First mixed-race Miss Universe Japan causes public outcry

The Japanese have a saying: "The nail that sticks out gets hammered in." It means that it's better to blend in than to stand out. For most Japanese, blending in is no trouble; the island nation of about 127 million is one of the most racially homogenous societies on the planet. According to the Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook, ethnic Japanese comprise 98.5% of the population.

So when you stick out in Japan, you really stick out. Beauty queen Ariana Miyamoto sticks out. Not because the 21-year-old model is tall, slender and blessed with immaculate cheekbones. Miyamoto sticks out because she is half-black.

The Japanese census does not collect information on race or ethnicity, so it is difficult to say exactly how many mixed-race people the country has, but they are relatively rare.

For a beauty queen, standing out is generally considered a good thing. Even so, some Japanese were less than pleased when Miyamoto walked away with the crown in the Miss Universe Japan pageant in March. Their complaint wasn't that she's not pretty enough – she certainly is – but rather that she's not Japanese enough.

"The representative of Nagasaki for Miss Universe Japan is really beautiful, but her face does not look like a representative of Japan," wrote one Twitter critic of Miyamoto.

"The face of Miss Universe Japan is obviously [that of] a foreigner!" griped another.

"I wasn't surprised by it," Miyamoto says to Newsweek of her reaction. "I was expecting it, actually."

In the Land of the Rising Sun, race and nationality are closely linked. Mixed-race people are referred to as hafu, and many of them say they are treated different from "pure-blooded" Japanese.

Miyamoto is the daughter of a Japanese woman and a black man from the United States. Her father was in the military and was stationed at a Navy base in Sasebo, on the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu, when he met Miyamoto's mother.

They divorced when Miyamoto was one, and her father returned to the United States. As a child, she says, she remembers other children were hesitant to touch her for fear that her blackness might be contagious. Others refused to swim in the same pool with her.

Miyamoto says she decided to enter the world of beauty pageants when a friend of hers, also mixed-race, committed suicide – which Miyamoto says was a direct result of the unique challenges faced by hafu in Japanese society.

The experiences of Miyamoto and her friend are common, says Megumi Nishikura, a film-maker whose father is Japanese, whose mother is Irish-American and whose recent film – titled Hafu – explores the lives of half-Japanese people. "In Japan, I have the daily experience of having to prove that I'm Japanese," she tells Newsweek. "In the US, I don't have to prove that I'm American. It gets very tiring after a while."

In a society in which belonging to the in-group is the basis of social harmony, mixed-race Japanese are routinely made to feel like outsiders, intentionally or not, says Nishikura.

With mixed-race marriages still taboo in many places, hafu – though growing in number – remain rare, according to Nishikura. Rarer still are black hafu. Eric Robinson, who writes about his experience as an African-American living in Japan on the blog Black Tokyo, says challenges faced by black people in Japan are different, but not necessarily tougher, than those faced by black Americans. "When I'm in Japan, I don't worry about being profiled," he says. "I don't worry about becoming a victim of gun violence.

"But the Japanese sense of uniqueness is tough to overcome," he says. "Getting them to understand that Miyamoto is the new face of Japan is a very long process."

It is easy to view Miyamoto's selection to represent Japan in Miss Universe early next year as a sign the country is moving in a good direction. But while many do see Miyamoto's selection as proof Japan is becoming more tolerant of difference, others are more sceptical. Among them is Rebecca Chiyoko King O'Riain, a half-Japanese, half-Irish sociologist whose book Pure Beauty: Judging Race in Japanese American Beauty Pageants, examines how Japanese ideas about racial purity manifest in beauty pageants.

"No doubt she's shifting attitudes," O'Riain says of Miyamoto, "I'm just not sure she's really shifting them that much. The other thing you have to remember is that she did not win Miss Universe Japan based on a public vote. This is a judging panel that's very small and very select."

O'Riain argues that Miyamoto's selection was less of a symbol that Japan is coming to terms with its racial hang-ups than a clever choice by the pageant organisers. "If you look at some of the past winners of Miss Universe, they're quite tall, they're quite Western-looking." And the more Western-looking a contestant is, she adds, the further they tend to get in.