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FEATURE: Japan local tourist “beauty” envoys get new look

Japanese local governments have started scrapping or reforming events such as “beauty pageants” to select promotional tourism envoys, a sign of changing times of more people wishing to freely express themselves, regardless of age, gender or background.

Many beauty contests were suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, but with their resumption, there has been a renewal of formats emphasizing diversity that speak to a city’s or town’s individual characteristics.

Andre Matsubara (2nd from L) poses for a photo as a “Sunflower,” a special envoy for tourism in Isesaki, Gunma Prefecture, on Jan. 1, 2023. (Kyodo)

For instance, the Isesaki Tourism & Products Association, located in Gunma Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, altered the title of its tourism ambassador beauty contest from “Ms. Sunflower” to “Special Envoy,” while dropping the “unmarried women” requirement and opening the competition up to different genders.

Since Isesaki has the largest number of foreign residents of any city in the prefecture at 14,000, the application guidelines also state that mentioning the nationality of contestants is not required.

Masahiko Shigeta, who serves as the association’s secretariat in the tourism and culture division, explained, “We want to recruit from a wide range of people and select those who can promote the city in this genderless and borderless era.”

Twenty-four people applied, including six men and three people in their 40s and 50s. Three were selected in September 2022.

Among those selected was Andre Matsubara, 24, an office worker who says he was interested in recruitment “fitting for today.”

Matsubara, who has Japanese and Peruvian ancestry, said he wishes to “act as a bridge between foreign nationals and Japanese.” He added the response from people has been positive, as he might expect from a “city like Isesaki.”

The beauty pageant held at the “Ichinomiya Tanabata Festival” for more than 60 years in Ichinomiya, Aichi Prefecture, in western Japan, was abolished in 2022. Along with the fall in the number of applicants, the city believed that “a selection process that is limited to unmarried women and judgment of their appearance is out of step with the times.”

City officials said that the two-year suspension of the festival due to the COVID-19 pandemic also offered an opportunity for reflection. Last year, 20 men and women were newly appointed as “student supporters” of the festival.

While some people are nostalgic for the former beauty pageant format, Fumihito Yokoi, who works in the executive office for the festival, said, “The student supporters are more aligned with the feelings of the visitors, and they helped to liven up the festival.” He expects them to continue to play a leading role.

Kashihara in Nara Prefecture, Awaji Island in Hyogo Prefecture and Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture, among other localities, changed their formats to create tourism envoys without regard to gender or marital status in 2022. Iwata in Shizuoka Prefecture also saw the birth of its first male tourism envoy.

Yuki Takahashi, 39, a part-time lecturer at Musashi University and an expert on gender theory, said, “By not deciding based on masculinity, femininity, youth, or good looks, they can choose someone more suitable for promotion who is typical of a particular city. It’s also an opportunity to rethink stereotypical gender identity.”

Source: kyodo news