I remember when I was very young, I believed I was white. My friends were white and all the people in our neighborhood were white. Even though the people around me would often call me simply Asian or, by the older white men my family knew, Oriental.
I thought that — as someone who was actually biracial — if I was being called by one of the two halves of my identity, then I should also be called by the other just as easily.
My mother had a mirror in the upstairs bathroom that was frustratingly small. It was round and placed at a height where, at my short stature, my reflection would cut off a little below my chin. I often had to stand on tiptoe to get a sense of what my full hair and face actually looked like, but after a while I didn’t even bother anymore.
Growing up, I tended to avoid mirrors unless I needed them. Seeing my face was never intentional, only by accident when my eyes flickered to the reflective surface and caught a glimpse of myself.
If you would have asked me what I saw in that mirror that made me so uneasy from such a young age, I would have simply said: I look like an alien.
I grew up in the ’90s, a time before there were YouTube videos about the finer tips of on point liner, cut creases, and perfecting one’s contour. If your mother, aunt, siblings, or friends weren’t into makeup, then you either had to experiment on your own or rely on magazines to lead you to aesthetic enlightenment.
Classic magazines like Seventeen and the famously risqué — at the time (though laughably absurd in retrospect) — Cosmopolitan offered girls guidance on what colors would suit you best.
Were you warm-toned or cool-toned? Should you wear silver or gold jewelry? What eyeshadow colors worked best with your hair color and your eye color? What lipsticks were kiss-proof and which mascaras were cry-proof?
I remember becoming increasingly interested in the idea of beauty and the possibility of making minor tweaks to make myself aesthetically pleasing. It wasn’t necessarily to get attention from girls or boys. More than anything, I think I just wanted to understand what my “best” features actually were.
I was a late bloomer when it came to doing much to my face, but I learned fairly quickly that what was touted as the fundamental aspects of beauty would take a little more work for me. Trying to match a foundation shade to my biracial skin tone, for instance, was a nightmare for a number of years.
My first experience with skin color bias actually happened in an art class during middle school.
The final project for the course was to paint a portrait of yourself and I struggled to get the tone just right for a few days. One of my closest friends in the class was of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. She too struggled with getting the right olive color to match her own skin. After messy trial and error attempts between the two of us, we asked the art teacher for some help.
We watched as she attempted to mix the right colors for each of us, growing increasingly uncomfortable as the colors became farther and farther from what we actually looked like.
Eventually, my friend and I exchanged glances, hastily accepted whatever color the teacher had mixed for us and finished the portraits. To this day we both laugh at how wrong the colors were, how weirdly pinkish my skin tone had turned out, and how hard it was for the teacher to mix a skin tone other than pale white.
I was in my early teens when I became aware that my face didn’t fit in with the models that I saw in the American magazines.
I’d found a makeup tutorial laid out in one of the spreads, instructing readers how to do a natural, enhance-what-you-have eye look. I remember pulling out the one eye palette I had, a plain gift-with-purchase Clinique quad from my mother, and studiously following the guide.
I put one color in the crease, a shimmery color all over the lid, and carefully smudged the darkest color along my lash line, all the while keeping my eyes half closed to avoid getting powder in them. Once I reached the final step, I opened my eyes, blinking carefully to survey my work.
To my surprise, my eyes, aside from some of the dark shadow smudged near my lashes, looked almost bare. I double-checked the diagram in confusion, looking between the startled face in my mother’s tiny bathroom mirror and the perfectly executed eye on the glossy page.
It took a moment for me to realize that the eye shape on the page was different than my own, that the enhance-what-you-have look was intended for less hooded eyes than mine. I stopped following American magazine tutorials after that.
I was born in Osaka and have traveled back and forth between the United States and Japan for most of my life.
One of my favorite things to do in Japan was go to bookstores with my grandfather, who was also an avid reader and encouraged my love of literature. On one of these trips, I wandered into the magazine section and picked up the first glossy print that caught my eye.
I leafed through spread after spread of girls whose eyes looked like mine, whose faces resembled mine more closely than anything I saw in the magazines back in the United States. I was instantly hooked.
Worried that my grandfather would laugh at how girly many of these magazines were, I set down the copy that initially captured my attention and picked up one that seemed the most sensible and subdued — CLASSY, a magazine that showcased classic, simple outfit diaries and fashion advice, along with hair and makeup tips.
My grandfather looked at the smiling, suit-clad woman on the cover, and said “Isn’t this a little old for you?” before shrugging and placing it with the pile of books we were buying.
CLASSY was definitely too old for me at the time. It catered to professional women in their twenties and at the age of fourteen or fifteen, I didn’t need tips on how to go from a business setting to a casual date night, or what outfits work best for presentations. But it opened the gate to media that reflected my features.
The pages of CLASSY first showed me mixed-race models like Anne Umemiya, Jessica Michibata, and others who stood in stark contrast to the dearth representation of people like me, people who remain unfeatured in the magazines back in the United States.
From there, each time I went to Japan, I would try to time my stay so I could pick up two issues of the magazine. If I timed it right, I could catch the last run of one month’s issue and pick up the following month’s in the airport on the way back to the United States.
