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Miyamoto Ariana is the 2015 Miss Universe Japan, and the first to ever be half-black. In an ethnically homogenous society, she has become a figure of both hope and controversy, defying and reshaping how people see the concept of being “Japanese.” One common question to her from reporters has been what she considers about herself to be most Japanese, and her response has been, “But I am always Japanese.”
Setting aside in this instance the legitimate criticism of beauty pageants and the like, I want to focus less on the issue of judging people, especially by women, primarily on how they look, and more about how people perceive the way others “should” look. In particular, I want to focus on another less well-known controversy within fandom from a few years back, which is the idea that black girls shouldn’t cosplay white or “white-looking” (i.e. anime) characters.
This has justifiably received a great deal of blow-back from fans and cosplayers of all ethnicities, with people arguing that cosplay is something that transcends race. After all, it’s not necessarily about replicating the character perfectly in reality. The cosplayer is just as important if not more than the costume itself. However, while not wrong in any way, such an argument still comes from the idea that one is defying the presence of race through cosplay. With Miyamoto Ariana’s victory though, something even more fundamental to this idea of “cosplaying the wrong skin color” enters the equation.
Essentially, when it comes to anime characters especially, black cosplayers are working from the perspective that Japanese-ness doesn’t matter, and they’re basically right. What Miyamoto does is attack this at an even more base level: what does “Japanese-ness” even mean? You can look black, be Japanese, and neither is a compromise of the other, even if the surrounding culture (or subculture) tries to make it seem that way.
Of course, when it comes to both beauty queens and cosplayers, on some level image is important, but efforts by both black cosplayers and Miyamoto Ariana show how the very assumptions that go into how we see things, how we see the relationship between reality and fiction and at what point one appears to be the other, can be challenged and potentially transformed on a societal level. At least, that’s where I hope things will go.