Japan loves its top tennis star. But do they think she's Japanese?

Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters
Japan’s Naomi Osaka, the reigning U.S. Open and Australian Open women’s singles champion, plays her first round match of the French Open May 28 against Slovakia’s Anna Karolína Schmiedlová.
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At the Kyodo Indoor Tennis School in suburban Tokyo, one kind of merchandise is flying off the shelves: anything associated with Naomi Osaka.

Since September, when she beat Serena Williams for the U.S. Open title, Ms. Osaka has been the reigning champ of women’s tennis. In Japan, the country for which she competes, she’s become a household name. Companies making everything from cars and cosmetics to instant noodles have raced for endorsement deals.

Why We Wrote This

Who counts as Japanese? The island nation has started to wrestle with questions of diversity later than many of its peers. Lately, one young tennis phenom has had to carry much of that heavy conversation on her shoulders.

But as she catapults onto the world stage, the half-Haitian, half-Japanese star with dual citizenship in the U.S. and Japan is intensifying discussions around Japan’s own identity.

“The unwritten rule” to being Japanese, writes Baye McNeil, an African American columnist for The Japan Times, is “looking Japanese.”

Deemed one of the most homogeneous countries on earth, modern Japan has long struggled to integrate people who don’t meet traditional ideas of “Japaneseness,” often rooted in ethnic identity. With an aging and shrinking population, though, the government has decided that allowing more foreigners in is a matter of economic survival.

September was a very good month for Masao Tsutsumi.

Mr. Tsutsumi, who piloted Nissan’s sponsorship of Naomi Osaka, latched onto the young tennis star before she became a household name in Japan. When he’d first broached Ms. Osaka’s name to his team mid-2018, their response was lukewarm: “But she’s only No. 17 in the world.”

Then came September 2018. Within a week, Ms. Osaka beat Serena Williams for the U.S. Open title, jetted to Japan, and headlined a press conference at Nissan’s gleaming headquarters in Yokohama. When a Nissan executive asked about her favorite car, her response was broadcast for the world to hear: GT-R.

Why We Wrote This

Who counts as Japanese? The island nation has started to wrestle with questions of diversity later than many of its peers. Lately, one young tennis phenom has had to carry much of that heavy conversation on her shoulders.

It was Nissan’s flagship sports car, the one that goes 0 to 60 mph in under three seconds – seemingly like the career of Ms. Osaka, who is now No. 1 for women’s singles, and the first Japanese player to achieve that ranking. A special Osaka-branded edition GT-R marketed only in Japan sold out within a month.

“My boss told me, ‘You’re a lucky guy,’” Mr. Tsutsumi says with a chuckle, basking in the glory of a corporate sponsorship purchased when the stock, as they say, was underpriced. “We came after Citizen [watches], and everyone else came after.”

Ms. Osaka has been a huge draw for brands seeking to grasp onto a rising star with appeal across cultures: Yonex sports gear, Nissin Foods, Shiseido cosmetics, and All Nippon Airways have also jumped on board. Yet, as she catapults onto the world stage, the half-Haitian, half-Japanese star’s popularity is intensifying discussions around ethnic identity and multiculturalism in a country deemed one of the most homogenous on earth. Her rise comes at a poignant time, as Japan struggles with an aging and shrinking population; the government has decided that allowing more foreigners into the country is a matter of economic survival.

Toru Hanai/Reuters
U.S. Open tennis champion Naomi Osaka (r.) and Nissan Motor's Executive Vice President Asako Hoshino pose with a Nissan Leaf electric car after signing an endorsement deal at Nissan's global headquarters in Yokohama, Japan, Sept. 13, 2018.

‘Unwritten rule’ to being Japanese

By now, Ms. Osaka’s story is familiar to many Japanese; she was born in Japan to a Haitian father and Japanese mother. By the time she was four, her family had relocated to the United States. Later, her parents had their dual-citizen daughter represent Japan in international competitions, laying the groundwork for her to be a Japanese star.

Yet as a half-black woman, Ms. Osaka “does not meet the social prerequisites for full Japanese acceptance,” according to Baye McNeil, an African American columnist for The Japan Times. “The unwritten rule” to being Japanese, Mr. McNeil writes in an email, is “looking Japanese.”

