Do American children call Japanese people Japanese

TOKYO — Ariana Miyamoto was born and raised in Japan and speaks fluent Japanese. But she said most people in her homeland see her as a foreigner.

“My appearance isn’t Asian,” she said, “[but] I think I’m very much Japanese on the inside.”

Miyamoto, 21, was born to a Japanese mother and an African-American sailor who left Japan when she was a child. In Japan she’s considered a hafu, or half-Japanese. Some people prefer the term daburu to signify double heritage, but Miyamoto said she’s not offended by the word hafu.

“I don't think the equivalent word for hafu exists overseas, but in Japan you need it to explain who you are,” she said.

In March she became the first half-black, half-Japanese woman to be named Miss Universe Japan. Many people in Japan cheered, tweeting messages such as “She represents Japan! Being hafu is irrelevant.”

But others complained on social media that she didn’t deserve the title.

“I don’t mean to discriminate,” one post read, “but I wonder how a hafu can represent Japan.”

Another person tweeted, “I didn’t know Miss Japan doesn’t have to be pure Japanese ... What a shock!”

“I ran for Miss Japan expecting some criticism, so it wasn’t such a big surprise for me,” Miyamoto said. “But of course, those kinds of comments don’t make me feel good, so I try my best to turn them into positive motivations.”

She said she has heard those kinds of comments since childhood, when she was constantly bullied and even called kuronbo, the Japanese equivalent of the N-word. Some children threw garbage at her or refused to swim in the same pool.

“I didn’t cope at all,” she said. “I didn’t tell my parents or my friends. I was the type to just keep it inside me.”

“My appearance isn’t Asian,” she said, “[but] I think I’m very much Japanese on the inside.”

Miyamoto, 21, was born to a Japanese mother and an African-American sailor who left Japan when she was a child. In Japan she’s considered a hafu, or half-Japanese. Some people prefer the term daburu to signify double heritage, but Miyamoto said she’s not offended by the word hafu.

“I don't think the equivalent word for hafu exists overseas, but in Japan you need it to explain who you are,” she said.

In March she became the first half-black, half-Japanese woman to be named Miss Universe Japan. Many people in Japan cheered, tweeting messages such as “She represents Japan! Being hafu is irrelevant.”

But others complained on social media that she didn’t deserve the title.

“I don’t mean to discriminate,” one post read, “but I wonder how a hafu can represent Japan.” Another person tweeted, “I didn’t know Miss Japan doesn’t have to be pure Japanese ... What a shock!”

“I ran for Miss Japan expecting some criticism, so it wasn’t such a big surprise for me,” Miyamoto said. “But of course, those kinds of comments don’t make me feel good, so I try my best to turn them into positive motivations.”

She said she has heard those kinds of comments since childhood, when she was constantly bullied and even called kurombo, the Japanese equivalent of the N-word. Some children threw garbage at her or refused to swim in the same pool.

“I didn’t cope at all,” she said. “I didn’t tell my parents or my friends. I was the type to just keep it inside me.”

After spending two years in her teens with her father in rural Arkansas, Miyamoto returned to Japan and dropped out of high school. Then one day a close friend — also a hafu — killed himself, inspiring her to raise awareness about the challenges mixed-race children can face in Japan. And she entered the pageant, looking for a way to speak out.

“I would like to do my best for people who are having a hard time as hafu,” she said. “I’d also like to become someone who can encourage Japanese people with some sort of complex and who are hurting or considering suicide because of it.”

Hafu account for a small portion of Japan’s population. According to Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, approximately 36,000 children with a non-Japanese parent are born every year in the country, accounting for about 3 percent of births.

But with a rise in intermarriage, their numbers are growing.

“Over the last 20 years, there has been a doubling of the percentage of the population that’s foreigners,” said Jeff Kingston, the director of Asian studies at Temple University in Japan. “One out of 30 Japanese babies who are born has mixed parents.”

Hafu are making their mark in a country where fitting in is often preferred to sticking out, immigration is restricted to a trickle and the idea that all Japanese belong to the same race runs strong.

“There are many Japanese who believe in the purity of Japanese culture and traditions,” Kingston said, “and they have this imagined Yamato race … Everybody in the archipelago comes from this same blood pool, this same DNA. Now, anybody who seriously researches Japanese history knows that this is a myth.”

Some biracial Japanese are finding fame, such as Antony, a half-African-American, half-Japanese comedian and Saira Kunikida, an Italian-Japanese model advertising for a Japanese department store. She’s the face of a campaign called Japan Senses, which places importance on Japanese traditions and culture. 

Ian Herman, 16, is a hafu whose father is American. Teased as a child for being white, he got into fistfights and defended himself against other children with his umbrella.

“I feel a bit offended because I’m living in Japan but I’m not treated as a Japanese person,” he said. “I’ve been raised Japanese. I eat a bowl of rice in the morning and miso soup … because my mom would make me Japanese food.” He added that he is also “hyped with cornflakes.”

Eventually, Herman turned to rap music as a way to express himself. “It’s fine to be different as long as you have your own pride, like no one can stop you,” he said. “You know, girls love the hafu.

The most intermarriages in Japan are between Japanese men and women from other Asian countries, including China, the Philippines and South Korea, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

Hafu with a Korean or black parent tend to have the toughest time in Japan, according to Megumi Nishikura, a half-Japanese, half-Irish-American filmmaker who co-directed the 2013 documentary “Hafu.”

“There’s an unspoken racial hierarchy” inside and outside the hafu community, she said. “If you are half-white, you are considered to be the ideal hafu.” She added that she has heard some people in Japan refer to Asian-mixed Japanese as zanen, or disappointing, hafu.

Joe Takami, 24, spent part of her childhood hiding her Korean last name from her classmates and pretending she was completely Japanese.

“Japanese people tend to say American hafu are awesome,” she said, “but in my experience, when people hear about Korean hafu, about half of them react negatively.” For example, she said, if any men she dates “don’t like it, the relationship ends.”

Takami said that while Korean music, food and culture have many fans in Japan, some of the negativity toward people like her is rooted in Japan’s troubled relations with its Korean neighbors.

And in recent years, small but vitriolic anti-Korean rallies organized by the right-wing group Zaitokukai have been held in Japan. As the 2020 Tokyo Olympics approaches and pressure on Japan’s government has risen to curb such hate speech, the rallies have abated.

Miyamoto said her country still has “a long way to go” to embrace diversity.

She is already making big strides for black hafu by challenging the widespread view that lighter skin is more beautiful.

And she has advice for other young people who feel they are not accepted because of their mixed-race background. “It’s OK to be who you are,” she said. “There isn’t another you out there, and it’s no fun when everybody’s the same.”

She added, “Believe in [yourselves] and don’t care too much about what other people say.”

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Miss Japan challenges the norm

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‘I don’t think the equivalent word for ‘hafu’ exists overseas, but in Japan you need it to explain who you are.’

Ariana Miyamoto

Miss Universe Japan 2015

‘There are many Japanese who believe in the purity of Japanese culture and traditions … Now, anybody who seriously researches Japanese history knows that this is a myth.’

Jeff Kingston

Asian studies director, Temple University in Japan