What exactly do we look at and use to identify someone as “Japanese”? How many people out there live in Japan and identify as “Japanese” while having roots in other countries? A new understanding of what it is to be mixed-race in Japan can be cultivated from listening to the voices that have often gone unheard. Here at VO1SS, we feature the voices of people who choose to live their lives to compassionately impact the world and most importantly inspire you to do the same.
In this talk, Raimu Kaminashi joins VO1SS to explore the question of what it means to be Japanese and challenge our perceptions of ethnicity and race. She is half-Japanese on her mother’s side, half-Nigerian on her father’s side and identifies as a mixed-race Japanese. She was raised in Gifu Prefecture and has participated in national competitions as a track athlete. To show the second-generation children of African descent that they can achieve anything they want to, Raimu has been active as a model and aims to represent Japan in next year’s Miss Universe competition. As she reflects on her personal experiences, she also shares with us her thoughts on identity, race and goals for the future.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I was born in Nigeria to a Nigerian father and Japanese mother. When I was 7 months old, we came to Japan and I was raised in Gifu Prefecture until I graduated from high school.
Once I reached the age when I could understand my surroundings, I started noticing I was different from the other kids. I realized I looked different, even when no one called me a hāfu (a Japanese word used to refer to someone born to one ethnic Japanese and one non-Japanese parent). It does not bother me now, but as a child, I hated the fact that I looked different. I really wanted to have straight hair.
“Why is Mummy’s hair smooth while my hair’s the only one that’s curly?”
When I was frustrated at my curly hair, my mother suddenly got a curly perm for her long hair. When I heard my now-curly-haired mother say, “Rai, sweetie, you’re not the only one! Mummy’s got the same hair, and it looks cute!” …
I was surprised, but also extremely happy that she would do something like this for me. Yet I decided to do one better for my mother who was very attached to her straight hair and got a straight perm when I was 4 years old. My debut as a model must have come quite early, huh.
I was five years old when my parents divorced. From then on I lost the chance to meet friends around me who had a similar background to mine. It was sometimes isolating because there weren’t many people I could relate to. And my inferiority complex about being the only one who was different from the other kids intensified. I also began to hate using English in public; when my mother talked to me in English, I would refuse to reply, saying, “Speak in Japanese!”
My mother let me wear clothes that were unique and colourful but once I started going to elementary school, she bought me clothes that resembled my friends’. At any rate I didn’t want to stand out.
Did you ever struggle because you’re a hāfu?
I was called out by a teacher in school when I quarreled with my friend. What shocked me was when he cautioned me, saying, “Raimu, you’re good at school, you’re a fast runner; there’s a lot about you that stands out and many times when you’re showered with praise. Yet this also means that whenever you do something bad, you’ll be showered in gossip, so don’t do anything that will make you the target of gossip!”
At the time I went “Ah!” at her words, which seemed loaded with meaning. From then on I became conscious of my actions and at some point, the adults around me began saying, “Rai’s a kid who’s more Japanese than the Japanese themselves, isn’t she.”
To avoid giving off bad impressions I began observing my surroundings and doing likable things like arranging my shoes neatly and bringing presents whenever I visited a friend’s house to play. I was especially conscious of the scrutiny of my friends’ parents, as much as a child could have been.
I followed my teacher’s words in trying to be an average “good kid” to avoid being in the limelight of gossip, and this mentality lasted for several years.
When I started middle school, I chose track as my extracurricular activity because I was a fast runner. The fact that my teammates hated me became evident from the time I competed in a prefecture-level competition as my first competition. They ignored me all the time and their hostility escalated to the point in which they would hide my running spikes or put rocks inside them.
They said things about me like, “Why is a foreigner competing in the same race as us!” “Why should we let a foreigner win!” “Cheater!” …
It made me very upset.
My mother understood the situation I was in and said, “If you do the right thing, your situation will turn around one day.” I was emboldened by her encouragement. No matter how much I was ignored, I greeted every single person I met every day without letting my sadness show.
Gradually my situation began to change. Afterward, when I asked around the kids, it seemed like they were thinking “Why doesn’t she get affected by anything!”
No matter what happens to me I need to live in a way that I won’t be ashamed of in the past or the future! I consoled myself with these words. But after all, I was still a middle school student, and every morning I would have to force a smile in the mirror before going to school.
In Japan, there’s a saying that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” When I got frustrated, my mother used to tell me, “To the kids around you, you’ve gotten to the level where they want to hammer you down! You can’t hammer a nail that sticks out too much! So, become that nail.”
No matter how many times I was called a “cheater” I continued on my track career without missing practices. Once I became able to compete in national competitions my mom started cheering for me in games.
