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


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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. 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. 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

UPDATE:  This has become the basis for one of my Japan Times columns.

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

  • Firstly, congratulations to her.
    Secondly, I do feel the umpire was relishing his chance to lord his white-male entitlement over a strong black woman (I remember seeing McEnroe and Agassi screaming the F-word at umpires without penalty).

    Miss. Osaka can feel as Japanese as she wants to. That’s fine. But (like Kisenosato) when Nishikori wins a grand-slam, she’ll be discarded because Kei is ‘the real thing’ (I know, he’ll never win, he’s over hyped, but that the ‘expectation trap’ that Naomi has just allowed herself to fall into).

    And what will happen a year and a half or so down the line when Japan ‘expects’ her to make a big spectacle of giving up her US citizenship to be a ‘loyal’ Japanese? Is she going to do that?

    • Loverilakkuma says:

      The umpire who directed the match was Carlos Ramos. He is a notorious referee for instigating the heat of argument with several tennis players including Nick Kyrgios, Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Venus Williams(a sister of Serena Williams). The man didn’t bother explain 1) why the first violation(“coaching”) would carry the same weight as the second violation(“slamming the racket”); and 2) how/what would happen if Serena kept arguing over the disputes. That’s his darn job, and he didn’t do that. If you have time to read any articles from JT, NYT, the Guardian, or USA Today, you will see a bunch of ignorant commenters who taunt Serena Williams with disgusting racial slur. Many of those idiots spend lots of time hurling garbage, being trapped in a cesspool of Williams vs.Osaka antagonism manufactured by the media. And most of these people don’t believe that there’s an overt sexism and gender discrimination in professional sports. So, I would say to them sarcastically, “If you think this bullcrap would never occur to Osaka, you’ve got another thing coming. In the heat of bashing Williams for standing up to social injustice or public advocacy you don’t like, you wouldn’t stand a chance to rally Osaka, should she get penalized stupid code violations in future games. Don’t bother waiting for that moment with a bated breath. I would greet you with the label of opportunistic hypocrisy and pseudo-political correctness, if you dare criticize the WTA for sexism and racism against her.”

      They wouldn’t even care that Osaka is subject to cultural double-bind for vulnerability to sexism(for being an athlete of color) and racism(half-Japanese meme).

      • Ramos didn’t need to explain the rules. Serena has been playing in tournaments for almost 20 years. He wasn’t heavy handed…and there isn’t any reason to quantify the relative levels of code violations. That isn’t how tennis works. If you are called for code violations, penalties are tiered and automatic. What Ramos IS known for is his fairness AND for his strict adherence to rules. Serena wasn’t the first to have been called for coaching (which was never in dispute). She’s a professional athlete…she should know all aspects of the competition she’s about to enter… including the nature of the presiding officials. Try reading Martina Navratilova’s take on the match. Also of note, while both Adams and Billy Jean King initially noted it was sexist, both have backed off significantly from that position in the last 48 hours (while still noting general sexist attitudes still exist in tennis), and Adams apologized to Ramos at the start of the Davis Cup tourney this week.
        As for the general premise of the original post, I am split. Our family is comprised of huge Osaka fans (my 9 year old has done well in tourneys both in the US and Japan) and my son has met and taken selfies with her a number of times. She offered confusing comments in Jan/Feb this year in response to a statement about her heritage (reporter outlined her American, but not Haitian) stating that she didn’t know what is was to be American while living largely an American experience (albeit a non-white one). I found this completely at odds with her claiming a Japanese cultural background given what we know about what her experience would have been had she actually grown up here (and hinted at by numerous stateside articles). NYT (I think) has also run an article, post title win, offering hope that she may bring a positive spin to Japan about biracial members of society….. I’ll believe that when the Japanese press calls out her grandparents for ostracizing them for daring to be outside what is expected…

        • Loverilakkuma says:

