In 1907, the newspaper Jiji Shimpō held Japan’s–and Asia’s–first beauty pageant in response to the Chicago Daily Tribune‘s quest to find the most beautiful girl in the world, specifically, one that could outshine America’s own cornfed beauty, Marguerite Frey.1
Of course it was not the first time that someone thought to rank women according to their looks, but in the past, the women in question belonged to the demimonde—geishas, prostitutes, etc.—and the rankings were a matter of individual and not institutional opinion.
The contest had a simple format: girls from all regions of Japan and of all backgrounds were invited to send in their photos to the Jiji Shimpō offices in Tokyo. Participants were encouraged to include their height, bust and hip measurements. Only women who were not professional beauties were eligible.
A panel of appointed committee members would judge the photos in three successive rounds of competition. The photos of the participants would be published at the newspaper’s will. The winner would go on to compete in the Tribune’s international competition. (Sound familiar?)
The pageant was groundbreaking in several ways.
First, anyone, even a country girl from Okinawa, could participate. This democratic move coincided with the explosive rise of Japan’s middle classes. Newspapers had to acknowledge the changing demographics of their market.
Second, the newspaper had declared its intent to publish photos of women from good families. In traditional Japan, only professional beauties shared photographs of themselves with an admiring public. For everyone else, photos were strictly for enjoyment within the privacy of one’s home (clearly a time before Instagram).
Why did attitudes towards photography change?
During the modernisation of Japan, to encourage nationalist sentiment, the emperor and empress permitted schools throughout the land to display photos of their exalted personages. Also, after the Russo-Japanese and Sino-Japanese wars, it became accepted practice to publish portraits of deceased soldiers. On one hand, this practice acknowledged the toll of the war at a very personal level, while on the other hand, it fanned the flames of patriotism among the public. A private memento was thereby transformed to a public symbol.
Back to the important stuff. Who won?
It was a beauty by the name of Suehiro Hiroko. She came from a prominent family and attended the elite Peeresses’ School in Tokyo. Her brother-in-law entered her photo into the competition without her knowledge. Poor Suehiro was expelled from her school once the results of the contest were publicised.
The very idea of having a high enough opinion of oneself to enter a beauty competition was seen as brazen.
Still, it all ended well for Suehiro when the same principal who expelled her also helped her to make a very advantageous marriage to the son of a war hero.
The entry of women into the public sphere had begun.