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

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

“I feel like I look too muscular,” said the petite woman Iozumi, 20, recounting how her friends had told her that practicing karate had changed her body. “I think it’s not that feminine.”

Traditional femininity was her goal. Although Ms. Iozumi, a sophomore, did not marry, she did enter a beauty pageant at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo — part of a hugely popular and unabashed phenomenon at Japanese universities known as “Miss Con.”

Fully dubbed Miss Contest, the beauty pageants are held at numerous locations across Japan, including at prestigious universities such as the University of Tokyo and Keio University which are regarded as training grounds for elite leaders from politics and business.

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

In Japan, the Miss Con finalists attract thousands of followers on social media and through corporate sponsorship deals. Some go on to model gigs. Academics are rarely mentioned during the competition campaign. Public service is not a requirement for entering most competitions.

The pageant is seen as a pipeline for announcers and “talent” – women appearing on variety, comedy and even news talk shows, where they are valued more for their looks than their skills or knowledge.

Although there are competitions for both women and men, the women attract the most attention.

“The ‘Miss Cons’ are one of our biggest sources of clients,” said Tasuku Ito, manager of a talent agency at the Furutachi project in Tokyo. “It’s a place where a lot of sweet and pretty women are already gathering. We don’t even have to look for them.”

Male participants aren’t typically scouted, he said; Men who appear on news and other television programs “are likely to be a lot more experts in their field.”

Beauty is defined more narrowly in Japan than in the West. Women with girly features, round eyes, and razor-thin bodies – those who are considered “kawaii” or cute – feature prominently in television dramas, pop groups, commercials, and even anime.

Even in the university competitions, fans like to vote for winners who embody this idea of ​​idealized female beauty.

Dating back almost half a century, the Aoyama Gakuin competition, with its main campus in the center of a chic Tokyo fashion district, is one of the most well-known in Japan.

Razor-thin, professionally produced Model videos Posted online show the competitors in traditional gender roles. In one, three of the women act in one sketch where they discuss marriage goals, and another video, shown at the pageant’s grand finale late last month, showed the women baking cupcakes while the men performed in a weightlifting session.

Two years ago an Aoyama Gakuin Video introduced the six finalists and asked viewers, “Who would you date?” The women, who barely spoke, were shown eating ice cream, hitting a badminton bird in the park, shopping for clothes, in a Playing arcade games and eating cheesecake with an unseen visitor while coquettishly peeking at the camera.

In recent years, some students and faculty members at Japanese universities have begun to question the basis of such pageants. Critics accuse them of stereotypical ideals of beauty and contradict the values ​​of a university.

“Personally, I think this beauty pageant among university 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 widespread,” said Hae-bong Shin , a law professor at Aoyama Gakuin and director of a newly established Center for Gender Studies. “The whole university culture is contaminated by it.”

Aoyama Gakuin said in a statement that Miss Con is no longer part of the university’s official fall festival since last year and that the school established the Gender Research Center to “replace stereotypical gender awareness.”

The onerous beauty standards promoted by pageants can lead to unhealthy behavior. in one Video posted on YouTubea former Rikkyo University candidate said she dieted so much to fit into a wedding dress that she “cried in the middle of the night because I was too hungry.”

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

Organizers at the University of Tokyo — or Todai, as the university is known — said they had now assigned female “managers” to every woman in the competition. “We really warned the committee members not to harass the participants,” said Ryoma Ogasawara, a student organizer of the pageant. “But that’s all we can do.”

Asa Kamiya, 22, who was crowned Miss Todai in 2020, said she watched another contestant burst into tears after being forced to drink 10 glasses of alcohol by a mostly male organizing panel that selected the finalists.

“I was still a young woman, fresh out of university,” said Ms. Kamiya, adding that the organizers also asked about her sex life. “And the thought of having to have all this support from all these men made me a little scary.”

After the harassment allegations surfaced, the student organizing committee issued a public notice Excuse me.

However, Ms Kamiya said the competition “changed her life” because she later secured modeling jobs and appeared on television variety shows. “I don’t think the competitions should be abolished,” she said.

At some universities, student organizers have attempted to preserve the pageant by shifting the focus to character and social messages.

At Sophia University in Tokyo, organizers asked each candidate to choose a societal challenge as a personal topic and post messages on social media. The contest organizers also unified the male and female pageants, inviting contestants who identified somewhere along the gender spectrum.

Last year, when Sophia’s revamped grand finale was staged online, one contestant hid her face, trying to convey that beauty was no longer the focus of the event. (She didn’t win).

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

But last year’s runner-up, Mai Egawa, 21, who is studying African Studies, said so whenever she wrote a post social media About her interest in Rwanda, she received comments telling her “You are cute” or “You are beautiful”.

“If the viewers of the competition don’t change,” she said, “then it’s difficult to change the perception of the competition.”

On a weekend in late October, the two-day grand finale of the “Miss Mister Aoyama Contest” took place in a dark auditorium on the ninth floor of a skyscraper in Tokyo’s Shibuya district.

Ms. Iozumi and five other female finalists paraded across the stage in lacy party dresses borrowed from a sponsor, and videos showing other company supporters flashed on a large screen. Each participant gave a short performance – decorating a cake, singing a hip-hop song they had composed and, in Ms. Iozumi’s case, demonstrating a karate kata with a partner.

During a four-month campaign period, fans could vote online every day. At the finale, they voted manually to determine the finalists. Masayuki Yamanaka, 47, a regular pageant in the audience, wore a fedora and balanced a number of small stuffed animals on his lap. As he scrutinized the candidates’ profiles in a glossy program, he struggled to make his final decision. “They’re all so cute,” he said.

On the second day, the three remaining finalists, each accompanied by a male finalist, appeared on a red carpet catwalk in bridal gowns with full hoop skirts and glittering tiaras. Ms. Iozumi hid her shoulders under a bodice with a high lace neckline and long sleeves.

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

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

Nodoka Ogawa, 21, sat at the back of the auditorium with a classmate from a university in Chiba, a prefecture bordering Tokyo, and said she would never think of entering a Miss Con pageant.

“I think they have to be so brave because so many people are going to be looking at them,” she said. “And you must be very beautiful physically.” Beauty Over Brains: Japan’s Skin-Deep University Pageants

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