As I walked through Hokkaido University campus this morning, my peaceful reflections were brought to a screaming halt by the site of one gigantic poster:
SERIOUSLY, Hokudai? A beauty pageant for female students? Surely I had misunderstood.
Yet, what was there to be confused about? The poster was hardly cryptic. I flicked to the webpage on my phone hoping for a few more details, such as:
WHY THE HELL IS A UNIVERSITY PROMOTING THE MISOGYNIC IMPORTANCE OF LOOKS?
However this was grievously missing from the 'About' page, which listed only the date and time of the contest.
This told me it was to be held on my birthday. This did not improve my mood.
I did discover that the girls on the far left and right of the poster are studying pharmacy, the two left-hand students between them are in the Department of Literature while the final contestant is studying education. There was also a list of a single-word descriptions of their hobbies (dance, music, tennis and --slightly more interestingly-- tongue twisters) and their blood group: the Japanese equivalent to your star sign. Apparently, knowing someone is a type A is equates knowing all their important attributes.
The response to my subsequent tweet of outrage produced evidence that this is far from just being Hokkaido. 'Miss Campus' contests across Japan appear to be relatively famous.
Last year, the winners of 'Miss Campus' combined with similar events in Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore to hold a 'Miss Campus Summit' in Tokyo. The focus of the meeting appears to be encouraging the girls to act as ambassadors for chartable causes, although there is an undeniable political agenda, since in 2012, the Ministry of Agriculture enlisted the 9 winners of 'Miss Campus' to eat food from the nuclear-disaster affected regions of Tohoku and Kanto.
Japan is currently at a cross-roads when it comes to role of women in its society. Women have struggled to gain leadership roles in the workforce and many leave work permanently to raise a family. Economic need is forcing the government to tackle these issues by setting compulsory targets for gender equality in companies and promoting positive discrimination schemes to allow these to be met. However, as with all such changes, cultural stereotypes pull against progress and take generations to overcome.
Yet, there is the sticky question as to whether beauty pageants truly are misogynistic. While I had never seen such an event at universities I had attended in the UK and North America, it is not true they did not exist. Students from universities in London (there are multiple institutes, none of which were involved in organisation of this contest) competed 'Miss University London' in 2008, sparking protests that hit the national papers. One protestor, Ruby Buckley from the London School of Economics (LSE) told the newspaper, 'The Daily Telegraph':
"We come to university to be judged on academic ability and not on external characteristics. LSE is an academic institution and should not have its name tarnished by an event with the single function of the objectification of women."
But others argued against her, saying the competition was hardly compulsory, the entrants enjoyed themselves and the fee to watch raised money for breast cancer.
It is also worth noting that the resultant publicity from big beauty pageants can be put to more involved causes. Japan's own 'Miss International' winner, Ikumi Yoshimatsu, as recently in the news for standing up to and exposing a prominent Yakuza (mafia) member after she refused to sign with his talent agency. Her stand proved that she cannot be judged on looks alone and it was her fame as a beauty contest winner than gave her the opportunity to expose the corruption.
Despite Ms Yoshimatsu's actions and that students freely choose to enter these contests, I personally feel beauty pageants have no place in universities. Universities are where the focus is on learning and should not be accrediting value to outward appearances. Whether the results of these competitions in general is entirely bad is more debatable, but for a university to be affiliated with a competition that rewards only female looks and not their reasoning or hard work is inappropriate, especially in a climate where gender equality is struggling to gain a foothold.