Priyanka Yoshikawa controversy: Japan is more diverse than one might imagine

Despite the controversy surrounding Yoshikawa's racial identity, she isn't the first bi-racial individual to represent Japan on an international platform.

Written by Neha Banka Kanoria | Updated: September 25, 2016 3:50 pm
japan-priyanka-yoshikawa-759 Miss Japan Priyanka Yoshikawa. Japan’s belief that it is a homogeneous country has been in existence for the past 70 years, if not more.

When Priyanka Yoshikawa won the title of Miss Japan to represent her country in the Miss World contest later this year, reports emerged that her critics were concerned about her half-Indian heritage and questioned whether she was an authentic representation of what it meant to be Japanese. Individuals with half-Japanese heritage are called ‘haifu’ or ‘hafu’- the word being the Japanisation of the English word ‘half’. Although the word is simply the Japanese pronunciation of the word ‘half’, it has gone on to be specifically used as a term for somebody with half-Japanese heritage along with half of some other nationality. “When you use the word ‘hafu’, 99 per cent of the time you mean somebody half-Japanese,” says Megumi Nishikura, a filmmaker who produced and directed ‘Hafu’, a film about mixed race Japanese individuals and their multicultural experience living in modern day Japan.

Nishikura believes that because of the pageant’s global nature, the international media picked up on Yoshikawa’s bi-racial heritage and made it a bigger deal than it is. The average Japanese doesn’t care about Yoshikawa’s heritage, she explained. “There are a lot of people in the world who have a lot of opinions about it on social media, but that’s for just about any subject in the world,” said Nishikura.

Arata Izumi, a half-Japanese, half-Indian football player currently with FC Pune City backs Nishikura’s opinion. According to Izumi, the fixation with “pure Japanese” identity is largely limited to smaller towns and cities that don’t see a lot of foreigners, leading to a lack of understanding about half-Japanese individuals. Izumi lived in Japan till he was 24 and his hometown was a very small city.

priyanka yoshikawa, japan miss world, miss world japan, half indian miss world japan, half indian priyanka yoshikawa, entertainment news, indian express, Arata Izumi is a half-Japanese, half-Indian football player currently with FC Pune.

Izumi’s elder brother, Shinobu Izumi, who also goes by his Indian name, Shiv, believes that most Japanese are ambivalent about half-Japanese individuals or foreigners. “Ten years ago or 20 years ago, people didn’t know many half-Japanese people and they would be surprised to meet them and wouldn’t know how to react. However, that is slowly changing,” explained Shinobu, who works as an assistant professor teaching computer science in Sojo University in Kumamoto, Japan. Larger cities like Tokyo have always had a more cosmopolitan crowd so seeing a half-Japanese individual on the street isn’t unusual. The slowly growing presence of a more cosmopolitan crowd in smaller towns is changing the views of the residents there, especially that of the older generation.

However, it isn’t unusual to see this work the other way round. Julian Nagano, a half-Japanese, half-German rap artist based in Berlin, believes that although bigger metropolises tend to more cosmopolitan, “there are also people from small towns accepting mixed race (individuals) or foreigners (as well as) and also people from big cities not accepting them.”

priyanka yoshikawa, japan miss world, miss world japan, half indian miss world japan, half indian priyanka yoshikawa, entertainment news, indian express, Julian Nagano is a half-Japanese, half-German rap artist based in Berlin

Japan’s obsession with homogeneity can be traced back to the 1880s but it was only by the 1930s and 1940s that the country started placing importance on eugenics during it’s era of imperial expansion. After the defeat by the Allied forces during the Second World War, especially by the United States, the issue of ‘GI babies’ or children of American soldiers and Japanese women surfaced in Japan. Most fathers went back to the US while the children (who stayed back) suffered economic hardship and strong social discrimination, especially those whose fathers were Afro-American soldiers,” explains Koichi Iwabuchi, Director of the Monash Asia Institute, Monash University, in an article for the Journal of Intercultural Studies.

“The idea that we are one people, one race, one language, one culture came after Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the devastation of war. So there were a lot of people rallying behind that idea,” explained Nishikura. Post the destruction caused by World War II in Japan, there was a diminishing of the nuances of diversity and in the acknowledgement of the existence of minority groups in Japan like the Chinese generational foreigners, the Zainichi Koreans, the indigenous Ainu of Japan and the Okinawans, among others. These groups got left behind when the concept of “pure Japanese” was created. Their presence in the country proves that historically Japan was never a homogenous country as many often incorrectly assume.

atomic_cloud_over_nagasaki_from_koyagi-759 Post the destruction caused by World War II in Japan, there was a diminishing of the nuances of diversity and in the acknowledgement of the existence of minority groups in Japan (Source: Wikimedia commons)

The origins of the word ‘hafu’ are rooted in pop-culture, when a pop music group, Golden Half, made of five hafu female singers debuted in Japan in the late 1960s. An important contribution of hafus who are celebrities is that they have helped increase “visibility of those with mixed parentage in society due to the steady rise of international marriage and the change of (the) nationality law in 1985, which enables the acquisition of Japanese nationality by birth even if only the mother is a Japanese national,” writes Iwabuchi.

Despite the controversy surrounding Yoshikawa’s racial identity, she isn’t the first bi-racial individual to represent Japan on an international platform. Yoshikawa’s predecessor, Ariana Miyamoto, who has African-American and Japanese heritage represented Japan in the Miss Universe pageant. More recently, Japanese-American Mashu Baker represented Japan as a judoka in the 2016 Olympics and won gold in the 90 kg category, while Japanese-Jamaican Asuka Cambridge, represented Japan as a track and field sprinter in the silver medal-winning men’s 4x100m relay team.

Perceptions of hafus are changing in Japan but slowly, said Iwabuchi.  “Acceptance comes more easily for celebrities and sports athletes than it does for ordinary citizens who still suffer from prejudice.” One problem that hafus face is that the most widely accepted image of hafu is one where the individual is half-Caucasian, good-looking and cosmopolitan where they can speak English and/or other European languages in addition to Japanese, writes Iwabuchi.

This excludes hafus who have an Asian parent or a parent who isn’t European or American. “People’s reactions can be very discriminatory, especially when they find out that I am half Indian,” said Izumi. He believes that the reaction is similar if individuals have Chinese or Korean heritage or that of another Asian country along with Japanese heritage. According to Izumi, the reactions are different when the individuals have half American or European heritage. “It’s a totally different experience. People basically fancy them with their blond hair, blue eyes,” added Izumi, explaining that his views are based on his own experience.

A predominant number of fashion models and celebrities are bi-racial and are in their own ways breaking stereotypes of what it means to be Japanese- and what it means to be hafu. Some of these faces include big names in the entertainment industry in Japan like pop-star Sayaka Akimoto of the extremely popular Japanese pop group AKB48 who is half-Filipino and half-Japanese. Eiji Wentz, a half-German, half-Japanese singer is one part of the singer-songwriter duo WaT. Japan is slowly changing and that change is represented in the diverse faces visible in the public space.

The author is a New York-based journalist. Views expressed are personal.