Mixed-race 'Rola' changing the DNA of Japanese pop culture
Japanese fashion model and TV personality Rola poses for photographs during an interview with AFP in Tokyo on May 20, 2014 - by Toru Yamanaka
Turn on the TV and there's no escaping the bubbly 24-year-old of Bengali, Japanese and Russian descent -- she even dominates the commercial breaks.
A marketing gold mine, Rola smiles down celestially from giant billboards, her wide eyes and girlie pout grace magazine covers and she even greets you at vending machines.
But Rola, who settled in Japan when she was nine, has done it by turning the entertainment industry on its head, her child-like bluntness slicing through the strict convention that governs Japanese society.
"Whenever people told me to speak politely, I never worried about it," she told AFP in an interview. "I'm not talking down to anyone. I'm not a comedian, it's just how I am. It's just being open-hearted and trying to make people open theirs."
But it is not just her quirky charm that is breaking down barriers. Japan's largely mono-ethnic society -- a culture where skin whitening creams are still huge business -- has long been mirrored by its entertainment industry.
Rola and host of others are beginning to change that.
- Evolving attitudes to race -
Half-British singer and actress Becky is another superstar with model looks and a huge fan base in Japan, while half-French newscaster Christel Takigawa helped Tokyo win the 2020 Olympic vote as the city's ambassador for "cool".
Their rise to fame mirrors a shift in attitudes in Japan, which only opened its doors to the outside world in the middle of the 19th century and where foreigners -- those without Japanese nationality, even if they were born here -- make up less than two percent of a population of 127 million.
"Being of mixed race was once looked down upon," said sociologist Takashi Miyajima. "Now foreign entertainers are admired in Japan as something untouchable. You could even say they benefit from positive discrimination."
Rarely now do you see TV shows without at least one "haafu" (the Japanese pronunciation of "half", meaning "mixed race"), such has been the shift.
"Young Japanese women want to be like Rola," said psychologist Yoko Haruka, a regular on Japanese TV. "They buy the same clothes, bag. It's like a cartoon world, the baby-face effect.
"She has the foreign look: long legs, small face, but because she is 'half', she's not an object of envy at all. She's an idol like Madonna was, but closer and easier to relate to."
Rola's trademark puffing of the cheeks, ditzy catchphrases, infectious giggle and carefree charm have helped make Japan's most famous 'It Girl' a smash hit with legions of adoring fans.
She believes the shifting landscape has had a positive effect on Japan.
"Nationality isn't important," she said, dressed in tight blue jeans under a floral one-piece. "I used to think Japanese people weren't open and should lighten up. But Japan has become brighter.
"People copying me is cool," she added in her helium voice. "If I can do one thing to help bring a tiny improvement to Japan, that's great."
Born of a Bangladeshi father and a half-Japanese, half-Russian mother, Rola's eccentricities helped overcome the language barrier when young, once turning up at elementary school in pyjamas she mistook for her new uniform.
"Normally if you can't communicate it's frustrating but I only have fun memories of childhood," she said. "When I was small I'd play with Barbie dolls and the next day I'd jump in the river with boys catching crayfish or playing with turtles. Maybe that's why I use a lot of hand gestures. I naturally just made friends."
- Exotic looks -
In a culture that once might have passed over her darker tone, Rola's exotic looks have clearly helped -- she was scouted by a modelling agency on the streets of Tokyo when she was in high school.
Following in the footsteps of mixed-race glamour girls such as Jun Hasegawa and racing driver Jenson Button's fiancee Jessica Michibata, Rola has also taken peak-time television by storm.
Japan can take its celebrity worship to extremes, David Beckham once having a giant chocolate statue dedicated to him in Tokyo while his mohican hairstyle triggered a personal grooming craze among local women during the 2002 World Cup.
"I don't get stressed (by fame)," said Rola. "People come up to me on the street and go 'Hi, Rola!' as if I'm their friend."
When not shooting commercials for everything from cosmetics or beer to headache pills or battered octopus balls, Rola is at the gym -- or fishing.
"When the next trends hit, the 'half' (mixed race) boom will calm down a bit," sachid Haruka. "But that might take a while."
For now, Rola's girl-next-door innocence continues to bewitch.
Asked to sum herself up in one word, she closes her eyes and offers: "A salmon, maybe. They're not just tasty, they swim hard up rivers, so they're tough little critters."