Naomi Osaka’s US Open victory over Serena Williams: Congratulations, but I don’t think you know what you’re getting yourself into.

mytest

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Hi Blog. First off, 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.

And I say this with all the commensurate respect to her and Ms. Williams, whom I also believe had every right to protest her treatment at the hands of a heavy-handed tennis umpire, who made the game about him and his punitive powers, and not about keeping the match civil, orderly, or fair in terms of gender-parity of rules enforcement. There, that’s where I stand on that.

But Ms. Osaka, I don’t think you have any idea what you’ve gotten yourself into by deciding to play tennis for Japan.

Now, another first off: this blog entry is NOT to dispute whether Ms. Osaka is “Japanese” or not. She has Japanese and American citizenships, so of course legally she is Japanese. Further, if she wishes to self-identify as a Japanese, that is her right as an individual. Debito.org has always supported the right of individuals to decide their identity for themselves, and not suffer identity policing from others. Ms. Osaka is a Japanese. And an American. And a Haitian, her father’s background. Bravo for this confluence of diverse influences to produce a world-class athlete.

But where I think a problem arises, in terms of self-awareness as a Japanese sports champion representing Japan, is illustrated by the following video:


Courtesy http://www.haitianinternet.com/photos/naomi-osaka-answers-how-haitian-and-japanese-culture-made-he.html

Text: “I was born in Osaka. I came to New York when I was three. I moved from New York to Florida when I was about eight or nine. And then I’ve been training in Florida since… My dad’s Haitian, so I grew up in a Haitian household in New York. I lived with my Grandma. And my mom’s Japanese, and I grew up with the Japanese culture too. And if you’re saying American, I guess because I lived in America I have that too.”

I can see how living in America for just about all of your life (the past seventeen of your twenty years) could make you “American”. I could also see how growing up in a Haitian household could deepen that ethnic tie to Haiti. But I don’t think she’s thought this through well:

It seems a bit dangerous to assume that just because your mother is Japanese, that makes you representatively “Japanese” (especially in a society where the very real phenomenon of kikoku shijou, “Returnee Japanese Students”, suffer ethnic and cultural displacement after only a year or less of being educated abroad during primary and secondary school years).

Compound that with the fact that you don’t read, write, or speak much Japanese beyond the “Kitchen Japanese” level (or as Nikkan Sports renders her abilities, “kikitori wa aru teido rikai suru ga, hanasu no wa nigate“, or “can understand Japanese somewhat when it’s being spoken to her, but speaking isn’t her thing”). But she likes Japanese Anime and Manga, eats unagi and sushi (as the Japanese media has dutifully reported). Somehow that’ll… do?

Again, Ms. Osaka can claim her “Japaneseness”, but it will be a hard road ahead for her given Japan’s unreal expectations of Japanese athletes.

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”.

Let’s call it “Nippon-Claiming“. It’s a common phenomenon in radicalized societies where “They’ll Claim Us If We’re Famous”. And now with this landmark victory at the US Open, Ms. Osaka has been claimed. (She’s even had the rare honor of having her name rendered all in Kanji and Hiragana, not Katakana, in the Japanese press.)

But most of that will only continue if she continues to win. Otherwise, given Japan’s constant self-conception of “Japanese” 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 did she choose to represent Japan?  It wasn’t exactly because of deep emotional ties.  The New York Times discussed it in a feature on her dated August 23, 2018:

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“Though born in Japan, Osaka has lived in the United States since she was 3. She is not fully fluent in Japanese. Yet nearly a decade ago, her father decided that his two daughters would represent Japan, not America. It was a prescient move.

“…The United States Tennis Association showed little interest in helping [Naomi Osaka and her sister Mari] develop. Rather than vie for support with hundreds of other talented young players in America, [Naomi’s father] Francois made a pivotal decision: His daughters, from age 13, would play for Japan, the nation they left behind nearly a decade earlier…

“The decision to play for Japan has had major repercussions in Osaka’s life, from the way she is perceived in Japan and the United States to the size of the endorsement contracts she can now command as a top Japanese athlete ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics… The Japan Tennis Association, facing a drought of top female players, offered them an opportunity. But for Tamaki and Francois, who spent many years in Japan himself, it was natural for the girls to play in the country where they were born, even if the parent’s own memories of the place were tinged with anger and regret.

