On January 22, Carolina Shiino, a 26-year-old naturalized Japanese citizen of Ukrainian origin, was crowned Miss Japan 2024, sparking debate about Japanese identity prominent enough to be featured on multiple international news outlets.
As expected of a nation defined by ethnic homogeneity, the debate centered on how significant race is to the notion of “Japaneseness.”
While Shiino emphasized repeatedly, in her fluent Japanese, her allegiance to Japan as the only home country where she hopes to live her entire life, many netizens were clearly unconvinced that her seeing herself as Japanese could be equated with others seeing her as Japanese.
Analogy in the world of sports
Shiino’s predicament in Japanese cyberspace is reminiscent of the one tennis superstar Naomi Osaka faced in the aftermath of her failure to win a medal in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
After her crashing out of the women’s tennis tournament with a defeat to a lower-ranked opponent in the third round, Japanese netizens started questioning her Japaneseness, citing her inability to speak Japanese and having lived in the US most of her life.
Implicit in the online drubbing of Osaka as “not Japanese enough” is her lack of complete ethnic and, by extension, cultural ties to Japan, not dissimilar to Shiino’s situation now.
But there is also a key difference between Osaka’s and Shiino’s situations that media reports have only vaguely referred to. In sports, there are objective definitions of success. Winning can erase questions about identity because every country, Japan included, wants to claim a winning sports star, no matter what his or her background happens to be.
So the crowds celebrating Naomi Osaka’s 2018 US Open victory happily defined her as Japanese, strenuously pointing to her Japanese “soul,” mannerisms, and interest in Japanese pop-culture products.
The black-and-white, winner-takes-all world of sports helps to suppress questions about the ethnic purity of sports stars. It is just as Turkish-German soccer star Mesut Ozil put so eloquently, “I am German when we win, an immigrant when we lose.”
Osaka did not have to face the question of “Japaneseness” as long as she kept winning. And that desire for Japan to celebrate the Japaneseness of its winning sports stars is similarly suppressing the question, for now, for the likes of “Japanese” National Basketball Association star Rui Hachimura, Major League Baseball’s Yu Darvish, and sprinter Abdul Hakim Sani Brown.
The subjectivity of beauty
Beauty-pageant contestants are not so lucky. With no universal, objective definition of beauty, they cannot be unanimously branded a “winner” that all Japanese can easily claim.
Indeed, the Miss Japan website’s claim to uphold the standards of “Japanese beauty” not only in visual terms but mannerisms and etiquette only gave further ammunition for netizens doubting Shiino’s ability to represent how an ideal Japanese woman behaves.
They undoubtedly saw a woman of European heritage as incapable of embodying an almost culturally ingrained idea of a gentle and humble Yamato nadeshiko.
That lack of an objective definition for beauty is compounded by an inherent inferiority complex among many Japanese, like other people of color around the world.
The widespread use of white models in cosmetic and fashion advertisements, combined with a pre-existing preference for white skin in centuries before contact with Europeans have created a sustained belief that whites represent the ideal standard of beauty that non-whites cannot surpass.
The result is a belief, including by some netizens speaking out against Shiino’s victory, that a European face in a beauty contest is almost akin to an objective “win” in sports, that for the ethnically Japanese to compete against her is akin to a Paralympian running in the same race as an Olympian.
So as long as beauty standards remain a realm of personal opinions, debates will rage on about what is beautiful, in Japan and elsewhere.
As Japan slowly opens up to foreign immigration, it is even possible to imagine a future where someone like Shiino no longer needs to prove herself to be Japanese, with the assumption that, with nothing said, the Japanese audience will think she is not.
That matter-of-fact acceptance of diversity will be more beautiful than anything any individual Miss Japan contestant can bring.