Japan's Problem With Race

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Miss Universe Japan Ariana Miyamoto is reflected on mirrors as she works out at a gym in Tokyo on April 1. Miyamoto, the daughter of a Japanese mother and an African-American father, uses her status as Miss Japan to fight for the unrecognized and discriminated segment of her country’s population. Toru Hanai/Reuters

This article first appeared in The Wilson Quarterly.

In most developed nations, issues of race occupy headlines and are components, unstated or overt, of nearly every conversation about policymaking—whether the topic is public housing in France, crime in Brazil or the inheritance tax in the United States. Mostly, the topic’s relevance to the issue is framed in matters of promoting harmony and expanding opportunity.

There are, however, notable exceptions. Japan, a pillar of technological development and progress, has yet to address race as a pressing national issue. The racial discrimination that exists in Japan is reminiscent of the segregation-based atmosphere of 1950s America, posing a hostile environment for those of non-Japanese origin.

One of the more prominent victims of Japan’s ingrained discrimination is Ariana Miyamoto, who represents Japan in the 2015 Miss Universe competition. Miyamoto, the daughter of a Japanese mother and an African-American father, is categorized as hafu, a Japanese term and bastardization of the English word half, indicating someone who is mixed race.

Growing up in Japan, Miyamoto found her skin tone and curly hair caused others to shun her; classmates and their parents referred to her as kurombo, the Japanese equivalent of the N-word. Rather than identifying solely as black or Japanese, Miyamoto instead chooses to present herself as a representative of all ethnically and racially mixed Japanese. Her participation in the Miss Universe pageant opens the door for hafus to be accepted as part of Japanese society, and changes what it means to act and appear “Japanese.”

Reactions from the Japanese public have been less than kind. Posts on social media read, “Is it OK to select a hafu to represent Japan?”; “Miss Universe Japan is…what? What kind of person is she? She’s not Japanese, right?”; and “Even though she’s Miss Universe Japan, her face is foreign no matter how you look at it.”

The issues surrounding hafus run deeper than social acceptance—they face legal hurdles as well. Regardless of their ethnicity, children with dual citizenship (Japan and another country) must choose one nation or the other once they turn 22d. This mandate is based solely on suspicions that force individuals to base their loyalty with Japan or another country should international tensions arise.

The ruling was introduced in a 1984 amendment to define Japan as a jus sanguinis country, one that bases citizenship on blood, not birthplace. This makes it all the more difficult for hafus to strike a balance when embracing their mixed heritage with a Japanese upbringing.

Japan’s racial problems extend beyond mixed-race citizens to include discrimination against foreigners as a whole. Earlier this year, members of the Japanese bands Momoiro Clover Z and Rats & Star posed in blackface for a promotional photo for a performance on Fuji TV. The photo went viral after the hashtag “ #StopBlackfaceJapan” was popularized on Twitter, and a Change.org petition pressured the station to stop the performance.

The petition seems to have worked, but the incident is a reflection of Japan’s blindness to its own racism. It’s worth noting that Japan has also had high-profile cases of whiteface, which again shows the distance between Japanese citizens and those seen as foreign.

Japan’s treatment of non-black minorities reflects additional deeply ingrained racist tendencies. In 2013, a group of nationalists led protests expressing their hatred of Koreans and threatened to flatten Tokyo’s Koreatown and replace it with a gas chamber. “Go home and die,” some of the demonstrators yelled. Authorities were aware of the threats, but because Japan does not prohibit hate speech, the discriminatory actions continued unabated.

Although cases of extreme racism exist globally, Japan is notable for its lack of dialogue about racism and the absence of meaningful change to protect people against discrimination. Japan sees itself as a homogenous nation. It has one of the least ethnically diverse populations in the world, and the country’s overwhelming homogeneity means that any Japanese citizens who are not 100 percent ethnically Japanese are seen as foreign in their own homeland.

Change will take time. The ingrained insularity and rejection of foreigners have been a part of Japan’s history dating back to at least 1639, when the ruling Tokugawa shogunate cut Japan off from the rest of the world. Though centuries have passed, the ideas of racial superiority and separatism are still deeply influential in the national mindset.

This history reveals itself in the Japanese language as well, where the term for foreigner, gaijin, translates to “outside person,” which allows no possibility of integration for non-Japanese.

Japan’s geography further deters any hope of inclusion, a version of what is dubbed as the “Galápagos effect.” Originally coined in reference to the differences between Japanese cellphones and those used in the Western world, here the term refers to a nation that has been deeply isolated from foreign influence for a considerable amount of time, so much so that it has branched off evolutionarily (hence the name, a nod to Darwin’s travels). Japan, a collection of islands off the coast of mainland Asia, has developed its own values and a national agenda that tends toward the esoteric.

Still, Japan must reform cultural obstacles if it wishes to build a sustainable future in an increasingly multicultural world. Japan’s birth rate is falling, and the population is aging, setting up a shortage in the national labor force. In the hopes of fixing this problem, Japan has loosened its immigration policies to allow more workers into the job market and make up for the lagging birth rate.

Even so, any first-generation Japanese would arrive to find a cultural and political climate that is still deeply inhospitable to foreigners. In February 2015, a former adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suggested that apartheid would be the best solution for keeping foreigners separate and retaining Japanese racial purity.

It may take a while for change to come. In the meantime, Ariana Miyamoto uses her status as Miss Japan to fight for the unrecognized and discriminated segment of her country’s population. She hopes to put a new face on Japan, one that is diverse, defiant and depictive of its future.

Maya Wesby is a writer at The Wilson Quarterly.  

Sources: Martin Fackler, “Biracial Beauty Queen Challenges Japan’s Self-Image,” The New York Times, May 29, 2015; J.T. Quigley, “In Japan, Will Hafu Ever Be Considered Whole?,” The Diplomat, October 3, 2013; Katy Lee, “Japan’s blackface problem: the country’s bizarre, troubled relationship with race,” Vox , March 17, 2015.