Priyanka Yoshikawa: “People might say I’m less Japanese, but I don’t care”
The Miss World Japan winner on language, rarity and embracing difference
Hi, welcome back to Mixed Messages! This week, I’m speaking to former Miss World Japan and founder of Mukoomi, Priyanka Yoshikawa. Priyanka is of Japanese and Indian heritage, her mixed background making her 2016 win controversial. In this interview, Priyanka shares the new terminology she’s putting forward and how her location affected how she saw her identity.
How do you define your ethnicity?
You can define ethnicity by blood, or what you feel connected to the most. A lot of people want an answer other than “I’m Priyanka,” so to make those people happy I define myself as Indian-Japanese – my father is Indian, my mom is Japanese.
Do you use the Japanese term hafu to describe yourself?
I try not to and instead promote using the word ‘mix.’ If people ask if I’m hafu, I say I’m an Indo-Japanese mix. It’s really hard to come up with the right word to describe people of mixed-ethnicity.
People can describe me however they want and I’ll just let it be, but I can try and put out another message. I’m also asking people not to call foreigners gaijin, which means outsider, but gaikokujin [which means ‘foreign-country person’.]
Some people use these words intentionally, others because they’re the words they were raised with and they don’t know the meaning behind them. I’d like people to understand the history behind them. People that don’t know what we go through don’t realise that the things they say can be harmful.
How has your sense of self changed depending on your location?
I was born in Japan, then lived in California for a few years and India for a year. In the States, everybody was something, so it never crossed my mind to ask myself who I was. When I came back to Japan at 10 years old, I was the only mixed person in my school.
At the time, there were no smartphones and I slowly started being able to use the internet in junior high, so while there were some mixed TV personalities, they weren’t the same as me. I felt like we were on different planets; they were on TV, I was being bullied in school. TikTok, Instagram and YouTube are helping so much – it’s easier to feel related to people. I’ve seen biracial people comment that Naomi Osaka has shown them hope for living in Japan.
Did you ever speak to your family about your identity?
My parents saw me as just me – they’d love and support me no matter what. Once, my dad said to me ‘I know you’re feeling uncomfortable and shy because I’m a foreigner, you don’t want me to be in public with you.’ I’m so ashamed of that moment, because he was right, but I didn’t want to feel that way. I didn’t want to reject my dad, but I felt like if I rejected my father then I’d be accepted.
The Indian side of my family will tell me that I’m Indian and to be proud of my Indian blood, my Japanese family will tell me that I’m hafu.
Your Miss World Japan win was controversial to some – how did that affect you?
When I won, I knew conversations about my heritage would come up – what I didn’t know was how much I’d be asked about my identity while I was 22 years old. The more I was asked about it, the more I realised I had a voice in this conversation.
People might say I’m less Japanese, but I don't care. I won Miss Japan and they can never take that away from me. You might not like it, but the judges thought I was qualified.
I think 2-3% of Japanese children are biracial, and people have separated the categories of ‘pure’ Japanese and biracial, so even if I try my best to prove that I’m Japanese, people will see that as my nationality but still call me a mix. For me that’s fine, because I define myself as not just Japanese, but a lot of people want to just be Japanese.
How did this conversation develop into a TEDx talk?
I initially got a call from TEDx in 2016, but in 2018 I felt like I had more to say. I thought I should sum up what I’d been saying about what identity is and how to define yourself.
After the talk, I started thinking about the business I wanted to run. I wanted to build up a community that had a story to it. I had rough and sensitive skin, so I developed Mukoomi, a skincare brand that’s about taking care of yourself without covering anything. Self-love connects to diversity because without learning to love who you are, you can’t coexist with others. You don’t have to be so confident in parts that you don’t like about yourself, but you can see that you’re perfect even with those perceived imperfections.
How do you think the conversation around mixedness needs to develop?
I think we’re still trying to figure out how to define mixed people, but I feel like we should be over all of these things and just be human. We try to categorise ourselves to make us easier to understand, but to who? It’s ok to not fully understand another person, it’s hard to fully understand yourself. Being different is a good thing and doesn’t mean we don’t belong together in the same community.
Can you sum up your mixed experience in one word?
Unique. Everything I went through and my family have made me who I am.
Next week, I’ll be talking to author Malaka Gharib. Subscribe to get Mixed Messages in your inbox on Monday.
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Mixed Messages is a weekly exploration of the mixed-race experience, from me, Isabella Silvers. My mom is Punjabi (by way of East Africa) and my dad is white British, but finding my place between these two cultures hasn’t always been easy. That’s why I started Mixed Messages, where each week I’ll speak to a prominent mixed voice to delve into what it really feels like to be mixed.