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University pageants perpetuate Japan’s stubborn gender standards

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                                Yuki Iozumi and other finalists get hair and makeup touch-ups in a dressing room during the pageant’s final voting.


    Yuki Iozumi and other finalists get hair and makeup touch-ups in a dressing room during the pageant’s final voting.

                                Contestants perform a dance number during the Miss Aoyama pageant at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo.


    Contestants perform a dance number during the Miss Aoyama pageant at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo.

TOKYO >> Yuki Iozumi was fretting about how her shoulders might look in a wedding dress.

“I feel like I look too muscular,” said the tiny-framed Iozumi, 20, relating how her friends had told her that practicing karate had changed her body. “I think it’s not so feminine.”

Traditional femininity was her goal. Although Iozumi wasn’t getting married, she was competing in a beauty pageant at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo — part of a wildly popular, and unabashedly skin-deep, phenomenon at Japanese universities known as Miss Con. Iozumi, a second-year community studies major, won her competition.

The pageants, called Miss Contest in full, are staged at campuses across Japan, sponsored by student groups at institutions that proclaim august principles of intellectual achievement and preparation for professional life.

In Japan the Miss Con finalists attract thousands of followers on social media and offers of corporate sponsorship. Some go on to modeling gigs. Academics are rarely mentioned. Public service is not a prerequisite for entering most of the contests.

The pageants are regarded as pipelines for television announcers and “talents” — women who appear on variety, comedy and even news talk shows, valued more for their looks than for their skills or knowledge.

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

Men have their own contests but are not typically scouted, Ito said. Men on news and other television programs “are probably a lot more experts in their fields.”

Beauty is narrowly defined in Japan: Girlish features, round eyes and rail-thin bodies — women considered “kawaii,” or cute — feature prominently in television dramas, pop groups, advertisements and even anime.

In recent years some students and faculty members have begun questioning the basis of such pageants. Critics assail them for imposing stereotypical beauty standards and say they are inconsistent with the values of a university.

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

Miss Con was dropped from Aoyama Gakuin’s official fall festival, and the school announced it had established a gender research center to “replace stereotypical gender consciousness.”

The contests have also come under scrutiny after male organizers of a pageant at 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, by asking during interviews how many sexual partners they had been with, for instance.

Organizers at the University of Tokyo — known as Todai — said they now assign female “managers” to each woman in the contest and warned the committee not to harass the entrants, said Ryoma Ogasawara, a student organizer. “But there’s not much else we can do.”

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

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

After the harassment allegations emerged, the student organizing committee issued a public apology.

Yet Kamiya said the contest had “changed her life” because she later secured modeling jobs and appeared on television variety shows. “I don’t think the contests should be abolished,” she said.

At some universities, student organizers have sought to preserve the pageants by shifting the focus toward character and social messaging.

At Sophia University in Tokyo, organizers asked each candidate to select a societal challenge as a personal theme. The contest organizers also unified the male and female pageants and invited entrants who identified anywhere along the gender spectrum.

This year’s winner, Mihane Fujiwara, 19, is a social-welfare major who highlighted her visit to poor communities in Cambodia and her volunteer work at a Los Angeles soup kitchen.

But the runner-up last year, Mai Egawa, 21, who is majoring in African studies, said social media posts about her interest in Rwanda drew comments of “You’re cute” or “You’re beautiful.”

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

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