Between Two Standards of Beauty

Growing up in the West, many Asian Americans struggle with their feeling of self-worth and their perception of beauty. The fight for positive representation in media is an ongoing battle, with discussions currently resonating throughout the U.S. But this battle for positive representation is not only limited to America and Europe, it is also happening within Asia itself. The concept of beauty within Asia has historically excluded brown Asians and ostracized those who are considered “impure.” This is particularly visible in Japan, where nationalism is part of not only the social fabric, but also the laws of the country. Dual nationality is not allowed, and ethnic minorities and adults with mixed heritage are required to choose between keeping their Japanese passport and abandoning their other identities. But the nation is facing modern realities – with falling birth rates and an aging population, Japan has had to relax its barriers against the foreign. The number of foreign workers living in the country has doubled over the past five years to confront labor shortages, contributing to a more diverse population. As Japan is forced to become less homogeneous, representations of diversity in the media are also transforming.

In recent years, fashion campaigns have moved ever so slightly away from the caricatured extremes of whitewashed Caucasian dolls and homogenic Japanese idols, towards edgier, darker-than-white models. While it has always been typical of modeling agencies within Japan and Southeast Asia to include the categories “International,” “half” and “Asian,” only recently has the “half” category expanded to include those with tan or darker complexions. Still, the question remains: is this acceptance only skin deep or is Japan ready to embrace people outside of the majority as their own?

For Julia Sumire Batista Abe, a half-Japanese half-Brazilian model based in Tokyo, this in-between othering has been a blessing and a curse. Growing up in Tokyo, she was subjected to harsh bullying and exclusion reminiscent of the worst scenes in Japanese dramas and manga. For Julia and her family, this meant moving back to Brazil during the transformative years of her childhood. But at the age of 15, Julia decided to face her demons and returned to Japan to pave a successful career in modeling — without losing her sense of self. In an interview with FAR—NEAR, she expresses her belief in diversity, the struggles of being loved for an identity she was once hated for, and the desire to see young girls living in Japan empowered to stick out and feel comfortable in their own skin.

Who would you say is “Julia,” at the core?
The real me is a girl full of insecurities who, despite whatever she thinks the world views her as, believes and knows never to lose hope; a girl who works hard to fulfill her dreams of one day having a platform big enough to inspire other girls to make a living out of what they want to do in life.

What's your full name?
My full name is Julia Sumire Batista Abe. My agency in Japan made my artist name Julia Abe when I was 15 just so it would sound more “mixed,” as opposed to having a regular Japanese name like Sumire Abe. My closest friends and family still call me Sumire-chan, which was my original first name, but most clients would rather say and believe that my name is Julia because it sounds more “international.”

Which fictional character do you relate to the most?
I don’t think I’ve ever found anyone that I relate to more than Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She lives life the way she wants, yet is the best at her work. She’s sentimental but puts on a tough face.

What's the craziest dream you've ever had?
I often dream about flying. It’s as if in a past life I was a bird. It’s actually quite sad that I’m not able to jump and take off into the sky in real life. I feel like I have those dreams because I never want to stop believing that one day I’ll be able to just float or travel around using my body alone.

What's the craziest aspiration you've ever had?
Wanting to be the most successful I can be in this industry, knowing that I don’t have the looks that are considered “high fashion.” I refuse to believe that should stop me from trying to show the world that beauty is more than the unrealistic visual they are trying to sell us.

What sort of advice would you like to give young girls?
You’re never going to be able to feel beautiful if you let yourself make unrealistic comparisons to celebrities and faces that are not real. To feel beautiful, you need to be your best self, take care of yourself. You don’t need to do much besides not changing yourself to please others. While changing to please others might boost your self esteem temporarily, it won’t make you happy on the inside :)

What is Asian beauty?

A lot of people in Japan think Asian beauty is defined by having the whitest and clearest skin of all, but I disagree. Asian beauty is knowing that like many other ethnicities, features and skin tones are varied. Asian beauty is embracing how you want to look without being worried about how others might judge you or what they might say.

I also think it’s extremely important that Asian women look out for each other. Many women go against each other for petty reasons... The more we raise each other up, the less we need to explain our choices and beliefs in beauty.

Featuring Julia Sumire
Photography by Jonathon Smith