Naomi Osaka would have been forgiven for turning her back on Japan when the time came to choose her citizenship.
Her mother Tamaki grew up in Hokkaido, Japan, and her father Leonard Francis grew up in Haiti. To many in Japanese society Osaka was different and as she rose to success, media began to ask, how Japanese really is Osaka?
She was challenged on her culture, her grasp of Japanese, discriminated against for her differences and yet heads home for the Olympic Games this summer as Japan’s poster girl.
Now having been given the honour of lighting the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony on Friday, the world No 2 has the chance to win the first tennis gold medal in Japanese history.
It would be momentous – and not just in terms of sporting achievement.
Naomi Osaka is Japan’s poster girl for the Olympic Games this summer and her status as such is important in a country that is looking to change its image in the face of homogeneity
Osaka’s success has been feverishly debated in media questioning her as a Japanese citizen
Osaka is a leading light in Japan’s ever-changing society. Seen as a ‘hafu’, Osaka has a Japanese mother and a Haitian father and has grown up in the United States since she was a toddler.
And so she has always felt different. Even as success rolls in and national adulation follows, Osaka can never forget the journey to becoming the face of a modernising society.
‘[My opponent] was talking with another Japanese girl, and they didn’t know that I was listening [or that] I spoke Japanese,’ Osaka told the Wall Street Journal last year, when asked if she had any incidents of discrimination in her youth.
‘Her friend asked her who she was playing, so she said Osaka. And her friend says, ”Oh, that black girl. Is she supposed to be Japanese?” And then the girl that I was playing was like, ”I don’t think so”.’
In a docuseries released on Netflix earlier this month Osaka continued to shed light on her experience of declaring her citizenship as Japanese and the issues it through up.
Having taken a break from playing due to her mental health, Osaka is back refreshed in Japan
‘So I don’t choose America, and suddenly people are like, ”Your Black card is revoked”,’ Osaka said.
‘And it’s like, African-American isn’t the only Black, you know? I don’t know, I feel like people don’t know the difference between nationality and race.’
Japan has historically been an incredibly homogeneous state. A 2018 census reported that 97.8 per cent of the population is determined as ‘Japanese’.
That can be misleading as that figure means ‘Citizen of Japan’ rather than an individual’s ethnicity. But even when referring to ‘Yamato’ Japanese – defined as ‘a person whose origin is the Japanese mainland’ – figures still estimate that 90 per cent of the population are of Yamato descent.
Historical norms have been repeatedly reinforced by those in the corridors of power, too. In 2005, then-Foreign Minister Taro Aso insisted that Japan was a country of ‘one nation, one civilisation, one language, one culture and one race’. It sounded more a hope than a fact – but there were plenty who agreed with him.
People like Osaka have frequently been questioned over how Japanese they actually are. Referred to as ‘hafu’ and regularly pushed to prove she can answer questions in Japanese at WTA tournaments, scrutiny around the tennis star has been immense.
Her relationship with Japan was difficult in her early years as a professional player but much of the debate filling column inches came to the fore when Osaka was forced to choose her citizenship.
Under Japanese law, an individual cannot legally possess dual citizenship with another country after the age of 21. Osaka was a US and Japanese citizen and with English her first language, many thought she would declare for her adopted home.
But Osaka selected Japan with the hope of driving change.
‘I’m just trying to put a platform out for all the Japanese people that look like me and live in Japan and when they go to a restaurant, they get handed an English menu, even though it’s just a little microaggression,’ Osaka added to WSJ.
Osaka has been whitewashed by media – including this controversial cartoon by the Australia’s Herald Sun after the 2018 US Open final. Osaka (right) is depicted as white and blonde
Nissin, one of Osaka’s own sponsors, had to apologise after they depicted her as white (right)
Osaka’s springboard moment came in September 2018 when, against the odds, she defeated Serena Williams to win the US Open title. Her first Grand Slam success.
The match was overshadowed by controversy on court between Williams and chair umpire Carlos Ramos. Osaka was in tears at the end. But what followed was more upsetting. The Herald Sun found itself in hot water following a caricature cartoon after the final.
While it was eventually ruled the cartoon was not racist, question marks were raised over both the depiction of Williams and Osaka. Osaka was portrayed as white and blonde. It was the first of many incidents where her ‘tan’ skin appeared to cause issue for others.
Fast forward to the start of the 2019 season and Osaka, the latest star of the women’s circuit, was preparing for her Australian Open semi-final when noodle company Nissin, one of her sponsors, caused a global scandal.
In a manga cartoon advertisement, Osaka had seemingly been ‘whitewashed’ by one of her supporters, rather than detractors.
‘There is no intention of whitewashing,’ a Nissin spokesperson said at the time. ‘We accept that we are not sensitive enough and will pay more attention to diversity issues in the future.’
It smacked at an in-built bias, an ingrained homogeneity rather than a deliberate attempt to shame Osaka.
‘I’ve talked to [Nissin] and they’ve apologised,’ Osaka said in response. ‘It’s obvious, I’m tan. It’s pretty obvious.’
Criticism from comedians that she is ‘too sunburned’ was batted away on her social media
Issues around her skin colour back in Japan continued.
