6 Modern Women Redefining What It Means To Be Japanese

Breaking barriers and changing who and what can be considered “Japanese”

What does it mean to be Japanese? Six inspiring women are transforming traditional notions by making it possible for those not typically considered “Japanese” to have a voice.

Sometimes it seems like Japanese women and femmes share the exact same characteristics. This is, of course, a myth, but in the face of pervasive kawaii culture, the overwhelming social pressure to be thin, and the uniformity of idol groups like AKB48, it’s not hard to see how this damaging idea gets perpetuated. 

The “ideal Japanese woman” is relentlessly depicted as adorable, fashionable, organized, submissive, straight, soft-spoken (think lovable Japanese darling, Marie Kondo), and above all else, of pure Japanese descent. While there’s nothing wrong with this image, painting it as the definition for all Japanese women is.

Despite this, these six modern women are evolving the work of renowned women who helped shape Japan’s history by shaking up the stereotype and redefining what it means to be Japanese.

1. Naomi Osaka: The title-winning tennis star representing Japan

Naomi Osaka© Photo by Naomi Osaka

Flip on the TV and nine out of ten times you’ll see a commercial featuring professional tennis player Naomi Osaka. 

Representing Japan, Osaka has risen to worldwide stardom in recent years for her mad skills on the court. At just 22 years old, she’s the first Asian player to hold a top rank in the tennis singles category. In 2018, Osaka shocked the world when she defeated her idol Serena Williams in a controversial match.

Osaka was born in Osaka (of course) but moved to the US when she was three, so she holds dual citizenship. However, because she lacks the pale complexion typical of Asian women—her mother is Japanese and her father Haitian—Osaka has received both praise and hate from her native country. 


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full circle

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An animated ad created by Japanese noodle giant, Nissin, features a whitewashed version of Osaka. Despite Nissin apologizing and claiming they meant no harm, the ad caused quite the controversy. More recently, a Japanese comedic duo joked her skin “needed some bleach.” Naomi’s excellent Twitter response proves one can care about beauty without being superficial—or racist. 

It’s as if in order for Osaka to be accepted into Japanese society, some people are trying to change her appearance to force her to fit in. Yet, despite the hate, Osaka has won four titles, continues to be a strong representative of Japan in the world of sports, and is still kicking ass both on the court and in life.

2. Rina Sawayama: The fashion-forward pop star giving a voice to queer Japanese women

Risa Sawayama© Photo by Risa Sawayama

Representing bi and pansexual women everywhere is Rina Sawayama, a singer-songwriter and model who was born in Niigata and raised in London. 

The rising pop star pens songs with powerful, feminist lyrics featuring beats evoking the playful nostalgia of the 90s and early 2000s. Sporting colorful hairstyles (including her trademark orange mane) and fusing genres like pop, rock, and R&B, Sawayama shuns the image of the typical Japanese girl.

Her rise to fame came in 2017 when she independently released an album called RINA exploring themes like social anxiety, how people portray themselves online, and pop music’s lack of Asian representation. She gained further popularity in the form of the LGBT+ community when she came out as bi/pansexual in 2018. She’s since been named one of Forbes Japan’s 30 Under 30.


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Sawayama is outspoken about Asian beauty standards. In an interview with Vogue Magazine, she explains, “For a lot of women in Japan, these are the expectations people put on them, from anime culture, kawaii culture…that can really put women at a disadvantage, objectifying and infantilizing them.” 

In 2016, she criticized this very issue in a collaboration with photographer John Yuyi for a series of portraits titled Asian Beauty. Sawayama posed for the camera, showcasing an anime-style eye with a double eyelid and text referencing the desire for pale skin painted on her bare skin. By regularly calling out behavior she views as harmful, Sawayama continues to bring to light discrimination and pioneer the future of Japanese beauty

It’s clear that Sawayama is already breaking the mold. As she intones in “Take Me As I Am”:

“Everybody thinks it’s okay
To keep up the status quo
Well, that ain’t no more.”

3. Ariana Miyamoto: The former Miss Universe Japan who uses her platform to fight racial discrimination

Ariana Miyamoto© Photo by Ariana Miyamoto

Another inspirational biracial woman is Ariana Miyamoto, a Japanese model and beauty pageant titleholder who was crowned Miss Universe Japan in 2015. 

Like Osaka, Miyamoto is half-Japanese (her father is African-American). Unfortunately, she too has been subjected to racist and colorist backlash by those who don’t believe someone who isn’t fully of Japanese descent can represent the nation. 

The difference between Osaka and Miyamoto, however, is that Miyamoto grew up almost entirely in Japan, solely holds Japanese citizenship, and speaks the language fluently. She knows no other nation better than she knows Japan, her home. 

