When Carolina Shiino was recently adorned with the crown and sash denoting her as "Miss Japan 2024" in a Tokyo hotel, the 26-year-old burst into tears. After all, she was the first woman born outside of Japan to non-Japanese parents to win the title.
After her coronation, Shiino, who was granted Japanese citizenship as recently as 2022, said it had all been "like a dream."
"I have often had to fight against obstacles that prevented me from being accepted as Japanese, which is why I am extremely grateful to be recognized as Japanese in this competition," she said.
Despite her words, a social media debate quickly erupted in Japan over whether Shiino should really be allowed to receive the "Miss Japan" crown.
Most of the positive posts focused on the fact that she is a Japanese national, while most of those opposing her win stressed the issue of ethnicity.
"The person chosen as 'Miss Japan' is not even half-Japanese but a 100% pure Ukrainian. Doesn't that make her 'Miss Ukraine?'" asked one user (@iwaimichiko) on the messaging platform X, formerly known as Twitter.
Going by appearances
In Japan, the state of being Japanese is traditionally thought of as being a matter of appearance and not of nationality.
For example, like many other half-Japanese people, the tennis player Naomi Osaka, with her Japanese mother and her Haitian father, is generally perceived as being Japanese because she "looks" Japanese — despite speaking Japanese poorly and not receiving her Japanese passport until she was 22.
In contrast, some Japanese seem to find it abstract and alien that foreigners without Japanese roots, such as Carolina Shiino, can become their compatriots by means of naturalization.
This is despite the fact that several thousand people receive a Japanese passport every year, including foreigners of non-Japanese origin. Marti Turunen, for example, a Finn who came to Japan as a missionary, took Japanese citizenship in 1979, gave his name a Japanese turn as Marutei Tsurunen and held a seat in the upper house of Japan's parliament from 2002 to 2013.
Migration from Ukraine to Japan
The new beauty queen is the daughter of Ukrainian parents. She was born in the city of Ternopil in western Ukraine in 1998.
After her parents divorced, her mother married a Japanese man with the surname Shiino, which led to Carolina moving to Japan at the age of five, growing up there in completely normal circumstances.
She speaks Japanese without any accent and says she has completely taken on the Japanese culture, feeling herself to be Japanese both in her language and her thinking.
However, her non-Japanese appearance has frequently attracted notice in her Japanese environment.
The organizer of the "Miss Japan Grand Prix," Ai Wada, told British broadcaster BBC that the jury had chosen Ms. Shiino as winner "with full confidence."
"She speaks and writes in beautiful and polite Japanese," Wada said. "She is more Japanese than we are."
But not all users of X, Japan's most important discussion forum, were convinced.
"As a Japanese woman with one-eighth Japanese blood, I feel that you have to be at least half-Japanese to represent a homogeneous country like Japan at the 'Miss Japan' competition," wrote one user (@0xkarasy). "It's a matter of identity."
User Ajisai Natsuko (@ajisainatsuko07) wrote: "I am Japanese and am not at all satisfied with this choice of 'Miss Japan.' Japanese standards of beauty are different from Western ones."
Other comments, however, centered on Shiino's beautiful appearance.
"Isn't this the most beautiful 'Miss Japan' in history? It don't think I have ever seen such a beautiful woman before," wrote Yuna (@yucop73). Also on X, Kaoru (@1958118) wrote: "She has earned the 'Miss Japan' title. She is a modest and sweet Japanese lady."
Some users also suggested that the jury wanted to make a political point with a choice that can be seen as championing diversity and expressing solidarity with Ukraine.
An old debate reignited
Shiino herself has said that she competed for the "Miss Japan" crown very deliberately to "create a society in which people are not judged by their appearance."
The current controversy over her win will thus not have surprised her, particularly in view of the fact that there was a similar discussion nine years ago, when Ariana Miyamoto was chosen "Miss Universe Japan" as the first mixed-race woman to win the title. Back then, too, there was criticism that the 20-year-old did not look "Japanese enough."
Like Naomi Osaka, Miyamoto had an African American father, and there was discussion of whether a dark-skinned Japanese woman could be a "Miss Japan."
Now, however, people in the island nation must accustom themselves to a "Miss Japan" who doesn't look Japanese — but who is Japanese at heart.
This article was translated from German