I want to say congratulations to Naomi Osaka for winning the US Open last weekend, soundly defeating her hero and template, tennis legend Serena Williams. But Ms. Osaka, I don’t think you have idea what you’ve gotten yourself into by deciding to play for Japan.
Debito.org has talked extensively in the past how Japan puts undue pressure on its athletes (especially in international competitions, since national pride and issues of superiority-inferiority come into play very quickly), sometimes with fatal results. Doubly so for “haafu” Japanese, since questions about their identity and loyalties seep in to complicate things further. There are plenty of examples of Japanese with diverse backgrounds being discounted or disqualified from being “true” Japanese when they don’t win something (such as international beauty pageants). But when they do win (as seen numerous times with Japan’s Nobel Laureates, many of whom have long left Japan, taken foreign citizenships, and even said that they wouldn’t have gotten their achievements if they had remained in Japan), it’s suddenly because they are “Japanese”. But most of that support will only continue if she continues to win. Otherwise, given Japan’s constant self-conception as radicalized entities, she’d be losing tournaments because of her mixed-ness (as has been claimed about Japan’s rugby teams and figure skaters). She’s not pure enough as a haafu to measure up.
So why do it? The NYT notes why Ms. Osaka’s father decided she should represent Japan: “”If Osaka played under the American flag, it’s very unlikely that these [highly-lucrative] opportunities would exist. Japanese companies would have no reason to court her and U.S. brands would have other higher-ranked young guns to consider, like Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens. But as Japan’s top-ranked player, Osaka has the full attention of the country’s top brands, whose sponsorship fees can run far higher than those of their Western counterparts.”
Then all Ms. Osaka’s talent and youthful energy may wind up being frittered away dealing with Japan’s pressure on their sports representatives — a pressure of perfectionism that expects Japanese champions to remain champions no matter what. In essence, this approach, decided by Ms. Osaka’s father, to make her a bigger-fish-in-a-smaller-pond may backfire, becoming the millstone around her neck: a drag that could shorten her overall career if not her life. Again, I congratulate Ms. Osaka on her success, and wish her the best of luck. But I really don’t think she knows what she’s gotten herself into.