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Pure Beauty: Rebecca King-O’Riain’s Look at Japanese American Beauty Pageants

Rebecca Chiyoko King-O’Riain has written a fascinating book, Pure Beauty, about Japanese American community beauty pageants, exploring how race, ethnicity, culture, and gender are linked in social practice. As revealed in her research, these beauty pageants reflect important conflicts within the Japanese American community over national citizenship, gender, and race and raise questions about the struggle to maintain racial and ethnic lines within the community.

Dr. King-O’Riain has always felt a strong bond to her Japanese ancestry. Because her grandfather, grandmother, and mother were incarcerated in Rowher, Arkansas, and her aunt was born in camp, she has always felt connected to Japanese American history. Her own experience as a mixed Japanese American (with a white father and Japanese American mother) was one of the primary inspirations for the Pure Beauty research project. She explains, “I think that being mixed JA was the main reason I took up this research project in the first place. We always begin with ourselves in a way. I found being mixed very different in different places (including living in Japan) and was intrigued by the idea that someone could be ‘not Japanese enough.’ What does that mean really?”

Originally, Dr. King-O’Riain had planned to focus her research on racial eligibility rules in Japanese American beauty pageants and basketball leagues. Ultimately, however, she decided that there wasn’t room for both. How did she decide on beauty pageants? “It kind of just happened. I went into J-town in San Francisco and tried talking to young mixed race people about the racial eligibility rules. One of the interviewees said that Cherry Blossom Queen pageant was really the place to go so I met with the chair of the committee, and he basically put me to work on the committee and the rest is history. I just find beauty pageants so interesting. I know that there can be problems with them, but it is difficult to tear yourself away from watching them. I think it is about the fact that they reflect something about ourselves, including our wishes, hopes and anxieties, but I know they aren’t for everyone. In the end, they are an important cultural tradition in the JA community (whether you agree with them or not) and they help, I hope, to show us what the issues in our communities are. They were also great fun to research and the people running and participating in them are such dedicated and hard working people who really love their local community and ultimately want to give back to that that it is sort of an honor to have been welcomed into the fold.”

Beyond Pure Beauty’s obvious value to sociologists and scholars, the author hopes other readers will take something meaningful away with them after reading her book. She says, “First and foremost, I hope that people will enjoy reading it and it will prompt them to think about the community as it has been and what it can potentially be. I also hope that the people who participated in the research find it accurate and helpful in understanding community change. If it can help community organizations and JA people to understand the community and themselves better that would be great….I also hope that sociology students will read it and that it will bring cultural forms, like beauty pageants, into mainstream sociology so that students will read it and get hooked on sociology which ultimately for me aims to understand and encourage social change.”

Rebecca King-O’Riain now resides in Ireland with her husband and two children. Her life in Ireland has given way to other interesting research opportunities, one being a current project on Chinese and Polish immigrants in Ireland. She and her husband currently teach at the National University of Ireland in Maynooth in the Department of Sociology. While Dr. King-O’Riain admits to missing Japanese American community events, food, friends, and family, she and her husband make sure that her children know they are part Japanese American, and they make attempts to expose them to that when they visit the United States each year. Living in Ireland, however, also provides the author with an opportunity to educate others about Japanese American history. In regard to her life in Ireland, she comments, “It has made me realize that the Japanese American internment experience is not known about really outside the U.S. so there is an opportunity there to teach more students about it.”

Rebecca King-O’Riain credits the Japanese American National Museum as an invaluable source of her research. In anticipation of speaking at the National Museum, she said, “Projects like Pure Beauty wouldn’t be possible without archival collections like the one at the Japanese American National Museum. It is nice to think of giving a talk there about the book since in some senses, it is where the research began when I wandered through the collection with Brian Niiya over 10 years ago!”

We, at the Museum, look forward to Rebecca King-O’Riain’s return and to her future projects.

* This article was originally published on the Japanese American National Museum Store Online.

© 2007 Japanese American National Museum

beauty pageants identity

About this series

The award-winning Museum Store of the Japanese American National Museum features distinctive Asian American merchandise for all occasions and generations. Their unique product line represents the essence of the Japanese American experience, while also promoting an appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity. All proceeds from the Museum Store support Museum programs and exhibitions.

The articles in this series were originally written for the Japanese American National Museum’s online store []  to give a deeper understanding of the authors, artists, and traditions featured in the store.