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‘I am absolutely Japanese’: Ukrainian-born model sparks debate by winning Miss Japan pageant

The face of Japanese beauty is now a Ukrainian-born model — at least according to pageant judges who sparked a debate on cultural identity by naming 26-year-old Karolina Shiino as Miss Japan on Monday.

The annual Miss Nippon contest, which takes its title from the country’s Japanese name, awards the tiara to the contestant representing the “Foremost Beauty of All Japanese Women,” according to the organizers’ website. The decision to pick a winner with European heritage has raised questions about beauty standards and what it means to be Japanese.

“I wanted to be recognized as a Japanese person,” Shiino, a naturalized citizen who has lived in Nagoya since she was 5 years old and speaks fluent Japanese, told CNN in Tokyo.

Ukrainian-born model Karolina Shiino was crowned Miss Nippon on Monday. - Kazuki Oishi/Sipa USA
Ukrainian-born model Karolina Shiino was crowned Miss Nippon on Monday. - Kazuki Oishi/Sipa USA

Shiino said she has faced difficulties being accepted as a local because of her appearance, and hoped her win would change minds about who can be considered Japanese.

“After all, we live in an era of diversity — where diversity is needed,” she said. “There are many people like me who are worried about the gap between their appearance and (who they are).” She added: “I kept being told that I’m not Japanese, but I am absolutely Japanese, so I entered Miss Japan genuinely believing in myself. I was really happy to be recognized like this.”

Japan is an ethnically homogenous country with comparatively low levels of immigration, which in recent years has prompted authorities to push for more foreign residents and workers to plug gaps left by an aging population. The country has struggled to balance its conservative views on immigration with the need for new and younger workers, though a 2018 Pew survey showed that 59% of Japanese people believed immigrants would make the country stronger.

“Karolina is Japanese by nationality, so there is nothing wrong with (her victory),” wrote one commentor on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, comparing her to various overseas-born athletes who have represented Japan in international sports competitions. “They are Japanese, and so is Karolina.”

Others commended her love for the country. “Many Japanese people do not value Japan, so why is there a problem that she has cherished Japan, where she has lived since she was a child, so much that she became a naturalized Japanese citizen, took on the challenge of becoming Miss Nippon and was crowned Miss Nippon?” asked one X user, while another said: “I thought her Instagram posts were polite and well-written, and she has not only beauty, but also ‘Japanese spirit of harmony.’ This is Miss Japan.”

But others questioned whether someone without Japanese ancestry could represent the country’s beauty ideals.

Karolina Shiino accepts the Miss Nippon trophy. - Miss Nippon
Karolina Shiino accepts the Miss Nippon trophy. - Miss Nippon

“Racial discrimination is absolutely unacceptable,” wrote historian Hiroe Yamashita on X, “but if the Miss Nippon contest is based on the concept of beauty, I personally wish that it would be based on standards of Japanese beauty. With Karolina Shiino’s appearance, an (ethnically) Japanese girl has no chance of winning under the modern values of beauty.”

Shiino’s win comes almost 10 years after Ariana Miyamoto became the first biracial contestant to be crowned Miss Universe Japan, one of several other national-level pageant titles. Miyamoto went on to represent Japan at the 2015 Miss Universe contest.

Miss Nippon is not part of the international beauty pageant circuit and is unaffiliated with global competitions like Miss World and Miss Universe.

Karolina Shiino (center), the winner of Miss Nippon 2024, poses with other contestants at the pageant in Tokyo, Japan, on Jan, 22, 2024. - Miss Japan Association/Handout via Reuters
Karolina Shiino (center), the winner of Miss Nippon 2024, poses with other contestants at the pageant in Tokyo, Japan, on Jan, 22, 2024. - Miss Japan Association/Handout via Reuters

The first Miss Nippon contest, held in 1950, was sponsored by one of Japan’s largest newspapers, the Yomiuri Shimbun. It was originally established to select a goodwill ambassador to the United States who would express Japan’s thanks for American humanitarian aid after World War II.

The inaugural competition was won by Fujiko Yamamoto, who went on to become a successful actor. Her “dignified elegance” became the new standard of beauty for Japanese women in years to come, according to the Miss Nippon contest’s official website.

After a 15-year hiatus, the pageant was revived in 1967 by Shizuo Wada, who went on to become a well-known television health and beauty exercise instructor.

The contest is now operated by his granddaughter Ai Wada, who told CNN that Shiino was awarded the title of Miss Nippon because she is a “hard-working, yet humble, Japanese woman with a very strong sense of consideration for others.”

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