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The Miss Japan Who doesn’t Look Like Us

Ichiro Suzuki

In January the Miss Japan selection committee crowned a 26-year old Karolina Shiino as the 2024 Grand Prix to represent the country in the Miss Universe contest.  Shiino has a distinctly different background from the rest of the contestants and past queens. She is foreign-born, and is a Caucasian who was born to Ukrainian parents. She came to Japan when she was five years old and has been living in the country since then. Her Ukrainian mother divorced her father and has been married to a Japanese man. Though Shiino took up her Japanese citizenship only two years ago, making her qualified to enter a Miss Japan contest, she grew up embracing Japanese culture like any other boy or girl in the country and speaks the language without an accent, not surprisingly.

Selection of Shiino received mixed blessings at best. Not surprisingly some people were not too happy about her because ‘she doesn’t look like us’. While globalization and diversity are popular buzzwords in the 21st century Japan, there is always a question of what it means to be a Japanese. Is it about ethnicity, citizenship or a combination of both? Of course, not all Japanese citizens are ethnic Japanese who look like everyone else. A boy or girl born to a Japanese parent can be given Japanese citizenship regardless of the color of the skin or how he or she looks, of course. Every year, about a thousand people (yes, just 1,000) become naturalized Japanese citizens, and the majority of them look differently from the pack. On the other hand, children born to a couple of Japanese and other East Asian, be they Chinese, Korean, Mongolian, Thai, etc, are indistinguishable from ‘the rest of us’, on the surface.

The Miss Japan organization did it before, by crowning Ariana Miyamoto in 2014. The selection raised more than a few eyebrows because she was half-black, born to a Japanese mother and a U.S. Navy officer who was African-American though she was born and bred in Japan. Both Shiino and Miyamoto probably had little problem in ‘internal Japanese-ness’ that appears to matter to represent the country. Do they look fine in Kimono? But does it matter so much if they don’t? In the cases of Ms. Shiino and Ms. Miyamoto, the organization probably looked for a woman who makes a statement, as opposed to what is often believed outside Japan as a stereotype traditional Japanese woman who sit quietly and just smile. In the 21st century the organization wants something on top of traditional qualities. In a sense, they wanted to be ahead the time, or woke, while still holding to ‘traditions’. Can such a delicate balance be found in a young woman? 

Then, there is Naomi Osaka. She has nothing to do with Miss Japan but she is a sole Japanese winner, men or women, of tennis grand slam titles. She was born in Osaka, Japan between a Japanese mother and an African-American father who was originally from Haiti. She moved to the United States at the age of four. When she was an up and coming junior player in Florida, she made a pact with Japan’s tennis association to represent Japan. Having grown up in the U.S., her ‘Japanese-ness’ is in question and she only speaks very basic Japanese. That’s all right because she is a tennis player, not a Miss Japan contestant. Though she was hailed as the first grand slam champion from Japan, some were not entirely comfortable with her. Osaka not only looks differently but also behaves differently. She might have opted to play for the Japanese flag for business reasons. Then, she was chosen to light the torch at the opening ceremony of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. The Olympic organization committee selected her as an athlete who symbolized diversity that was one of the themes of the games. That was fine and politically correct, and was well received by those who had some contact with the rest of the world, especially among city dwellers. However, Osaka’s lighting the torch didn’t resonate with people with more conservative minds. As the end of the first quarter of the 21st century draws near, Japanese people’s mindset hasn’t changed as much as it was expected to be at the turn of the century. 

The story of Karolina Shiino took a turn in the first week of February. She relinquished her crown, after it was brought to light that she dated a married man. She met an uproar in the cyberspace, but is an affair so offensive a conduct as to force her to give up the title? She didn’t break any law even if it is a questionable conduct from a moral perspective. Though ‘behaving properly’ is not stipulated as a condition to enter a Miss Japan contest, it may be a part of ‘Japanese-ness’ that the organization seeks tacitly. An affair like hers would have received different reactions in countries with a different culture and social standard. Would an affair have led Miss America, Miss France or Miss Sweden to giving up her crown?

Karolina Shiino is following footsteps of Vanessa Williams, who made history in 1983 when she was crowned Miss America as the first African-American woman. However, right before her reign was complete, in July 1984, she also became the first queen to give up her title. She did so after immense pressure the organization put on her to resign when her nude photos appeared in the Penthouse Magazine. Much later, she had her crown reinstated as it was revealed that Penthouse did it without her consent. Vanessa Williams moved on, and shined. So can Kalonkna Shiino.  

About the author: Mr. Suzuki is a retired banker based in Tokyo, Japan.


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