The contests reflect a culture that often judges women by their appearance and slots them into rigid, gender-defined roles.
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 Ms. 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 Ms. Iozumi, a second-year community studies major, 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.”
The pageants, called Miss Contest in full, are staged at numerous campuses across Japan, including at pedigreed universities like the University of Tokyo and Keio University that 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. The contests 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 offers of corporate sponsorship. Some go on to modeling gigs. During the contest campaign period, 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, where they are valued more for their looks than for their skills or knowledge.
Although there are contests for both women and men, it is the women who draw the most attention.
“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.”
Male contestants are not typically scouted, he said; men who appear on news and other television programs “are probably a lot more experts in their fields.”
Beauty is more narrowly defined in Japan than in the West. Women with girlish features, round eyes and rail-thin bodies — those who are considered “kawaii,” or cute — feature prominently in television dramas, pop groups, advertisements and even anime.
In the university contests, 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 chic Tokyo fashion district, dates back nearly half a century and is one of the most well known in Japan.
Gauzy, professionally produced modeling videos posted online showcase the competitors in traditional gender roles. In one, three of the women act in a skit where they discuss marriage goals, and another video presented at the pageant’s grand finale late last month showed the women baking cupcakes while the men appeared in a weight lifting session.
Two years ago, an Aoyama Gakuin video featured the six female finalists and posed viewers the question: “Who would you go on a date with?” The women, who barely spoke, were shown eating ice cream, hitting a badminton birdie in the park, shopping for clothes, playing games in an arcade and eating cheesecake with an unseen visitor, all while peeking flirtatiously at the camera.
In recent years, some students and faculty members at Japanese universities 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 the head of a newly formed gender research center. “The whole university culture is contaminated by that.”
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 consciousness.”
The onerous beauty standards promoted by the pageants can lead to unhealthy behavior. In a video posted on YouTube, a former contestant at Rikkyo University said she had dieted so much to fit into a wedding dress that she “would cry in the middle of the night because I was too hungry.”
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. 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 now assigned female “managers” to each woman in the contest. “We have really warned people within the committee not to” harass the entrants, said Ryoma Ogasawara, a student organizer of the pageant. “But there’s not much else we can do.”
Asa Kamiya, 22, who in 2020 was crowned Miss Todai, 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 Ms. 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 Ms. 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 and post messages on social media. The contest organizers also unified the male and female pageants and invited entrants who identified anywhere along the gender spectrum.
Last year, when Sophia’s newly redesigned grand finale was staged online, one female 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 major who highlighted her visit to Cambodia, where she witnessed problems with trash in poor communities, and her work volunteering at a Los Angeles soup kitchen over the summer.
But the runner-up last year, Mai Egawa, 21, who is majoring in African studies, said that whenever she posted on social media about her interest in Rwanda, she received comments telling her “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.”
Over a weekend in late October, the two-day grand finale of the “Miss Mister Aoyama Contest” was held in a dark auditorium on the ninth floor of a tower in the Shibuya district of Tokyo.
Ms. Iozumi and five other female finalists paraded across the stage wearing lacy party dresses on loan from a sponsor, and videos showcasing other corporate backers flashed on a large screen. Each contestant gave a short performance — decorating a cake, singing a self-composed hip-hop song and, in Ms. Iozumi’s case, demonstrating a karate kata with a partner.
Throughout a four-month campaign period, fans could vote daily online. At the finale, they voted manually to winnow the finalists. Masayuki Yamanaka, 47, a serial pageant goer in the audience, wore a fedora and balanced a row of small stuffed animals in his lap. As he scrutinized the contestant profiles in a glossy program, he struggled to make his final choices. “They are all so cute,” he said.
On the second day, the three remaining female finalists appeared in wedding gowns with large hoop skirts and glittering tiaras, each accompanied by a male finalist on a red-carpeted runway. Ms. Iozumi concealed her shoulders under a bodice with a high lace neck and long sleeves.
As the contestants returned to the floodlit stage, they evoked a mass wedding of stone-faced couples.
When Ms. Iozumi was pronounced Miss Aoyama, she looked stunned.
Sitting at the back of the auditorium with a classmate from a university in Chiba, a prefecture bordering Tokyo, Nodoka Ogawa, 21, said she would never consider entering a Miss Con pageant.
“I think they have to be so brave, because so many people will look at them,” she said. “And you have to be physically very beautiful.”