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Pure Beauty

Judging Race in Japanese American Beauty Pageants

2006
Author:

Rebecca Chiyoko King-O’Riain

Pure Beauty

Examines the question, Who is Japanese American?

Rebecca Chiyoko King-O'Riain studies Japanese American community beauty pageants in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Honolulu to discover how these pageants seek to maintain racial and ethnic purity amid shifting notions of cultural identity. Pure Beauty shows how racial and gendered meanings are enacted through the pageants, and reveals their impact on Japanese American men, women, and children.

Beauty is indeed more than skin deep, and King-O'Riain compellingly interrogates the popular and problematic conflation of race, ethnicity, and culture. Pure Beauty challenges us to think about how racial boundaries are policed, how individuals negotiate them to assert identity claims, and how such 'race work' is judged.

Michael Omi, co-author of Racial Formation in the United States

With a low rate of immigration and a high rate of interracial marriage, Japanese Americans today compose the Asian ethnic group with the largest proportion of mixed-race members. Within Japanese American communities, increased participation by mixed-race members, along with concerns about overassimilation, has led to a search for cultural authenticity, giving new answers to the question, Who is Japanese American?

In Pure Beauty, Rebecca Chiyoko King-O’Riain tackles this question by studying a cultural institution: Japanese American community beauty pageants in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Honolulu. King-O’Riain employs rich ethnographic fieldwork to discover how these pageants seek to maintain racial and ethnic purity amid shifting notions of cultural identity. She uses revealing in-depth interviews with candidates, queens, and community members, her experiences as a pageant committee member, and archival research—including Japanese and English newspapers, museum collections, private photo albums, and mementos—to establish both the importance and impossibility of racial purity. King-O’Riain examines racial eligibility rules and tests, which encompass not only ancestry but also residency, community service, and culture, and traces the history of pageants throughout the United States. Pure Beauty shows how racial and gendered meanings are enacted through the pageants, and reveals their impact on Japanese American men, women, and children.

King-O’Riain concludes that the mixed-race challenge to racial understandings of Japanese Americanness does not necessarily mean an end to race as we know it and asserts that race is work-created and re-created in a social context. Ultimately, she determines that the concept of race, fragile though it may be, is still one of the categories by which Japanese Americans are judged.

Pure Beauty

Rebecca Chiyoko King-O’Riain is lecturer in sociology at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth.

Pure Beauty

Beauty is indeed more than skin deep, and King-O'Riain compellingly interrogates the popular and problematic conflation of race, ethnicity, and culture. Pure Beauty challenges us to think about how racial boundaries are policed, how individuals negotiate them to assert identity claims, and how such 'race work' is judged.

Michael Omi, co-author of Racial Formation in the United States

King-O’Riain examines the meaning of racial ancestry for Japanese Americans in Hawaii, California, and Seattle. The author reveals how Japanese Americans use biology, culture, and gender to construct their ethnic identity. The book vividly presents these experiences through quotations form 60 personal interviews as well as archival data and the author’s own participant observation of pageant events. King-O’Riain makes an important contribution to this research front.

Choice

An excellent and provocative study that addresses a topic that will only increase in relevance with changing demographic and theoretical concerns.

Journal of American Ethnic History

Pure Beauty is an engaging read throughout. With Pure Beauty, King-O’Riain makes an important contribution to race theory and to the growing multiracial literature.

Contemporary Sociology

Pure Beauty makes a tremendous contribution to Asian American studies, sociology, cultural studies, and women’s studies. By exploring complex yet contradictory meanings in beauty pageants, King deftly portrays a multifaceted picture of Japanese American communities. The author’s impressive study of the cultural production provides yet another model of cultural analysis that no doubt contributes to our understanding of Japanese American experiences and of the relationship among cultural productions, gender, and racial and ethnic identity formation.

Journal of Asian American Studies

Pure Beauty is an interesting and informative contribution to American racial studies in general and Asian American studies in particular.

American Studies

King’s ability to weave the thoughts of the pageant participants into her analysis is one of the greatest strengths of the book. . . . Pure Beauty is an important contribution to the scholarship and would be especially useful in courses examining the construction of race and ethnicity in American society.

The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth

Pure Beauty

Contents

Preface

Introduction: Negotiating Racial Hybridity in Community Beauty Pageants

1. Race Work and the Effort of Racial Claims
2. The Japanese American Community in Transition
3. Japanese American Beauty Pageants in Historical Perspective
4. Cultural Impostors and Eggs: Race without Culture and Culture without Race
5. Patrolling Bodies: The Social Control of Race through Gender
6. The “Ambassadress” Queen: Moving Authentically between Racial Communities in the United States and Japan
7. Percentages, Parts, and Power: Racial Eligibility Rules and Local Versions of Japanese Americanness in Context

Conclusion: Japanese Americanness, Beauty Pageants, and Race Work

Notes
Bibliography

Index