Culture

Playing Doubles: How Naomi Osaka and Japan Are Coming to Terms with Each Other

She's a wildly successful athlete honing her talent and a burgeoning political voice, but is she the people's superstar?

By 6 min read

Naomi Osaka is the most accomplished Japanese tennis player of all time—man or woman—and it’s not even close. She is the highest-earning female athlete ever in any sport. She recently received perhaps the highest honor in athletics: being the final torchbearer who lights the cauldron at the Olympic Games—and she’s only 23 years old.

But what Osaka doesn’t have is a country united behind her. Osaka’s relationship with Japanese fans and media remains a work in progress.

It’s easy to love her poise and grit and she steadfastly handles things her own way in a culture that values conformity. In a country that largely considers ethnicity and nationality synonymous, her dark skin and multicultural background pose questions about whether she is “Japanese enough.”

A multicultural background

Osaka is the first Asian player to hold the top ranking in singles.

Osaka was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father. Her family moved to the U.S. when she was three, and she has lived there ever since.

Osaka’s primary language is English. She speaks some Japanese at home but generally declines to do so publicly due to her admittedly broken grammar and fear of being misunderstood. However, she’ll occasionally punctuate her English-language interviews with a brief Japanese comment to fans.

“I should probably try to speak Japanese more,” Osaka admitted in the Netflix docu-series Naomi Osaka.

Doing so may strengthen her relationship with Japanese fans, and certainly with the Japanese media, who frequently treat Osaka as a foreigner. Japanese reporters have littered her press conferences with ethnicity questions rather than tennis ones, requests for Osaka to “say something in Japanese,” and repeated gleeful mentions of katsudon, her favorite Japanese food.

Media endurance

Osaka tends to grin and bear the Japanese media as best she can, but her clipped responses seem not to discourage the repetitive flow of these interactions. She’s caught between wanting to be treated with the respect she deserves and feeling pressure to play ball with the nation’s expectations she both represents and relies on.

What wins Osaka favor among her fans is her maturity and grace at handling racially sensitive incidents. For example, in 2019, a Japanese comedy duo called Osaka “too sunburned” and suggested she needed bleach. Osaka replied in good humor by plugging a sunscreen made by one of her sponsors.

That same year, Nissin Foods received wide criticism for releasing an animated ad portraying Osaka with pale skin, light brown hair and caucasian features. When asked about it by reporters, Osaka courteously suggested that any “whitewashing” had been unintentional.

Both episodes ended in apology, and the Nissin ad was pulled. These incidents suggest that Japan is unpracticed at handling multiculturalism, but it is encouraging that social media was abuzz with people who recognized the problems and were vocal about them. While Osaka elected to take the high road, many stepped up to call out injustices more directly.

Mental health and pressure

Naomi Osaka is standing up for mental health.

In 2021, Osaka withdrew from two Grand Slam tournaments, citing a need to tend to her mental health. She revealed that she suffered from severe bouts of anxiety and depression and that the obligatory post-match press conferences were agonizing for her.

Such a brave revelation remains jarring in the sports world, where athletes feel pressure to project an image of superhuman strength. It’s even more jarring in Japan, where mental health issues remain taboo and widely misunderstood.

On the one hand, Osaka received plenty of public backing from her sponsors, including domestic companies Nissin Foods and automaker Nissan. The Japan Tennis Association also voiced its support.

However, the stigmatization of people with mental health struggles that remains common in the country was hinted at by Osaka’s fellow Japanese tennis players. The Guardian quoted Misaki Doi saying, “I hope she doesn’t regret her decision [to withdraw from the French Open].” At the same time, Yoshihito Nishioka revealed he “wanted to see [Osaka] compete despite the hardships involved.” Such divided reactions likely represent the general public as well.

However, Osaka’s forthcomingness is bound to have a positive reaction on mental health care in Japan. The willingness to admit to vulnerability is contagious, and some will undoubtedly be more willing to do so by following the lead of someone as successful and admired as Osaka.

Starting a dialogue

Osaka is comfortable being a trailblazer in Japan, which she demonstrated through her strong support of the Black Lives Matter movement. During the U.S. Open in 2020, she wore a mask bearing the name of a different black person who had died at the hands of the police.

While this earned her praise from many overseas fans, it caused uneasiness in Japan, where the BLM campaign is poorly understood. Japanese media often focused its coverage on the more extreme and destructive end of the protests and failed to provide adequate context for the reasons behind the demonstrations.

A now-infamous NHK report “explained” the protests with an animated segment featuring crude caricatures of intimidating black people and somehow failed to mention George Floyd, whose brutal killing had ignited the entire movement. So perhaps it’s understandable that some viewers came away wary of Osaka’s involvement.

That hesitancy also spilled over into the tennis star’s business relationships. In a Mainichi Shimbun article, a source connected to a Japanese sponsor of Osaka’s worried about her Black Lives Matter activism would tarnish the brand’s image and wished that she’d attract more attention for her tennis than for her advocacy.

During the trophy presentation, Osaka was asked what message she had hoped to send through the seven masks she wore.

“Well, what was the message that you got? [That’s] more the question,” she responded. “The point is to make people start talking.”

A Japanese symbol

It will become a defining moment in Japanese sports history: Osaka, her braids dyed red and white to match the Japanese flag, lighting the cauldron at the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Her selection for such a prestigious role perhaps suggests that Japan has begun to accept its superstar athlete.

As she accumulates titles and accolades, her likeness will become even more of a constant domestically and as a recognizable symbol of Japan overseas. But, no matter how rocky a road it may be, one point has become abundantly clear: Osaka is here to stay.

That feeling is mutual. Osaka recently gave up her American passport in compliance with Japanese law, which requires those with dual citizenship to choose before their 22nd birthday. With that decision, she decided to accept the challenges that come with representing Japan. Thus, she is officially on a course of her own making.

She is a part of Japan, as Japan is a part of her.

What are your thoughts? Do you see Japan’s views on multiculturalism and identity changing for the better? Let us know in the comments!

Image credits

  • Lead: GaijinPot photo illustration/Derivative of “Melbourne Australia: Champion Nagomi Osaka on the training court” by Rob Keating. Licensed under CC 2.0.

  • Top: Flickr/Carine06. Cropped from original. Licensed under CC-SA2

  • Middle: Flickr/Peter Menzel. Cropped from original. Licensed under CC-SA2.0

  • Bottom: YouTube/11Alive

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