“There have been racial barriers, and it has been challenging to be accepted as Japanese.”
That’s what a tearful Carolina Shiino said in impeccable Japanese after she was crowned Miss Japan on Monday.
The 26-year-old model, who was born in Ukraine, moved to Japan at the age of five and was raised in Nagoya.
She is the first naturalised Japanese citizen to win the pageant, though her victory has re-ignited a debate on what it means to be Japanese.
While some recognised her victory as a “sign of the times” others have said she does not look like what a “Miss Japan” should.
Her win comes nearly ten years after Ariana Miyamoto became the first bi-racial woman to be crowned Miss Japan in 2015.
With a Japanese mother and African American father, Ms Miyamoto’s victory back then raised questions about whether a person of mixed race should be eligible to win the competition.
“This person who was chosen as Miss Japan is not even a mix with Japanese but 100% pure Ukrainian. Understand she is beautiful, but this is ‘Ms Japan’. Where is the Japaneseness?” said a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.
“If she was half [Japanese], sure no problem. But she’s ethnically 0% Japanese and wasn’t even born in Japan,” said another comment.
Others said her win was sending the “wrong message” to others in the country.
“I think that Japanese people naturally (would) get the wrong message when a European looking person is called the most beautiful Japanese.”
Others questioned whether choosing the Ukrainian-born model was a political decision.
“If she were born Russian, she wouldn’t have won. Not a chance. Obviously the criteria is now a political decision. What a sad day for Japan”, one person alleged.
After the announcement, Ai Wada, the organiser of the Miss Japan Gran Prix pageant has said that the event “gave us an opportunity to rethink what Japanese beauty is”.
Ms Wada added: “Following today’s result, there is one thing I am convinced of… Japanese beauty exists not in the appearance, not in the blood, but it exists firmly in our heart”.
It echoes what Ms Shiino had announced in Instagram earlier last year when she received Japanese nationality, saying: “I may not look Japanese, but as I grew up in Japan – my mind has become a Japanese.”
And as she accepted her trophy as Ms Japan 2024, she said winning the title was “a dream”.
“Being recognised as a Japanese in this competition fills me with gratitude.”