Months after she won the Australian Open, her second Grand Slam title, Osaka was the butt of a ‘joke’ made by two Japanese comedians in which they suggested the tennis star ‘needed some bleach’ to lighten her skin.
The pairing known as ‘A Masso’ added that ‘she is too sunburnt’ during the live show. It was another shameful episode that showed what Osaka is fighting against.
Both women apologised for making ‘inappropriate, hurtful remarks’ but did not refer to Osaka by name.
‘Though we should have thought about it, we made remarks that hurt many people, something we will never do again,’ the apology read. ‘We sincerely apologise for making the specific person feel uncomfortable, as well as for everyone else connected to the event. We also sincerely apologise for causing trouble.’
In typical Osaka fashion she responded with a dignity lacking from her detractors – even using the incident to promote a partner sponsor.
‘Too sunburned’ lol that’s wild,’ Osaka tweeted. ‘Little did they know, with Shiseido Anessa perfect UV sunscreen I never get sunburned.’
But it raised a debate around Bihaku – the marketing term used in Japan to promote the lightening of skin, or to be ‘beautifully white’.
Osaka has frequently repeated that she is ‘tan’ and wants to be reflected as such in media
The Olympic Games will have the world watching and Osaka is looking to drive change
In Japanese culture, beautiful skin has long been defined as white and smooth and Osaka’s ‘tan’ goes against the multi-million machine that is pushing the notion of fair, light skin on Japanese women.
While Osaka is looking to bring about change through her platform, national debate around ‘hafu’ and ‘bihaku’ can go back to 2015 Miss Universe Japan winner Ariana Miyamoto.
She has, along with Osaka, led the way in modernising Japan’s views towards ‘hafus’ since she became the first half-black, half-Japanese woman to be named Miss Universe Japan.
Estimations made in 2019 stated that one in 50 babies born in Japan are now mixed-race and it is people like Osaka and Miyamoto that are attempting to fight against discrimination for the next generation.
‘I have received racist comments online and even on TV,’ Osaka wrote in an op-ed penned with Esquire last year.
‘But that’s the minority. In reality, biracial people — especially biracial athletes — are the future of Japan. We can’t let the ignorance of a few hold back the progressiveness of the masses.’
She added: ‘I am proud, too, of the small part I have played in changing perceptions and opinions. I love the thought of a biracial girl in a classroom in Japan glowing with pride when I win a Grand Slam.
‘I really hope that the playground is a friendlier place for her now that she can point to a role model and be proud of who she is. And dream big.’
She was outspoken when former prime minister Yoshiro Mori was dismissed as head of the Olympic organising committee for the Tokyo Games for his criticisms of women
It is not just the issue of skin colour that Osaka is fighting feverishly against.
Back in February, Osaka spoke out and welcomed the resignation of former Japanese prime minister Yoshiro Mori as the head of the Tokyo 2020 organising committee.
Mori was shamed for saying women ‘talk too much’ and was dismissed.
‘I feel like it’s really good because you’re pushing forward, barriers are being broken down, especially for females,’ Osaka said. ‘We’ve had to fight for so many things just to be equal. Even a lot of things we still aren’t equal.’
It has been 2021 where Osaka has been under the greatest amount of pressure in her young tennis career – specifically off the court.
At the French Open, Osaka stunned the sport by withdrawing from the Grand Slam to focus on her mental health. She was fined $15,000 for skipping a press conference and with the threat of disqualification looming for further breaches she decided to withdraw herself.
Criticism arrived across the globe. Was Osaka being soft? Was she spoiled? Was she simply not built for the pressure of being a role model to millions? All of those are total rubbish. If anything Osaka’s standing elevated; here is an athlete that continues to drive change for greater good.
In the end the Grand Slams all vowed to ‘improve the player experience’. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.
One Nike advert saw Osaka ‘ssh’ those who questioned her validity as a Japanese citizen
‘Michael Phelps told me that by speaking up I may have saved a life,’ Osaka wrote in a piece for Time Magazine addressing her withdrawal in Paris. ‘If that’s true, then it was all worth it.
‘I feel uncomfortable being the spokesperson or face of athlete mental health as it’s still so new to me and I don’t have all the answers.
‘I do hope that people can relate and understand it’s OK to not be OK, and it’s OK to talk about it. There are people who can help, and there is usually light at the end of any tunnel.’
With Nike as one of her primary sponsors Osaka, who also possesses 2.5m followers on Instagram, knows she has a platform to help drive change.
One of the biggest critiques around Osaka is a linguistic one and suggestions she is not fully proficient in Japanese.
In 2019, with the support of Nike, she released an advert in which she does a ‘ssssh’ sign with her finger over her mouth.
She is now the hottest attraction in Japan and an inspiration to other mixed-race Japanese
Osaka can be seen on the court, showing off her strong playing style as a volley of questions roll by.
‘Who’s your biggest rival?’, ‘Are you a hard court specialist?’ and ‘Do you consider yourself Japanese or American?’
Then there are questions in Japanese, including ‘What are you going to buy with your prize money?’, ‘Can you answer in Japanese?’ and ‘Will you eat katsudon again today?’
But the clip ends in a strong message that perfectly encapsulates both Osaka’s personality and her true calling back in Japan.
‘Don’t change yourself,’ she said. ‘Change the world.’