“…[Ms.] Osaka has been embraced by Japanese media, companies and fans hungering for a female tennis star. Nissin, one of the world’s largest instant-noodle companies, has already signed her to a lucrative deal, as has Wowow, the tennis channel that broadcasts her matches in Japan. The Osaka camp plans to announce a large new endorsement deal before the U.S. Open, and other Japanese multinationals are circling. Osaka’s biggest payday may come at the end of the year, when her Adidas shoe-and-apparel contract expires — just in time for the prelude to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“If Osaka played under the American flag, it’s very unlikely that these 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.”

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That NYT feature also concludes presciently:

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“In Japan, sports fans already know who Osaka is: She’s the rising star playing for the land of the rising sun. Her Japanese might not be perfect, her appearance not traditional. But the barriers may ultimately be no match for success. ‘If Naomi wins a Grand Slam, the other things won’t matter as much,’ Fukuhara says. ‘All of Japan would embrace her.’”

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True. But the problem is the converse will also be true: if she doesn’t continue to win, that support evaporates.

And all Ms. Osaka’s talent and youthful energy may wind up being frittered away dealing with the limitless pressure put upon representatives of Japanese society — 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. Dr. Debito Arudou

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Farrah on Hamamatsu’s city-sponsored “Gaijin Day” event: Problematic wording and execution, esp. given the history of Hamamatsu, and who attended.

mytest

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Hi Blog.  I didn’t want to bring this up until after the event was over, but check out this poster for “Gaijin Day”, sponsored by enough people (including the City of Hamamatsu in Shizuoka Prefecture) to make it normal and unproblematized.

Source:  https://www.hamamatsucastle.com/がいじんの日-the-gaijin-day-2018/ (bigger scanned reproduction below)

Some people did see a problem, and one, Farrah, reported what happened there to Debito.org.  My comment follows hers.

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From: Farrah
Subject: Comments – Gaijin Festival
Date: September 2, 2018
To: debito@debito.org

In late-August, an ALT friend of mine from Kansai told me about this event that was happening in Hamamatsu, called, “Gaijin Day”. Amused and slightly offended by the wording, she was actually interested in coming all the way down to my neck of the woods to attend it. The flyer for the event went viral in many expat groups on social media, and posts were flooded with comments about the title of the event. I figured that the organizers chose to call this event “Gaijin Day” to get lots of attention, and they did.

At first I thought that it would merely be a spectacle of foreigners flying into Japan to perform. But when I looked at the list, it was a bunch of people who were sansei/yonsei, Japanese people of mixed-heritage who lived in the Tokai region. I was immediately offended by the name of the event at that point. This is my fifth year living in Hamamatsu, and I’ve done extensive ethnographic research on Brazilian and Peruvian immigrant communities since November of last year. I know that referring to such an established part of the Japanese diaspora as merely “gaijin” was inaccurate and disrespectful. The worst part of all was that the Hamamatsu City Government and HICE Center (Hamamatsu Foundation for International Communication and Exchange) were the main sponsors for the event.

Hamamatsu has the highest immigrant population in Japan (22,260 immigrant residents as of July 2017), with the highest Brazilian population in the entire country. Actually, the population was almost double in Japan before 2007, but the Japanese government offered cash payments to nikkeijin to leave Japan permanently to reduce the immigrant population. From 2009-2010, they were offered around ¥300,000 per worker and ¥200,000 per dependent willing to leave Japan. About 20,000 nikkeijin took the offer, with the amount of Brazilian and Peruvian immigrants shrinking by more than 87,000 combined. The permanent leave requirement was reduced to three years, with many former residents coming back for employment in Hamamatsu and the Tokai region. This change in the permanent leave policy may be in response to the fact that Japan’s population is declining (with the elderly population increasing), leaving the country dependent on immigrant workers.

