Gazing upon her reflection, Japanese-Brazilian model, Julia Abe, once felt that she could never see herself clearly. Feeling most at home in transition, belonging became a pipe dream and the smoke she blew materialized as thick clouds that rendered her anomalous, neither seen nor invisible. No man is an island but Julia was no man. As the daughter of a Brazilian mother and a Japanese father (her mom was a cleaning lady at the port and her father worked on the ship) (he’s a captain now), star-crossed love had brought her into this world and she would find that same love would also guide her home whenever she found herself at a crossroads. But Julia existed at a crossroads, she lived her entire life at its nexus. Foreignness colored the glasses through which she saw the world and the contrasting hues with which she painted her experience inevitably oscillated between both shadow and light.
“Wherever I go I’m treated as a foreigner, I’m not completely considered a Japanese person or a Brazilian person and it’s a really hard thing on me, it’s like an identity crisis that I’ve had since I was very young,” said Julia as she sunk into an empty chair across from me at Project Cozy, a spacious coffee shop in Manhattan’s SoHo district that catered to Instagrammable moments and Travis Scott fans. She was petite, her black hair was tousled to frame her face that bore no traces of makeup. When she smiled, her whole face lifted.
Despite Brazil having the largest population of Japanese outside of Japan, Julia did not find continuity in that narrative. Bullied out of Japan at nine years old, where homogeneity was a cultural norm, Julia was made aware of her difference before she could even grasp at the concept of identity. She looked different, she dressed differently, she talked differently. Fleeing to Brazil, there she learned to move with an unapologetic openness. Aside from occasionally being called “chopsticks”, she found both acceptance and happiness as she entered adolescence but not without the thought that she was estranged from half of who she was. “It’s like I’m from there, I was born in Japan so why can’t I be there and be treated as a person? That’s not right, I had to stand up for myself and when I was 15, I decided to go back to Japan by myself,” said Julia.
The decision to return to Japan would not only force her to come to terms with her mixed identity but it would turn her insecurities into her livelihood as she was scouted on Facebook by a photographer to become a model. “I was going to try to study arts in Japan. I thought I was going to enter Japanese school again, finish high school and then go to a Japanese college,” she said breathily. Yet the minute she decided to play with the cards that she had been dealt, the game changed.
Introduced to Image Tokyo, a respected modeling agency founded in 1980, Julia remembers interviewing in her pajamas with an unapologetically shaven head, “they accepted me and I was like whoa, what the fuck, this conservative place isn’t going to take me; but they took me and I’ve been with them since.” Learning to navigate an industry often shamed for its lack of diversity and unrealistic beauty ideals, Julia was put into direct conversation with these issues in castings and on the job.
As Asia remains transfixed with Caucasian features, mixed-race models are on the rise, giving Julia a sense of community and the recognition she longed for; but what she’s also been left with is the realization that trends don’t necessarily manifest bonafide change. In an article published by CNN, the Editorial Director of Numéro Tokyo, Sayumi Gunji, estimated that 30% to 40% of runway models in Japanese fashion shows identify as mixed race but despite the numbers, Julia knows that many of those mixed-race models are still at odds with their identities. “Half girls in Japan already feel so guilty because they already look so different so they force themselves so much to become like the other Japanese girls who are always judging you. They say, ‘you don’t fit in, why are you doing things differently? Everyone is doing this a certain way; why are you doing it differently?’ If they knew it was okay to be themselves and not fit in with the other girls they could be something even bigger. That’s what I’m working on right now as a model, I want to tell young people, especially young girls, that it’s okay to be different,” said Julia.
New York flashes before us every time we break eye contact in a glimmering display of the present. While the city itself represents something different to everyone who passes through its storied streets, the way Julia sneaks a quick glance towards the sidewalk tells me that to her, being here means taking ownership of that difference and turning it into a display of unfettered individuality. Previous to her coming here, the possibility of modeling outside of Japan leaned towards the impossible because of her height but she’s learned that “clients will book you no matter what if they like you.” To see and work in the industry on foreign shores is to recognize that the issues that her peers face back in Japan aren’t just geography specific. Acceptance is perhaps the first step towards change incarnate because it engenders a certain kind of confidence that can’t be stripped away by the hands of judgment, putting hope and agency back into the hearts of dreamers. “I shouldn’t be so concerned about my height or my looks and not looking too Japanese or Brazilian. I’m speaking for all the kids who are trying their best right now, there’s not much we can do but be the best version of ourselves, we can’t change ourselves to please other people. It’s the clients who chooses the models and we don’t really have a voice but if there’s an opportunity to speak up about this, that’s why I’m here,” said Julia.
As nicotine cravings and deadlines beckon us back onto the city streets, we leave Project Cozy, pulling on layers, wrapping ourselves in promises of a distant summer. Pulling out my $40 point and shoot camera, I watch the way her entire being softens in its presence, the same way the body embraces an old lover. There is an ease to her allure, a relatability and openness that invites you to see yourself within her and vice versa. While the industry isn’t going to change overnight, it’s where she works everyday and wants us to know that she’s fighting the good fight for diversity, for mixed-race models, for short models, for plus-sized models, for everyone, simply by going forth and making her presence known. “It’s the power of wanting it and knowing you’re capable, I feel like it’s my job to encourage other people to follow their dreams too,” Julia says with a smile. Looking in the mirror now, Julia has learned to see herself for who she is instead of where she is from.