Karolina Shiino, a twenty-six-year-old naturalized Japanese woman originally from Ukraine, has been obliged to give up her Miss Japan title after confessing to an affair with a married man. Shiino, whose parents are Ukrainian and who came to Japan aged five, was awarded the title just two weeks ago. As the first non-ethnically Japanese woman to be crowned Miss Japan she had already generated a certain amount of controversy but the revelations about the affair, published in one of Japan’s weekly magazines, has brought her brief tenure to an inglorious end.
The pageant organizers had initially defended Shiino by claiming that she didn’t know her lover (who is an influencer known as the “muscle doctor”) was married, but on Monday she reportedly confessed to being aware of his marital status and carrying on the affair regardless. Shiino apologized for the trouble she had caused and for “betraying those who supported me.” The title will now remain vacant.
Was Shiino hounded out of the title for a trivial offense that would have been overlooked had she been a pure-blood native?
The Shiino affair (as it were) has provoked a debate in Japan as to what constitutes national identity. Japan is one of the few advanced nations where some still dare to interpret nationality as more than just a matter of a passport. I was laughed at once for suggesting that, if I cleared enough bureaucratic hurdles I could become, technically at least, Japanese — “You can never become Japanese,” I was solemnly told.
For many, Japaneseness is a state of mind, a deeply ingrained set of values and behaviors and an aesthetic sense that you are essentially born with. Whatever that amounts to, even the Japanese don’t fully understand it: as the writer Donald Ritchie put it: “Asking the Japanese about Japaneseness is like asking a fish about water. It’s surrounded by it but doesn’t know what it is.” To these people there is such a thing as “Japanese beauty” — and that is something Miss Shiino, however well assimilated she is and however gracefully she wears a kimono or writes kanji, can never quite embody.
However, such notions of cultural purity are becoming increasingly unfashionable (criticism of Shiino was confined to a few tweets) and arguably untenable. Japan now has three million foreigners in the country and all walks of life are being penetrated. Take sporting teams, especially the national rugby team which has been employing naturalized (sometimes very rapidly naturalized) players for years now, with no more controversy than is provoked for similar practices in the west.
If it’s OK for sporting players to be fast-tracked to “Japanese” why not other representative roles? Miss Shiino had spent most of her life in Japan after all, reads and writes the language perfectly and was described by the pageant organizer as “more Japanese than we are.”
But was Miss Shiino targeted for her ethnicity? Was she hounded out of the title for a trivial offense that would have been overlooked had she been a pure-blood native? Tokyo Vice author Jake Adelstein suggested in a BBC Scotland interview that had Miss Japan been a pure-blooded Japanese, the weekly magazine wouldn’t have been so motivated to go digging for dirt. But that strikes me as unlikely — the weekly magazines, as Adelstein should know, will go after any gossip worthy story, just as they did recently with the Japanese skating star Hanyu Yuzuru. The newly crowned Miss Japan and a bit of adultery with a doctor/influencer called “the muscle doctor” is an irresistible story, whatever her origins.
The truth is probably much less interesting. I’ve not heard anyone who was scandalized by Shiino’s selection or was even aware there was a Miss Japan contest going on. Her selection did feel a bit gimmicky though, with a suspicion of a bit of geopolitical virtue signaling (what chance would a girl born in Russia have had?). But the general motivation was likely commercial — to get publicity for a contest that few pay much attention to anymore.
In that, the Miss Japan organizers were simply following a global trend in the ailing beauty contest industry. Think of Eve Gilles, the Miss France winner with the androgynous pixie cut haircut, or Jane Dipika Garrett, the Miss Universe contestant representing Nepal who was the world’s first plus-sized winner of a national beauty contest, or Rikkie Valerie Kolle, the transwoman who claimed the Miss Netherlands crown last year. No conventional winner of these contests would have yielded anything like the same amount of publicity.
And the uninteresting truth about how Miss Shiino lost her title is that it probably wasn’t for what she did in her private life per se, and it probably wasn’t much influenced by her Ukrainian origins. Yes, she had an affair, but the real mistake was to lie about it and get caught out.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.