‘I am unequivocally Japanese’: Ukrainian-born model sparks cultural identity debate after winning Miss Japan pageant

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The new face of Japanese beauty is a Ukrainian-born model, according to pageant judges who ignited a discussion on cultural identity by crowning 26-year-old Karolina Shiino as Miss Japan on Monday.

The annual Miss Nippon contest, named after Japan’s Japanese moniker, bestows the tiara upon the contestant representing the “Foremost Beauty of All Japanese Women,” as per the organizers’ website. The decision to select a winner with European heritage has prompted questions about beauty standards and the definition of being Japanese.

“I wanted to be acknowledged as a Japanese person,” explained Shiino, a naturalized citizen who has resided in Nagoya since the age of 5 and is fluent in Japanese, during an interview with CNN in Tokyo.

Shiino shared that she has encountered challenges in being accepted locally due to her appearance and expressed hope that her victory would challenge preconceptions about who can be considered Japanese.

“In the era of diversity, where diversity is essential, there are many people like me who worry about the disparity between their appearance and identity,” she stated. “I kept being told that I’m not Japanese, but I am unequivocally Japanese, so I entered Miss Japan genuinely believing in myself. I was genuinely happy to be recognized like this.”

Japan, known for its ethnic homogeneity and relatively low immigration levels, has recently sought more foreign residents and workers to address demographic challenges. The nation grapples with balancing conservative views on immigration with the need for a younger workforce. A 2018 Pew survey indicated that 59% of Japanese people believed immigrants would strengthen the country.

Regarding Shiino’s victory, one commenter on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, stated, “Karolina is Japanese by nationality, so there is nothing wrong with (her victory),” drawing parallels with overseas-born athletes representing Japan in international competitions. Other comments commended Shiino’s love for the country and questioned why it was problematic for her to represent Japan, where she has lived since childhood.

However, some individuals raised concerns about whether someone without Japanese ancestry could embody the country’s beauty ideals.

Historian Hiroe Yamashita wrote on X, “Racial discrimination is absolutely unacceptable, 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 victory comes almost a decade after Ariana Miyamoto, the first biracial contestant, was crowned Miss Universe Japan in 2015. Miss Nippon is not part of the international beauty pageant circuit and is independent of global competitions like Miss World and Miss Universe.

The first Miss Nippon contest in 1950 aimed to select a goodwill ambassador to the United States to express Japan’s gratitude for American humanitarian aid post-World War II. After a 15-year hiatus, the pageant was revived in 1967 and is now operated by Ai Wada, the granddaughter of its founder, Shizuo Wada. She mentioned that Shiino earned the title of Miss Nippon for being a “hard-working, yet humble, Japanese woman with a very strong sense of consideration for others.”

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