“To serve as a viable solution for Japan’s aging, immigrants would need to make up at least 10 percent of the overall population by some estimates—an unfeasibly large number by most accounts given the strong preference that remains for ethnic and cultural homogeneity and the public backlash that would likely ensue.” (Council of Europe)

This city should be an example of what living in a diverse and multicultural society would look like for the rest of Japan. However, there is little intercultural inclusion or integration between these communities. Most of these immigrants are not ALTs or eikaiwa teachers. They are Brazilian, Peruvian, Filipino, Indonesian, and Chinese people with mixed Japanese heritage. Many of them work in factories for car/train parts and in tea-picking farms. To call these long-term residents with Japanese grandparents (at least) “gaijin” is incredibly disturbing.

When I would read comments that supported the idea of referring to the performers as “gaijin”, I realized that majority of these people, Japanese and non-Japanese, were unaware about the legacy and the history of immigrant Japanese communities. Many of these people were born and raised in Japan, and many of them speak Japanese. I teach at a public high school with a lot of students from these communities, and majority of them speak Japanese as native speakers and have never went to their parents’/grandparents’ “home” countries. Their main cultural identity and mentality is Japanese, and yet they’re labeled as “gaijin” simply because they have a multicultural and multiethnic background. Why does having another culture to be proud of cancel their eligibility to be “Japanese”?

When I shared the flyer with my own comments on Facebook, I received over 100 responses from friends and acquaintances alike. I noticed that the non-Japanese people who disagreed with the idea of sansei/yonsei being labeled as “gaijin” as harmful were white Americans, Canadians, and Australians. They’re not minorities in their own countries, and in the end, they can always be reassured that they belong to their home countries without such backlash. They are completely desensitized and inexperienced with the concept of carrying a politicized multicultural identity because they never had to experience it in their home countries. I am first-generation American, and my parents are also immigrants. I have more personal experience being a minority in my own home country. I am constantly questioned about my identity by white Americans (and even by Japanese people at times), despite the fact that I was born and raised in the US and speak in English as a native speaker. When you’re a person of color or a minority in the place where you were born and raised, you face lots of scrutiny and oppression on your identity.

After holding many interviews with families and talking to my students about these issues in my research (as well as casual conversations), I have learned that being labeled as a “gaijin” as a mixed-race Japanese resident in Japan can be harmful to their self-image and identity. Majority of them have told me that even in Brazil and Peru, locals perceive them as “Japanese”, so they feel that they cannot fit into either country. The US may have their problems with racism, prejudice, and discrimination, but at least there are many support systems and articles out there that can reassure that minorities do belong. Japan does not have the same kind of representation or support for sansei/yonsei members in their society.

I actually attended the “Gaijin Day” event later on. It was located next to Hamamatsu Station, so it was inevitable to attend it anyways. As I thought, the vendors were all Brazilian and Peruvian, and they spoke to me in Japanese with little hesitation. There were also cell phone companies targeting Brazilian and Peruvian residents, holding up signs in Japanese, Portuguese, and English. Two individuals hosted the event: A full-Japanese radio host from Hamamatsu, and a Brazilian-Japanese performer who lived in Nagoya. Majority of the people in the audience were also Brazilian, but did not live in Hamamatsu. Some of what the hosts said irked me at times. “Today, we are all gaijin!” “Why do you have all these signs in Japanese? The Brazilians can’t read them!” I felt that the way the event was commenced also re-enforced stereotypes and constantly misused/over-used the term, “gaijin”. Most of my Filipino, Brazilian, and Peruvian friends refused to attend because of the naming of the event. “If I go there, I’m saying it’s okay to call me ‘gaijin’ even though I pay the same taxes and have a Japanese last name.”