Miyamoto was inspired to compete in the Miss Universe pageant after a Japanese friend who was also biracial committed suicide. She realized she could potentially use her fame to combat racial prejudice, so she auditioned.  


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着物久しぶりに来たー❤︎ #love#着物#kimono @ayako_cosmopolitan

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Not only did Miyamoto best every other Japanese contestant to become Miss Universe Japan, but she also made it into the top 10 during the global Miss Universe pageant later that year. This capitulated her into international stardom, allowing her to directly challenge the outdated notion that Japanese people have to look a certain way. The once-shy Miyamoto no longer minds drawing attention to herself if it inspires other Japanese people of color to aim for success.

“Now I have a great platform to deliver that message as the first black Miss Universe Japan,” she said.

4. Megumi Nishikura: Film director and producer introducing the struggles of hafus to an international audience

Few Japanese people are more familiar with the trials and tribulations of hafu (someone born to one Japanese and one non-Japanese parent) life as Megumi Nishikura. A Japanese-Irish filmmaker raised between Japan and the US, Nishikura received worldwide acclaim for her 2013 film, Hafu.

“If you are in [Tokyo], you will see many hafus and interracial couples. But I couldn’t help but wonder why Japanese society doesn’t know the true feelings and struggles of hafus…” she said.

“It’s time for Japan to accept diversity.”

Working with fellow hafu Lara Perez Takagi, Nishikura set out to depict the experiences of five half-Japanese individuals and how they’ve been affected by their identities. Besides being directed by and starring hafu, many of the film’s key creative elements were contributed by hafu artists as well. 

The film helped bring to light the issues hafus in Japan face, as well as the fact that a growing number of children born in Japan are biracial, a fact the nation will have to reckon with sooner than later. 

Nishikura continues to use film as a medium to remind people of their common humanity. She has collaborated with the United Nations and NGOs to create documentaries on social issues. 

5. Naomi Watanabe: Proving to the world that one size does not fit all

Naomi Watanabe© Photo by Naomi Watanabe

Named one of Time Magazine’s “25 Most Influential People on the Internet” in 2018, Naomi Watanabe is poised for international stardom. 

The Japanese-Taiwanese comedian, actress, and fashion designer rose to fame in 2008 for her televised imitation of Beyoncé on popular variety show Warate Iitomo! She is now Japan’s most-followed person on Instagram

Watanabe is undeniably hilarious, but what often initially draws people’s attention is the fact that she’s bigger and curvier than most Japanese women. She expertly uses this to her advantage, like in her hilarious Shu Uemura campaign where she presses cosmetics up against the glass with her curvaceous body. Though she has experienced body shaming and criticism online and beyond, Watanabe retains a positive attitude and regularly preaches the value of body positivity and self-love.


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She said: “If you love yourself, you can try anything.”

In everything she does, Watanabe is spreading the idea that curvy girls can be sexy, successful, and happy—and proudly boast it, too. As she said in an interview with Vogue UK, “I definitely think that it’s important to change the stereotype: Japanese women do have opinions; we are not going to say yes all the time or agree to everything. I want to just to be seen as an individual.”

6. Shiori Ito: A brave journalist and filmmaker who’s not afraid to speak out 

Shiori Ito© Photo by valentina98433

Shiori Ito is a renowned journalist and filmmaker. Her films, which mainly focus on gender-based human rights issues, have won her international accolades and praise. As a journalist, she reports to and contributes articles to publications like Al Jazeera, Politico, and Reuters. 

In 2017, she shocked the nation by publicly accusing a prominent fellow journalist with ties to the Prime Minister of raping her. She chose to be verbal about the attack after the police refused to press charges against the man, Noriyuki Yamaguchi, despite there being substantial evidence against him. 

In a country known for lax rape laws and victim-blaming, the backlash was devastating. “I was vilified on social media and received hate messages and emails and calls from unknown numbers…and told I should ‘be dead’,” Ito wrote. “There were arguments over my nationality because a true Japanese woman wouldn’t speak about such ‘shameful’ things.”


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#shioriito #blackbox Be brave and be with u all.

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Many people rallied behind her, however. Ito became the subject of an acclaimed BBC documentary called Japan’s Secret Shame, which made waves internationally. She also wrote a book called Black Box revealing the sexism in Japan’s society and institutions.

The “ideal” Japanese woman is viewed as shy, quiet, and told not to make a scene—quite the opposite of what Ito is doing. Her decision to speak out has opened up a difficult but necessary dialogue, and is encouraging other Japanese women to follow in her footsteps.

Who are the women of today’s Japan who inspire you? Let us know in the comments below!

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