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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:
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 racialized 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 racialized 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:
“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.”
That NYT feature also concludes presciently:
“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.’”
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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