The event was coordinated by two Brazilian men in their 40s, who came to Japan later in their adulthood. I tried to politely ask them about why they decided to call this event, “Gaijin Day”, but they immediately asked me about my heritage and said that it was not an issue to them because they identify themselves as “gaijin”. My yonsei and Japanese friends also received the same harsh responses when they tried to discuss the issue over the phone; it was as if the decision to label their community as “gaijin” was an autocratic decision with the concept of the sansei/yonsei population as a monolith. There was not a survey available to express my opinion at the event, either.

While I do understand that some residents from these communities, especially nikkei residents, mainly identify as “gaijin”, many of them also refuse to adhere to the label, especially newer generations of yonsei residents in Japan. Unlike the organizers of this event, many of them were born and raised in Japan, and plan to live here for the rest of their life. And yet, they are being labeled as “gaijin” by other people, not by choice. The idea behind language reclamation (taking back a slur/derogatory term and using it positively) does not function with this event because there is little to reclaim. The idea that mixed-race sansei/yonsei are legitimate Japanese people isn’t even established in the mainstream, and it’s under the assumption that every single person in the diaspora views themselves as non-Japanese, which is far from the truth.

Here is the main problem: when you decide to publicize a huge event that profits off of how diverse and multicultural your city is, the last thing you should do is use language that excludes the community that makes it special. Brazilian and Peruvian residents are already discriminated against a lot by Japanese locals in Hamamatsu. Japanese peers, teachers, and authority figures constantly tell them that they are “gaijin”. The reason why some older Brazilian and Peruvian residents especially have a hard time learning Japanese is because they are not really given much government support, and because the Japanese community does not welcome them as equals. The city government only recently created programs to help mixed-race residents learn Japanese a few years ago.

Imagine being a yonsei child who was born and raised in Japan, mainly speaks Japanese, and attends a Japanese public school (where students might call you “gaijin” if you can’t pass as Japanese or if you have a non-Japanese name). You come to a huge event that refers to you and everyone in your community as a “gaijin”. How are you supposed to feel?

Some may argue that this is a sign of progress; you’re supporting local businesses and performers who are sansei/yonsei. However, I see it as very regressive and problematic to a huge degree. They are remotely far from being “gaijin”, and you’re promoting the multicultural communities here at their own expense by reminding them that they’re not fully Japanese. They are a legitimate part of the Japanese diaspora and Japan itself. I think the Japanese diaspora seems to be the only one in the world where many people claim that possessing any other heritage/culture automatically makes you not Japanese at all.

On the signs of the event, the slogan is, “The Gaijin Day: We live in Japan together!”

Yes, you can live in Japan together, but you will always be separate. You will always be classed as non-Japanese. Having any heritage or culture mixed in will cancel out your Japanese identity. That’s the message that you are sending to the mixed-race residents here, especially to the younger generations. And that’s a very toxic message to send.  Farrah.

Sources:

http://www.hi-hice.jp/index.php
https://rm.coe.int/city-of-hamamatsu-intercultural-profile/168076dee5

ENDS

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COMMENT FROM DEBITO:  First, it is disappointing that the site of Gaijin no Hi is Hamamatsu.  Given Hamamatsu’s special history with NJ residents (particularly its very progressive Hamamatsu Sengen of 2001), using exclusionary language such as “Gaijin” (given its history as an epithet as well; see below) feels truly, as Farrah put it, regressive.

Have they also learned nothing from the Toyoda Sengen of 2004 and Yokkaichi Sengen of 2006?  (I guess not; but surely the Japanese officials behind this weren’t similarly bribed to leave Japan in 2009?!)

Second, about that word Gaijin.  As I’ve argued before, it’s essentially a radicalized epithet with “othering” dynamics similar to “nigger”.  My arguments for that are in my Japan Times columns here, here, and here.

Bad form, Hamamatsu.  You should know better by now.  And if not by now, how much will it take?  That’s the power of Embedded Racism:  It even overcomes history.  Dr. Debito Arudou

The poster in higher resolution (click to expand):

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