Indeed, in modern times, Japan has struggled to integrate foreigners into society, and debated how porous its borders should be. This reluctance is rooted in a number of phenomena, including an imperial past that promoted Japanese as racially superior. Post-World War II, the government did little to protect minorities against discrimination in the housing and job markets. Many older Japanese associate the success of the country’s postwar economic growth with its homogeneity, says Waseda University sociologist Shunsuke Tanabe. “A certain number of people believe in this ‘myth.’”

One lingering effect is firm resistance to immigration. Today, foreigners make up only about 2% of Japan’s total population. Right-wing tabloids have not been kind to Ms. Osaka – remarking, for example, that she speaks poor Japanese – while The Japan Times published an op-ed called “How Japanese is Naomi Osaka?” which suggested her decision to play for Japan was motivated by profit, though the writer concludes she is “very Japanese.”

Meanwhile, advertisers have made missteps. In January, instant noodle-maker Nissin Foods released an image of Ms. Osaka that Westernized her features and lightened her skin. It was created by a popular manga artist, and branding expert Alan Casey says Nissin didn’t necessarily stray “outside the visual cues of manga – size of the eyes, size of the hair, super-exaggerated and often very Western, like an inconceivably small chin.”

“[Nissin] simply weren’t aware of the issues around racial discrimination around the world,” Professor Tanabe says, calling Japanese society “about 30 years behind the global trend.”

Even so, the public backlash was immense and immediate. Nissin offered an apology, promised to be more sensitive, and halted the campaign. 

‘Bridging’ the distance

Yet for most Japanese, Ms. Osaka’s mannerisms “bridge the distance,” sociologists say. She’s soft-spoken. She has a trademark humility so prized by Japanese culture. She loves matcha green tea ice cream. She also wins major tournaments.

Christophe Ena/AP
Fans of Japan's tennis player Naomi Osaka hold the national flag during her first round match of the French Open tournament against Slovakia's Anna Karolína Schmiedlová at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris May 28.

Everyone loves a winner.

Indeed, Ms. Osaka is popular in Japan, full stop. A year ago, only 7 of 10 Japanese knew of her, according to Hakuhodo DY Media Partners surveys. “Now almost all Japanese know her name,” says Koki Takekata of Hakuhodo. In Hakuhodo surveys, respondents describe her as cheerful, friendly, and powerful.

In general, acceptance may be growing for people outside “traditional” ideas of Japaneseness. A Pew Research Center study in 2018 found that 59% of Japanese believed immigrants make Japan stronger due to their work and talents, though only 23% want to see immigration increase. In 2018, Okinawa prefecture elected the country’s first biracial governor, the son of a U.S. Marine and Japanese mother.

In Ms. Osaka’s case, it may ultimately be official nationality that the Japanese care about. According to Japanese law, Ms. Osaka must choose between her U.S. and Japanese passports before the age of 22 (though the law has never been enforced). But what if she chooses American citizenship? And what if she stops winning?

“I think Naomi Osaka helps in the short-term [with acceptance] for mixed-race individuals,” says Erin Chung, director of the East Asian Studies program at Johns Hopkins University. “But I don’t think it will eradicate racism in Japan.”

Inspiring the next generation

Hideaki Morinaga will worry about such philosophical issues another day; for now he’s basking in the energy Ms. Osaka has breathed into his suburban Tokyo tennis club.

The day after her U.S. Open win, his phone at Kyodo Indoor Tennis School began ringing. “They wanted tennis classes for their kids,” Mr. Morinaga says, with a grin. He added four classes a week, with enough demand for a waitlist.

Club members also wanted Ms. Osaka’s branded merchandise, which began moving off the shelves of the club’s tiny shop: Yonex Ezone 98 rackets. Poly Tour Strike 125 strings. Yonex’s Pro series racket bags. Adidas sneakers (which she’s since left for Nike).

“Tennis lovers are very happy to have Naomi winning,” Mr. Morinaga says. “She’s a Japanese winning major competitions.”

Nearby, Yukiko Tani waits for her children to finish a lesson. Her 13-year-old son took inspiration from Japanese tennis star Kei Nishikori, while her daughter worships Ms. Osaka. “We’re going to apply for Olympic tickets,” Ms. Tani says, in hopes of seeing her play at the Tokyo games.

This summer, Ms. Tani will send her son to Malaysia for a British-run tennis camp. Her kids already attend school with many multiracial students, Ms. Tani says, and she’d like them to become even more comfortable with a multicultural environment. It’s where the world is headed.

“Kids are very accepting,” Ms. Tani says.

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