My SNA Visible Minorities column 32: “On the Naomi Osaka Heckling” at Indian Wells tournament (March 21, 2022)


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Hi Blog. This semester has been an extremely busy one, so I haven’t had much time to blog. All my writing energies are being devoted to creating lectures. Sorry. Anyway, here’s my latest SNA column. Debito Arudou, PhD

Shingetsu News Agency
Visible Minorities: On the Naomi Osaka Heckling

SNA (Tokyo) — At a recent tournament in Indian Wells, California, Japan tennis champion Naomi Osaka was heckled by some troll in the audience who shouted out “you suck!” while she was playing on court.

That reduced Osaka to tears. She asked the referee if she could address the crowd, then asked to have the troll ejected. Both requests were denied, and play resumed. Osaka then lost in straight sets.

In post-game comments, Osaka tearfully noted the distraction and compared her situation to a 2001 incident where Venus and Serena Williams faced crowd abuse, again at Indian Wells. The Williamses boycotted the venue for more than a decade after that.

Fortunately, this time Osaka’s heckler was the outlier. The audience at the venue, fellow players afterwards, media and internet chatter were overwhelmingly supportive of her.

Still, others noted that Osaka needs to develop a thicker skin.

I’m afraid I agree.

Osaka has been around on this circuit for quite a while. She’s now 24, and obviously has the talent to be world champion. Now the question is, given the choices she’s made, does she have the mettle to maintain it?

Osaka has been around on this circuit for quite a while.  She’s now 24, and obviously has the talent to be world champion.  Now the question is, does she have the mettle to maintain it?

Remember, these are the choices she made:  As I’ve written before in a Japan Times column, “Warning to Naomi Osaka:  Playing for Japan can seriously shorten your career” (September 19, 2018), she chose to represent Japan, a country with a long history of putting grueling (sometimes fatal) pressure on its athletes.  They’re expected to put their country first and their personal best a distant second.

And it’s further complicated by the fact that Osaka is a Visible Minority in Japan, moreover living the preponderance of her life in America and remaining unproficient in Japanese.  

That means, like for so many Visible Minorities in Japan, her foreignness is tolerated as long as she keeps winning.  Put simply:  If she wins, her Japanese half is celebrated.  If she loses, her Non-Japanese half is to blame.  

And she’s not winning.  She’s skipped tournaments due to mental health issues and underperformed in the recent ones she’s attended.  Despite having the honor of lighting the Olympic flame in Tokyo 2021, she only made it to the third round in the tennis event.  Currently she’s dropped to 78th in the world rankings.

That is all tragic, especially since her Japanese sponsors will someday start questioning their money’s worth, as she’s the highest paid female athlete in history.  She’s also used her status (rightly) to visibly advocate for minority causes in America, including BLM (but notably, not for fellow Visible Minorities in Japan; she even ironically dismissed racism in Japan as merely a matter of “a few bad apples”).  

But here’s the point:  What is Osaka’s goal?

If she wishes to settle for the celebrity status of “famous for being famous,” then mission accomplished.  Tennis or no tennis, she can continue to attend her gala events and model for magazine covers and advocate for her causes.  Those are her life choices, so power to her.

But if she wishes to remain a tennis champ, especially one representing and compensated by Japan, she’s going to have to develop some focus.

No matter what, there will be detractors.  That’s the hazard of being a public figure, especially as a Japanese athlete.  And her championing off-court issues like human rights attracts even more detractors.  

I speak from some experience here.  While I am by no means an athlete and cannot claim to be a world champion at anything, I too have fought for human rights causes in Japan.  I’ve kept a sustained public campaign against racial discrimination in Japan for decades, writing several books and garnering domestic and international media attention against “Japanese Only” signs and rules.  We took our case all the way to Japan’s Supreme Court and made it clear to the world, despite all the denialists, that racial discrimination is an embedded, systemic reality in Japan.

That too brings forth detractors who think that pointing out something shameful in Japan is shameful in itself.  As do the trolls of the Global Far Right, who hold up Japan as their model ethnostate, and from them I get death threats on a weekly basis.

But my goal has always been straightforward:  Get a national law passed against racial discrimination in Japan with criminal penalties.  It might not happen in my lifetime, but that remains my focus and I pay the trolls no heed.

As should Osaka.  At some point in time she’s going to have to stop letting hecklers take her power away.  This is that point in time.

Look, if it’s a matter of unfairness in the rules, or something that targets her because of things she cannot change (such as her racial and ethnic background), by all means, protest that.  Racism should never be tolerated.

But a matter of a generic “You suck!”, while unpleasant and undeserved, is something people her age should have learned to deal with by now.  

Bullies will always exist, and you’ll probably encounter them outside of Indian Wells.  Showing them that they have the power to affect you like that only emboldens them further.  Reclaim that power by showing them you’re stronger than they are.  Be unfazed.  Otherwise you will appear to lack the mettle to stay champion, and they, not you, will accomplish their goals.

Yes, it’s Indian Wells’ job to create a comfortable and level playing field for athletes, and they should have taken responsibility for that.  It’s our job as the general public to make sure those conditions are in fact enforced and to support our favorite athletes.  If Indian Wells isn’t going to cooperate, then yes, boycott the place.  

But it’s still the athlete’s job to train both physically and mentally and play their personal best.  

So do your best, Naomi Osaka.  Enforce what you can, tune out what you can’t.  That’s what champions do.  That’s the path you chose, and to a certain degree these detractors come with it.  

As you might say, dismiss them in your mind as just “a few bad apples.”


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