          Martina Navratilova has a valid point in criticizing Williams, but that doesn’t mean sexism against female athletes is a myth. Her main point is that Williams shouldn’t bring it up in the heat of game. Regardless of how people see Ramos as a judge, there’s no doubt that he’s the one set up the context for argument. Initial violation”coaching” is already confusing players, since it was randomly thown at all players whose coaches were caught showing hand gesture from the seat(11 of all 31 violations are “coaching.”) Many players don’t see that, but it doesn’t matter. You will receive a violation anyway. That’s the premise for “coaching.” Everything started from there. Slamming a racket alone may give one a warning, but not equal to penalty. You could receive a violation for other ways you express frustration(yelling, screaming), challenging ref over the call(fault, out of bounds), or where and when you change shirts(this happened to other athlete of color this US Open). That being said, any player(that includes Osaka) could receive a similar consequence even though you wouldn’t throw a tantrum like Williams. I don’t expect Osaka to behave like Williams, but there’s no gurantee that Osaka wouldn’t experience any sort of sexism/injustice in the court. She will be the next if she continues to play in Grand Slam tournaments for years. Hence, my bottom line. If Osaka faced penalty in the future games, call out sexism/racism at your own risk.

  • Wait and see. But please don’t “You see, I told ya” when your feared predictions come true. And I dearly hope and pray that they won’t.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    She represents Japan as a tennis player, and she holds a duel citizenship. So, it’s all up to her to claim which culture she loves to associate with. Since she’s spent most of her life in the US, how rule-bound culture and public scrutiny affect NJ in Japanese society is novel to her. That’s the matter of uncertainty that stands like a giant wall in front of her. Moreover, there’s another challenge she would likely face in future games(assuming if she pursues grand slams for her career). It’s sexism and public stigma in tennis court–which Serena Williams and female tennis players have been dealing with for years. The next day after the game, one Australian social media made a disgusting racial satire featuring an angry Williams stamping on a broken racket and Osaka(appeared in light-skin as if she were a white blonde) being asked by a chief ref to let her opponent win. That just doubles down the toxicity of racist epithet.

    It’s so easy for spectators following social media (who know nothing about the institutional reality of sexism and double-standard) to cheer Osaka and boo Williams for sports. They can walk away throwing a remote controller at the TV set during football games while teaching Williams how to behave in front of the ref, at the risk of being a hypocritical sexist. Never mind, Naomi Osaka is also an athlete of color, just like Serena Williams. If they think this happened because it’s Serena, they’ve got another thing coming. WTA is no friend of any female athletes in the first place, and this kind of injustice could also fall upon Naomi in the future. To those who bash Serena for “unprofessional” behavior, I would say, “Don’t think about coming back to the forum you’re in now and saving your breath for attack on the officials, if Osaka got penalized at the court for violating their bull-crap ruling in the future games. It’s too late. That only shows how stupid and hypocrite you are.”

  • There you go, it’s already started;

    “It’s not like Kei, who is a pure Japanese player.” Miyako Kamei, a middle-aged Japanese fan watching Nishikori warm up on a back court at the Citi Open in Washington, said, “We all support Naomi, but Japanese fans tend to like those players who have come up purely on Japanese power.”

    Ahh, that mysterious ‘Japanese power’. Where’s that been hiding all this time?

    • Ah yes, and the equivocation of Western media shows its ugly head again. Can you imagine a spectator saying of a black/white mixed player, “I wish he/she had come up purely on white power,” and not be immediately labeled a flaming bigot? But Wajin make the exact same remark and get a free pass. Disgusting.

    • When she loses, Japan’s stance will shift again:

      Quietly 「やっぱり、ハーフは日本の魂がない」
      “As suspected, halfs don’t have Nippon soul.”

      • Brooks Slaybaugh says:

        Well, there is already a comedian making fun of her way of talking.
        If she got better at Japanese, it would help her interviews.
        The media have been to her grandfather’s home in Nemuro, and he has been on TV.

          • Brooks Slaybaugh says:

            It is open to debate. She gets corporate sponsorship here, more than she could get in the US. Maybe more positive media coverage than in America.

  • So, youre a victim of disaster, waiting for belated aid. Or youre still homeless after Fukushima but hey, cheer up, a Haitian Japanese won the tennis! Well, ringading!

