People of mixed descent, like Priyanka Yoshikawa, remain an anomaly in Japan, where racial purity is reinforced by a culture of conformity that can make being, or looking, different unusually difficult.
Tokyo: On Tuesday, Japan crowned a new beauty queen. Usually, this wouldn’t warrant much comment. The heyday of swimwear-clad, young women spouting clichés about world peace is past.
What makes this year’s contest noteworthy, however, is the winner – 22 year old Priyanka Yoshikawa, a half-Indian, half-Japanese elephant trainer. In many countries, it would be Yoshikawa’s felicity with large mammals that would garner attention. In Japan, however, it’s the fact that she’s a ‘haafu‘ or biracial.
People of mixed descent remain an anomaly in the world’s third largest economy, accounting for only some 2% of children born here (compared to 10% in the US). Many children of mixed race who have grown up in Japan complain of discrimination and stereotyping .
Yoshikawa, who was born in Tokyo to an Indian father and a Japanese mother, says she was bullied at school because of her skin colour. As a child she spent a few years away from Japan in the US and India. On her return at the age of 10, she found it difficult to integrate. “I know a lot of people who are haafu and suffer,” she said, according to AFP. “When I came back to Japan everyone thought I was a germ, like if they touched me they would be touching something bad. But I’m thankful because that made me really strong.”
The term haafu is borrowed from the English word ‘half’ and some believe it is objectionable in the insinuation that haafus are somehow incomplete. Others say that the word does not have the negative connotations of ‘half blood’ in English and J.K. Rowling novels, and is merely a description, equivalent to biracial.
Haafus can often be idealised for their beauty. The stereotype of the haafu, according to filmmakers Megumi Nishikura and Lara Perez Takagi, who have recently made a movie on the subject, is that they are advantaged in being “model beautiful” and bilingual. Some magazines offer techniques on how to apply make-up so one looks more haafu. (This ideal is, however, more applicable to half-Japanese, half-Caucasian people, rather than Japanese-Africans or Japanese and other Asians).
What is indisputable is that the term does have a labelling effect. A haafu is not “properly” Japanese and this label stays with a person even if they have only ever lived in Japan and exclusively speak Japanese. It can become the defining way in which potential friends, employers and colleagues assess someone.
One comment on an article about Nishikura and Takagi’s movie read: “Why can’t ‘haafu’ embrace their uniqueness in society without demanding society accept and embrace them as Japanese? You were born in Japan and probably speak Japanese, but that doesn’t mean Japan has to change. You have to change and you have to accept that you will always be different. Japanese people tolerate different aspects of its society, but not embrace it.”
The Japanese retain a strong sense of racial purity even though the peoples of the archipelago are in fact an ethnic hotchpotch, the result of different migrations over thousands of years, from the Korean peninsula, China and South East Asia. The Japanese government did not formally recognise the Ainu, the indigenous inhabitants of the northern island of Hokkido, as a distinct culture until 2008.
The myth of genetic exclusivity is reinforced by a culture of conformity that can make being, or looking, different unusually difficult. It is commonly held in Japanese culture that to be a nail that sticks out is to ask to be hammered down. In the language, the word ‘chigau‘ – different – can also carry the meaning “you are wrong.
That this year’s Miss Japan is a haafu is one sign that Japanese society may finally becoming more open to diversity. Yoshikawa is in fact the second consecutive haafu contestant to win the title. Last year’s pageant was won by Ariana Miyamoto whose father is an African American from Arkansas. That neither of the haafu pageant winners are half Caucasian indicates perhaps yet another positive shift in ideals of beauty.
Japanese children born to biracial marriages were also prominent at the recent Rio Olympics. They included Mashu Baker, who took gold in the men’s under-90kg judo, and Aska Cambridge, who was part of Japan’s silver medal-winning men’s 4x100m relay team.
In Japan, the reaction to Yoshikawa’s win has been muted, without any major expressions of outrage. On social media, comment is mixed. Many believe Yoshikawa to be deserving, although others have predictably questioned the selection of a haafu to represent Japan at the Miss World contest in December.
“What’s the point of holding a pageant like this now? Zero national characteristics,” grumbled one Twitter user, while another complained: “It’s like we’re saying a pure Japanese face can’t be a winner.”
“I don’t care whether she is half or pure Japanese. I actually don’t want to say ‘pure’ in Japanese. As a Japanese, the most important thing is the heart,” said another Twitter user.
Japan’s struggles with integrating haafu, and with diversity more broadly, are pertinent to the debate surrounding immigration. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made raising Japan’s low birth rate a priority, and wants to focus on drawing more women and elderly people into the workforce to fill gaps rather than turning to immigration .
But, forecasts based on current demographic trends predict the population will fall under 100 million by 2048 (from the 127 million at present) and to about 87 million by 2060, by which time 40% of people will be 65 or older. Given this social and economic reality the country will probably need to experiment with greater flexibility in immigration and acknowledge that an emphasis on the preservation of ethnic homogeneity may be untenable.
After winning the title on Tuesday, Yoshikawa said of her Indian heritage: “Yes I’m half Indian and people are asking me about my purity – yes my dad is Indian and I’m proud of it, I’m proud that I have Indian in me. But that does not mean I’m not Japanese.”