As a mixed-race (Japanese and Australian), body-positive model, Ada Yokota has a boatload of issues with the way brands represent women today. We are basically surrounded by stereotypes, she says. Most advertisements in which women are used refer to beauty, and she questions why there are so many restrictions when it comes to visualising female bodies.
For Yokota, these truths cut close to the bone. She was born and lived in Japan until she was 21 and was exposed to how Japanese media was and is known for fetishising Caucasian skin tones and tends to prefer its own version of beauty. "I understand this well as I myself grew up in a multicultural family who happened to have a Caucasian grandfather," she says.
While Japan is becoming more accepting in its representation of people across ethnicities, nonetheless there is yet prejudice against the LGBTQIA+ community, people with disabilities, immigrants and people with different body shapes. "Especially living in Japan, we are constantly subjected to judgement and exclusion," she says. "Compared to the multicultural societies, we still have a long way to go, but I believe spreading these inclusive messages and fighting prejudice shaped by today’s society will only widen general definition of what it really means to be a part of a diverse and inclusive society."
Since she was a child, Yokota has used art as a means of speaking out and escaping. Born in Sydney, she grew up in Yokohama, but struggled to adjust to the culture there. She went back to the country of her birth to study, where she first began to question Japanese mindsets around diversity and identity issues.
"I returned to Japan and became a writer, illustrator and plus-size model advocating for diversity, body positivity, and inclusivity," she says. "I’ve been working with iStock since September 2019 and I’ve created over 300 illustrations since. Outside of iStock, I’ve been working with media advocating for women, ethical and sustainable lifestyle brands and a community that explores gender and sexual identity."
Yokota's life-long interest in art has turned out to be a handy medium to represent her dissent. As a child, she recounts looking at picture books about dinosaurs and space all the time. "[You would] often find doodles on the back of my exam papers and school notebooks," she adds. "I could spend hours and hours just gazing at rocks on the street, fish in the river, buildings and advertisements. I guess I have always been distracted, and that’s the same today as it was then."
Art has always been a part of her life, to the extent that she never recognised it as "art". Art is something that allows her to objectify her emotions. When she is anxious or restless, she paints or creates to calm herself down. She has had to overcome family opposition to a full-time career in the arts and a series of (unsatisfying) part-time gigs to make ends meet, before being drawn back to her first love.
"One day, I bought an iPad out of curiosity and started drawing again," she says. "I wasn’t confident with my drawing, but a friend introduced me to an illustration job, and I started working as an illustrator. Another friend who is a photographer at iStock recommended that I get in touch with iStock to sell my work. As I started submitting my work there, I started to enjoy drawing so much it boosted my confidence. I finally decided to quit all side jobs I had and became an illustrator."
As a young illustrator, Yokota is yet to solidify her artistic style (she loves Henri Matisse's work especially French Window at Collioure and contemporary artists such as Inès Longevial and Sally West), but is trying to find her niche in expressions of self-love and her commitment to diversifying gender identities and sexuality.
Her ultimate goal is to become an artist who creates these visuals, challenges mainstream standards of beauty, and provides new perspectives on social issues by driving change through visual communication. "As a plus-size model myself, I have been told that people in general are not quite ready to accept plus-size photography in marketing campaigns, but the allure of illustration can help marketers move beyond being labeled body positive and fight against tokenisation," Yokota contends.
However, as mindsets have slowly shifted, Yokota has been getting more opportunities to work with Japanese and international brands and media. "Amid Covid, my work, which abstractly depicts our new reality as well as body and gender representation, started taking off," she says. "Representation of gender and sexuality have been changing in a positive direction, and I have been largely affected by this change."
Rather than just telling this story, Yokota points to changes in Japanese advertising that show this shift. "I was recently delighted to see a Japanese TV commercial where the grandfather of a child with mixed roots was portrayed by a Caucasian man," says. "We used to see children of mixed background with Asian parents for these kinds of advertisement, which didn’t make sense—no real connection between the child and parents could be seen."