So far, I’ve devoted half of my life to track, but frankly, I don’t like it. I thought about quitting a few times. However, if I continued track, I could receive a scholarship and go to high school. That was my motivation. I wanted to help my mother who is raising three children as a single mother.
Apart from that, another big motivation for me was being cheered on by other children who are also hāfu. The first time I met parents and their hāfu children who came to support me, I was very happy to hear the hāfu kids say, “I want to be like Rai!” I thought to myself that I would try harder.
I received a scholarship to go to university and continued track with an immediate goal of becoming a role model for black hāfu. I was in a champion university with a team that had been the overall champion in the all-Japan intercollegiate (track league), but unfortunately, my highest position was only 5th at the national level. Though I couldn’t personally become the champion, I was happy that through persevering in track I could support the hopes of children who are competing in the same sport.
We know you’re also a model, so could you tell us why you decided to start modeling?
I was interested in modeling from when I was a kids’ model. I also did it because I wanted to become a role model for children with African roots.
I hope we can live in a social environment where black hāfu children, who currently aren’t represented in many areas in Japan, aren’t typecast and can take pride in their identities from being able to be active in various fields besides sports like arts, fashion and politics; I dream of a Japan where they can freely pursue their dreams.
While Japan is slowly starting to change by initially acknowledging these black hāfu children as minorities, I wish that society would treasure and nurture every individual’s inborn personality regardless of race and gender. Now I’m involved in the fashion sector, I want to give it a breath of fresh air and set a good example for these children.
In Japan the activities of white hāfu children stand out and the “hāfu beauties” are almost always only white hāfu models.
They are the magazine models, active members of the cosmetics industry and actresses and singers who seem to set the standards for beauty. The difficult reality is that these standards often applied to white hāfu and become measures for beauty in Japan when they don’t account for standards of beauty for other races especially light-skinned black people. As actresses we non-white hāfu are almost always cast as foreigners and never as Japanese characters. There are those among us who are resigned to never being able to become models or actresses in Japan, and don’t even set dreams or goals for themselves.
The image that lots of Japanese have is that hāfu = beauty, isn’t it.
The premise for this image which is a source of pressure for many mixed children is largely based on mass media.
In magazines there are often features advertising hāfu make-up, make-up for foreigners and foreign-style hair dyes and they raise many questions for children of identities other than white hāfu. However, there are many Japanese who don’t hold any doubts towards these titles, and suppose they were to imagine what kinds of people were photographed for the magazine without looking at its contents, I think a lot of them would have the same image.
That said, it’s obvious that I don’t hold an atom of ill will towards them…. They think this way because apart from the sports industry there are almost no other cases where there are other hāfu appearing in television and magazines. They hold the image they have now because they don’t know.
It’s only because there’s no hāfu around them that they don’t know and have a limited image. So if various hāfu go out into the world more we could build up a new image of hāfu in Japan. I think it’s extremely important to be “known” in various areas.
Now, as it seems I’m doing from speaking out this way, we can start a discussion from even just one person being known by many. It’s precisely because of this that I want to gain the chance to be known by various people and want to speak out here. Then, in a Japan heading towards globalization, I might be creating a new image of “Japanese” that includes people like me.
We heard that you set a goal to appear in next year’s Miss Universe. What are your future aspirations?
I began modeling because I was that young girl looking into the magazines and wondering why I didn’t see more faces like mine looking back at me. I felt white was an exclusive club to which someone like me did not belong to. But, whatever tiny impact it made, I wanted to empower the young black women around me. As a model, I hope to push up against unspoken cultural biases and norms at every opportunity.
Being in Miss Universe was a dream I had since I was small. I may look like a foreigner on the outside, but I’ve spent my whole life in Japan so I’ve always identified myself as Japanese. By appearing in Miss Universe, I might just shake stereotypes of “Japanese-ness”. There might be those who wonder why an “un-Japanese person” would aim to represent Japan.
I have a good physique from doing sports since the beginning, so my modeling experience is skewed towards sports modeling for PUMA, etc., but through participating in the largest contest of true beauty like Miss Universe is, I want to make the diversity of beauty within Japan’s borders and also my pride in myself as a Japanese shine through to the world. It is no longer how other people saw me, but how I wanted to be seen.
Modeling is not my ultimate goal. I see modeling as a method of expressing myself as much as I can to become a role model to second-generation children with African roots. But I’ll be working for an IT corporation in Tokyo starting from next April and I want to hone skills besides modeling and track.
I will always be extremely grateful to the many people, starting with my family and friends, who have supported me that I can challenge myself in new things like this. In my adult years I have learned to appreciate where I come from. I also realize I have been really blessed to have met new people and opportunities. Now I can’t wait to give back just for all that I’ve received from everyone I’ve met. From here on out, I’ll face change fearlessly and keep moving forward!
Translated by Nathasha Lee