the United States to visit her father, she felt comfortable because she found people of many different ethnicities.
After attending a local high school in Arkansas for two years, she returned to Japan. Arriving at Narita airport, she said she was shocked to discover how really Japanese she felt. Every Japanese sign she saw made her feel she was back home.
In a world where racial discrimination and hate speech show no signs of abating, whether in Charleston, South Carolina where nine African Americans were gunned down in a church, or streets in Shin-Okubo in Tokyo where discrimination is aimed at ethnic Koreans, she wants to make a difference.
Taking advantages of her new fame as Miss Universe Japan, she hopes in the future to campaign for a Japan and a world without prejudice. “I think Japan is showing some signs of change. We see more and more haafu (biracial) TV personalities coming onto the scene. I think we can really change,” Miyamoto said.
Miyamoto is still unsure about the exact role she will play.
“Now I’m concentrating to be fully prepared for the Miss Universe world event which will take place sometime in 2015. I wish I can participate in some activities to raise awareness and fight against racial discrimination after that.”
The date for the Miss Universe contest, the international beauty pageant owned by Republican candidate Donald Trump, who himself is embroiled in controversy over racially insensitive remarks he made about Mexican immigrants, has not yet been decided.
Hopefully, Miyamoto’s victory in Japan is a signal that Japanese society is opening to accept more diversity. An added bonus is the pride she will feel by representing her country in the same light when she steps on the world stage.