Beauty Over Brains: Japan’s Skin-Deep University Pageants

Yuki Iozumi was worried about how her shoulders would look in a wedding dress.

“I feel like I look too muscular,” said the diminutive 20-year-old Iozumi, recounting how her friends had told her that practicing karate had changed her body. “I think he’s not that feminine.”

Traditional femininity was her goal. Although Ms. Iozumi, a second-year community studies student, was not getting married, she was competing in a beauty pageant at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, part of a wildly popular and blatantly shallow phenomenon at Japanese universities known as “Miss Con”.

The pageants, called the Miss Contest in their entirety, are held on numerous campuses across Japan, including at renowned universities such as the University of Tokyo and Keio University which are considered training grounds for elite political and business leaders.

While beauty pageants persist in the West, what is different in Japan is that they are sponsored by student groups at institutions that proclaim august principles of intellectual achievement and preparation for professional life. Pageants also perpetuate a culture that often places women in rigid gender roles.

In Japan, Miss Con finalists attract thousands of followers on social media and offer corporate sponsorship. Some go to model concerts. During the contest campaign period, academics are rarely mentioned. Public service is not a prerequisite for participation in most contests.

The contests are seen as conduits for TV hosts and “talent”: women appearing on variety shows, comedy, and even news, where they are valued more for their looks than their skills or knowledge.

Although there are contests for both women and men, it is the women who attract the most attention.

“The ‘Miss Cons’ are one of our biggest sources of clients,” said Tasuku Ito, a talent agency manager at Furutachi Project in Tokyo. “It is a place where many beautiful and pretty women are already assembled. We don’t even have to go looking for them.”

Male contestants are not typically sought after, he said; the men who appear on the news and other television programs “are probably much more expert in their fields.”

Beauty is more strictly defined in Japan than in the West. Women with girlish features, round eyes, and lightning-thin bodies—those who are considered “kawaii” or cute—are featured prominently in TV dramas, pop groups, commercials, and even anime.

In college pageants, too, fans tend to vote for winners who embody this conception of idealized female beauty.

The competition at Aoyama Gakuin, with its main campus in the center of a fashionable Tokyo district, dates back nearly half a century and is one of the best-known in Japan.

Diaphanous, professionally produced. modeling videos posted online shows the competitors in traditional gender roles. In one, three of the women act in a skit where they discuss the goals of marriage, and another video featured at the pageant’s grand finale late last month showed the women baking cupcakes while the men appeared in a weightlifting session.

Two years ago, an Aoyama Gakuin video introduced the six female finalists and posed the question to viewers, “Who would you date?” The women, barely speaking, were shown eating ice cream, hitting a badminton birdie in the park, shopping for clothes, playing in an arcade and eating cheesecake with an unseen visitor, all while looking flirtatiously at the camera.

In recent years, some students and professors at Japanese universities have begun to question the basis of such contests. Critics attack them for imposing stereotypical beauty standards, saying they are inconsistent with a university’s values.

“Personally, I think this beauty pageant among college students is just outrageous, because it promotes the physical appearance and marketability of young women in a Japanese society where that kind of culture and value is already so prevalent,” Hae-bong Shin said. , a law professor at Aoyama Gakuin and director of a newly formed gender research center. “The whole university culture is tainted by it.”

Aoyama Gakuin said in a statement that as of last year, Miss Con was no longer part of the university’s official fall festival and that the school had established the gender research center to “replace stereotypical gender awareness.”

Onerous beauty standards promoted by pageants can lead to unhealthy behavior. in a video posted on youtubeA former Rikkyo University contestant said she had dieted so much to put on a wedding dress that she “would cry in the middle of the night because she was too hungry.”

The pageants have also come under scrutiny after the male organizers of a pageant in Keio University they were accused of sexually assaulting one of the contestants. At the University of Tokyo, the 2020 winner publicly accused organizers of sexually harassing contestants, asking during interviews how many sexual partners they had been with, for example. At Aoyama Gakuin and many other universities, the student groups that organize the contests are no longer officially sanctioned by their universities.

Organizers at the University of Tokyo, or Todai, as the university is known, said they now assigned female “managers” to each woman in the contest. “We have really warned the people within the committee not to harass the contestants,” said Ryoma Ogasawara, a student organizer for the contest. “But there’s not much else we can do.”

Asa Kamiya, 22, who in 2020 was crowned Miss Todai, said she saw another contestant break down in tears after a panel of mostly male organizers who selected the finalists forced her to drink 10 glasses of alcohol. .

“I was still a young woman just entering university,” Kamiya said, adding that organizers had also asked her about her sex life. “And the thought of having to get all this support from all these men made me feel a little creepy.”

After the harassment allegations surfaced, the student organizing committee issued a public statement Sorry.

However, Ms. Kamiya said the pageant had “changed her life” because she later got jobs as a model and appeared on TV variety shows. “I don’t think pageants should be abolished,” she said.

At some universities, student organizers have tried to preserve the pageants by shifting the focus to characters and social messages.

At Sophia University in Tokyo, organizers asked each candidate to select a social challenge as their personal topic and post messages on social media. The pageant organizers also unified the male and female pageants and invited entrants who identified as anywhere on the gender spectrum.

Last year, when Sophia’s newly redesigned grand finale went online, one contestant hid her face, trying to convey that beauty was no longer the focus of the event. (She did not win).

This year’s winner, Mihane Fujiwara, 19, is a social welfare student who highlighted her visit to Cambodia, where she witnessed garbage problems in poor communities, and her work as a volunteer at a Los Angeles soup kitchen. Angels during the summer.

But last year’s runner-up, Mai Egawa, 21, who specializes in African studies, said that every time she posted on social networks about her interest in Rwanda, she received comments that said “you are cute” or “you are beautiful”.

“If the people who are watching the contest don’t change,” he said, “then it’s hard to change the perception of the contest.”

Over a weekend in late October, the two-day grand finale of the “Miss Mister Aoyama Contest” was held in a darkened auditorium on the ninth floor of a tower in Tokyo’s Shibuya district.

Ms. Iozumi and five other female finalists walked across the stage in lace ball gowns on loan from a sponsor, and videos featuring other corporate sponsors appeared on a big screen. Each contestant put on a short performance: decorated a cake, sang a self-composed hip-hop song, and, in the case of Ms. Iozumi, demonstrated a karate kata with a partner.

Throughout a four-month campaign period, fans could vote daily online. In the end, they voted manually to select the finalists. Masayuki Yamanaka, 47, a serial contest attendee in the audience, wore a fedora and balanced a row of small stuffed animals on his lap. While perusing contestant profiles on a brilliant show, he struggled to make his final decisions. “They are all so cute,” he said.

On the second day, the remaining three female finalists appeared in wedding gowns with high-waisted hoop skirts and sparkling tiaras, each accompanied by a male finalist on a red-carpet runway. Ms. Iozumi hid her shoulders under a lace high-necked bodice with long sleeves.

When the contestants returned to the lighted stage, they conjured up a mass wedding of stone-faced couples.

When Ms. Iozumi was declared Miss Aoyama, she looked stunned.

Sitting at the back of the auditorium with a classmate from a university in Chiba, a prefecture bordering Tokyo, 21-year-old Nodoka Ogawa said she would never consider entering a Miss Con pageant.

“I think they have to be very brave, because a lot of people will look at them,” he said. “And you have to be physically very beautiful.”