Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia

13 September 2016

The crowning of Priyanka Yoshikawa as Miss Japan has sparked further debate in the country about identity and race, Carol Hayes writes.

On 5 September, Priyanka Yoshikawa – born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother and Indian father – was selected to represent her country as Miss World Japan 2016. In her acceptance speech she said, “I want to spread the message of love and beauty of this country”. Her selection has, however, sparked controversy as to her racial identity and whether it is appropriate for her to represent ‘this country’ of Japan.

With her mixed parentage, Priyanka is what is commonly termed a ‘half’ (haafu) in Japan. But how can such a woman have been chosen to represent Japan, when only about 2 per cent of yearly births are bi-racial, and where 99 per cent of refugee applications are rejected? Images of attractive half-Japanese are not new to Japanese media or popular culture, and commonly appear in fashion magazines and TV talk shows. Ten years ago The Japan Times commented on the appeal:  “In modern Japan, the Haafu image projects an ideal type; English ability, international cultural experience, western physical features – tall with long legs, small head/face, yet often looking Japanese enough for the majority to feel comfortable with.”

Global news headlines such as ‘Part-Indian crowned Miss Japan‘, ‘Half-Indian elephant trainer crowned Miss Japan‘, and ‘New Miss Japan Priyanka Yoshikawa on her Indian origins: I thought I wasn’t normal‘, have all stressed Priyanka’s difference and exotic otherness. In doing so, they seem to have stirred up the underlying tension between racial purity and a more globalised Japan which is much more comfortable with multi-ethnicity.

Priyanka Yoshikawa herself posted a picture of The Times of India front page, with the headline “Miss Japan Priyanka is a descendant of Bengal’s 1st Chief Minister Prafulla Ghosh”, so clearly India is happy to claim a part of her.

More on this: Poles apart: missing the middle ground in Japan | Stephen R Nagy

The Japanese media initially took a fairly straightforward line. Asahi Shimbun originally didn’t make too much of her Indian roots, running the simple headline, Japan’s candidate for Miss World 2016 decided. Noting that “Yoshikawa Priyanka (22)”, was “an interpreter from Tokyo and a ‘half’ Japanese, born of a Japanese and an Indian”, they did not engage in any discussion of her racial purity or national identity. By the following day, however, the Japanese media started to show a growing interest in the reactions of the international media, with such headlines as ‘Past experiences of discrimination as a ‘half’: Priyanka Yoshikawa, Japan’s Miss World Candidate attracts attention in foreign media‘.

Priyanka’s selection as Miss Japan comes only a year after half-Japanese and half-African American Ariana Miyamoto was selected to represent Japan in the Miss Universe Competition 2015. Ariana Miyamoto’s win was met with much fiercer criticism than Priyanka has faced to date. A typical claim was that Miyamoto’s crown “should instead have been won by a ‘pure’ Japanese rather than a ‘haafu’.”

Media in Japan and around the world have picked up with interest on Priyanka’s interview with Agence France-Presse (AFP) in which she talked about the discrimination she suffered as a child growing up in Japan. It was widely reported that Priyanka was bullied for her skin colour: “they seemed to think I was some sort of infectious germ, but I became much stronger as a result of that experience,” she said. The fact that although she was born in Japan, she spent much of her early years in the US and India, has added fuel to the ‘purity’ debate, although Priyanka believes herself to be Japanese; “I am often asked about my ‘mixed blood’ and yes my father is Indian and I am proud that half the blood that flows through my veins is Indian. But that does not mean that I am not Japanese.”

Chiebukuro, a community site operated by Yahoo Japan Corporation, provides an interesting sample of blogger responses to this controversy. A 6 September question (the day after her selection) asked, “Why have ‘halves’ been chosen in the recent Miss Contests?” One response argued that a ‘half’ child was more likely to be born beautiful and that even if a traditional Japanese beauty had been selected in these competitions her beauty would have little international appeal.

Another response also questioned the selection committee’s choice: “surely you can’t argue that [her beauty] represents true Japanese beauty?” Another went even further, convinced that it was all a conspiracy, part of an anti-Japan move and a conspiracy to dilute Japanese blood. Twitter also carried some similarly negative comments with one user saying she should represent India instead and another that “the issue is not that she is of mixed blood, but that she’s not a Japanese beauty”.

Not all the responses however, were so negative. One blogger noted, “If she’s beautiful and has Japanese citizenship isn’t that enough?” Another developed that idea a little further;

“If you have Japanese citizenship then you are Japanese. Saying someone isn’t properly Japanese-like is [stupid]… And what is a pure Japanese person anyway? Are you saying we should check if anyone has relatives who aren’t Japanese, that we should go around doing a head count like the Nazis did? … as long as there is no clearer definition of what it is to be Japanese, the most logical thing is to base it on citizenship.”

Another defended Priyanka saying that, “rather than questioning whether a woman of mixed blood should represent Japan, the question is whether she has pride in and a love of Japan.” The Japan Times Facebook page has had over 8000 reactions and hundreds of comments, mostly positive.

While in some quarters a belief in the myth of Japanese ethnic purity still lingers, multi-ethnicity is increasingly apparent in contemporary Japan, and Miss World Japan Priyanka Yoshikawa is one example of this positive globalising trend. The final consensus seems to be that although she may not be a classic Japanese beauty, she is nevertheless both Japanese and beautiful. She clearly has pride in her Japanese citizenship, and consequently has the right to represent Japan on the world stage.

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Hayes, Carol. 2016. "Is Racial Purity A Predeterminant Of Beauty? - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.