I would also beg my mother to bring me back an issue of the magazine from her trips and ask any relative to bring me the latest CLASSY each time they visited.
I resorted to begging since, like many Japanese fashion and beauty magazines, each issue of CLASSY was incredibly heavy, and suitcase space was precious. Carrying one CLASSY meant family members would risk having to pay a fee for overweight luggage.
But as much as I trace my current appreciation for, and conceptualization of beauty to these Japanese magazines, it’s a lie to say that they provided the ultimate answer to my own identity.
In these spaces, the same biracial background that made me read as Asian or Oriental in the United States was read in Japan as White. The emphasis, once again, was on the other half of who I was.
In the modeling and entertainment industry in particular, half-Japanese women are assimilable due to their “exotic” appearances, which means they have familiar features on their faces but their proximity to whiteness, a “safe” and culturally acceptable type of foreignness, adds to their allure.
As someone who is white and Japanese, I fit that colorist “mold”— but only after I reached a certain age. As a child in Japan, I was told I was an alien and that I should go back to where I came from. However, when I was in my teens and early twenties, I was stopped in stores there by female clerks who excitedly asked if I was a model.
I’ve had many conversations with other half-Japanese individuals who share similar experiences to me: ridicule, bullying, and teasing when we are kids, then when we begin to mature and look similar to models on the page — similar in the sense that we, too, look “exotic” or “foreign” — we are accepted.
We’re still as different as we were as children, but the difference has suddenly become desirable.
However, these experiences don’t discredit the privilege that being half-Japanese and half-white gets in Japan, nor is it anywhere near the type of racism and colorism that people with darker skin experience within Japanese culture.
There are other half-Japanese people from various backgrounds that do not even experience this sudden shift in acceptance at all. For many mixed Japanese people, especially women, our acceptance in Japan is still based on whether or not we are consumable as media fantasies. Like most halves, we need to fit a certain mold.
But, back then, I wasn’t thinking about the larger socio-historical meaning behind what it meant for a half-Japanese woman to be accepted in entertainment. I was just happy to see someone like me while still facing subtle ridicule for that same ‘foreignness.’
Reina Triendl, a half-Austrian and half-Japanese model, actress, and television personality, is another celebrity whose face I saw in magazines in my teens and who, recently, was a commentator on the popular Japanese reality television show Terrace House.
Though she was born in Austria, she has lived and worked in Japan since she was in high school and, when I watch her on the screen, she reads as Japanese to me.
Yet, there are moments in Terrace House where her difference is brought up — often in ways that are not necessarily apropos. For instance, another commentator named You, will laughingly dismiss a comment Triendl makes by saying, “It’s because her father is Austrian.” It just about always elicits laughter from the group.
As someone who is used to my difference being pointed out in seemingly unnecessary moments, even in innocent ways, comments like this always gave me a twinge of annoyance.
It was never Triendl’s Japanese mother who was brought up; it was the part of her that made her different, the part of her that was not Japanese, that was the butt of the joke.
As I grew older, I realized that I would always occupy an amorphous middle space in relation to both the United States and Japan.
So much of my upbringing was shaped by the language and the worldview my Japanese mother infused. And since I took my mother’s family name after my parents’ divorce, I will always have a hard time only calling myself American.
But I also realized that, in Japan, I would always be marked by my difference — no matter how good my Japanese was, no matter what Japanese media or literature I consumed, no matter how many ties I had to the culture itself, I would still be defined, in Japanese society, by the part of me that was not Japanese.
In the end, it was my acceptance of this perpetual liminal state that made me accept the face I saw when I looked in the mirror.
Rather than trying to fit into either a Western or a Japanese mold, both of which were equally impossible in their own way, I needed to accept the face that would stay with me forever. Rather than waiting for an increase in biracial models on the page.
Taking control of my identity and learning to work with the face I had helped me come to terms with who I was. Today, I pick and choose beauty tips from both Western and Japanese sources, tailoring the tutorials that don’t fit with my features so that they do.
The landscape of media and diversity has changed since the ’90s and the 2000s, when I was growing up. There is now a larger push for representation and diversity in media, whether that be through movies, television, or even ad campaigns.
I’m happy that there are more faces on display in ad campaigns, even if the more cynical side of me chalks it up to a brand’s desire for increased profit. I know that, as a child, I would have benefitted from seeing more people who looked like I did.
Yet, the lack of representation in my adolescence still lingers.
To this day, I still believe that I look like an alien, that there is something not quite right with my face. No matter how many times family members, friends, or my partner try to tell me otherwise, I can’t shake the feeling of seeing something anomalous in the mirror.
And I still read CLASSY whenever I get the chance. On a recent trip to New York City with my mother, we even made it a point to stop in a Kinokunyia so I could pick up the latest copy.
I began as an anomalously young reader and I am now, technically, at the older end of the average age range of their readership. Though my enjoyment is tempered by a more realistic understanding of the media I consume, I still feel a twinge of excitement each time I see a model who looks like me.