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Miss Japan Karolina Shiino resigns amid backlash to news of affair

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Karolina Shiino speaks fluent Japanese, grew up in Japan and was crowned Miss Japan 2024. But her win attracted an unusual amount of controversy — because she was born in Ukraine, and is Caucasian in appearance.

Critics said she was not representative of the traditional Japanese ideal of beauty, even as her supporters called her win a powerful symbol of change in a country where multicultural and biracial people face discrimination. Shiino, the first person of European descent to claim the crown, said that her win made her feel accepted as a Japanese person for the first time.

Now, her win is attracting even more attention — for different reasons. A local tabloid revealed she had an affair with a married man, leading to intense media scrutiny and causing Shiino to give up her crown — just over a week after she won it.

The incident has shone a spotlight on two issues that generate heated discussion in Japan — what it means to be Japanese in a country where conservatives have historically opposed immigration and emphasized ethnic homogeneity — and the expectation that public figures, particularly women, adhere to what society deems high moral standards.

The scandal broke last week, when Japanese tabloid Shukan Bunshun published a story claiming that Shiino was in a relationship with a married Japanese doctor.

In a statement that has since been deleted from its website, the organizer of the pageant said Shiino was not at fault because the man told her he was single.

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But on Monday, the Free Wave modeling agency, which represented Shiino, said new information had come to light: It said Shiino became aware during the relationship that the man was married and continued to date him. The agency said Shiino initially lied because she was scared, but decided to tell the truth to avoid causing more trouble.

Shiino confirmed this in a statement on Instagram: “There was some discrepancy between the facts and what I had explained to my agency. I was unable to speak the truth due to confusion and fear.” She said that she was stepping down as Miss Japan 2024 and had requested that her agency terminate her contract.

The Miss Japan Association said it had accepted her resignation “due to personal circumstances,” adding that the post of Miss Japan would remain vacant until the next contest.

Miss Japan is one of several beauty pageants in Japan. The first contest was held in 1952. It claims to be “in search of true Japanese beauty,” and states on its website that “beauty is not defined solely by one’s appearance, but also by one’s attitude and effort.”

The sensational nature of the controversy could turn out to be a setback for those who advocate for greater acceptance of diversity in public life in Japan.

Japan has strict rules around obtaining citizenship — dual nationality is banned — and though the share of foreign-born residents is growing, it is still lower than many other developed countries.

Multicultural and biracial people have described facing discrimination — even when they become celebrities or top athletes. Tennis star Naomi Osaka, who was born to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, faced criticism from nationalists when she spoke out about race and politics. Ariana Miyamoto, who was born to a Japanese mother and an African American father, also faced backlash after becoming Miss Universe Japan.

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And in 2021, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo warned that it had received reports of foreigners being stopped and searched in “suspected racial profiling incidents.”

Shiino was born in Ternopil, western Ukraine, according to Ukrainian news outlets. When Shiino was 5 years old, her mother married a Japanese man and she moved to Nagoya, Japan, the Japan Times reported. In 2023, she announced that she was a naturalized Japanese citizen.

In Japan, the private lives of public figures are also regularly held up to scrutiny, with media attention being unrelenting when celebrities are seen to have fallen short — and critics say female public figures seem to be judged particularly harshly.

One scandal in 2013, for example, involved a young pop star, Minami Minegishi, who was found to have broken her management firm’s rules by spending a night with her boyfriend. Her management company demoted her as a result — and she uploaded a tearful apology video that showed she had shaved her head in contrition — leading to shocked headlines around the world.

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Online, some commenters asked why an affair would disqualify Shiino from holding the Miss Japan crown — and questioned whether the other party involved would face similar consequences. “The Miss Japan Association should deeply reflect on why in cases of infidelity the socioeconomic consequences fall disproportionately on the unmarried female and not the married man,” said one.

Another described the entire state of affairs as a “sad ending.”

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