    PM Abe tweeting her no less. I wonder if she feels obliged to reply? What if, like John Lennon or Faye Wong(China, turned down appearing at the Olympics), you dont want that government praise or pressure? I hope she does a Southern All Stars and tells him where to go.
    Although Kuwata was foreced to apologize, though not for the Abe spoof per se

  • Hmmm…,

    “Japan’s newly-crowned U.S. Open women’s singles champion Naomi Osaka arrived back in Japan”.'s-welcome-in-Japan

    ‘Arrived back in Japan’?
    In order to ‘arrive back’ don’t you first have to set out from Japan?
    Did she leave Japan to go to the US to play Serena? (No).
    Did she live in the US before the tennis match? (Yes).

    But hey, she’s ‘Japanese’ so she’s ‘back home’ now despite living in the US.

    • Loverilakkuma says:

      Sorry for nitpicking. But, she was actually born in Japan and lived there until 3. Her parents registered her along her older sister as a Japanese citizen in their Koseki. So, “Arrive back in Japan” is not necessarily wrong. Other than that, your questions are spot-on.

      J-media never cease to make a load of Japaneseness bull-crap. At the press conference yesterday, I learned that Japanese reporters greeted her with a bunch of stupid questions relating to her like of Japanese foods/culture, instead of her performance in the game and her goal in the career.

      — Right. They received her like any other foreign celebrity visitor. So much for the “arrived back in Japan” headline.

      • Yeah, I watched the press conference too. Of course, none of the reporters asked her questions in English because she’s Japanese! Hence lots of waits for translations….
        …or maybe they just couldn’t find anyone on their editorial staff who has sufficient grasp of English to go interview her?

        And yes, instead of asking her about her experience, the questions were all navel-gazing ‘what do you like about Japan’, ‘what’s your favorite Japanese food’, ‘what do you want to see in Japan’ passive-aggressive Japan praise elicititation questions. The reporters were desperate for her ‘Japan praising’.

        • “Do you like Japan?” Cynical NJ: “Yes, Tin Drum was their best album. Thats the one with Mao on the cover”
          (Hint, the answer must be “yes”, even if, like Julia Roberts, you have never been there!)

      • Japan doesnt have much money these days, and this dovetails with the odd line of cultural questioning.
        I think its time for celebs to dismiss the irrelevant fluff questions already, kind of like “lose the J cultural questions like “Can you use chopsticks?” (to see how Japanese I am) and complete the sports interview”

        Connected tangent, about western artists not coming to Japan, e.g. Adele.
        “Thompson says that Japanese promoters used to be successful at negotiating fees down because so many artists wanted to play Japan.”
        Sounds like Intern Exploitation, because, ya know, Japan has unique Sushi and cool anime, and Gwen Stephani likes Harajuku, so she’ll come for free!

        But now, Japan passing is in full swing. The game is up.
        “But now the artists can go somewhere else and make three times as much money,”

        And what if the celeb just couldnt care less about Japan?

        So, as Japan looks ever more inwardly, the only international Celebs coming will be those with a birth connection to Japan, and then it becomes all about how “Japanese” they really are, or naive anime fans coming as a one-off.

        So kono’s silly nonsensical comment about how Japan now welcomes workers doesnt matter if Japan *cannot pay for workers*.
        Hence the intern exploitation. Okane ga nai yo.

  • Oh, hang on! Now I’m REALLY confused!

    ‘Kono cited sports stars including tennis sensation Naomi Osaka, the daughter of a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, as an example of the benefits of welcoming outsiders.’

    So Naomi is legally Japanese, but because she looks black, this is an example of Japan ‘accepting foreigners’? Is it easier for Japan to ‘accept foreign workers’ if they are resident in the USA?

    Basically, the Naomi’s legal status has thrown this guy into a cognitive dissonance meltdown as his illogical and conflicting ideas about 21st century legal concepts of nationality and pseudoscience mumbo-jumbo about ‘race’ have come crashing into each other.

  • I’ve woken up properly now. I know what it is about Kono’s statement that annoys me.

    Naomi ISN’T an NJ who lives in Japan (see how diverse and easy for NJ to live in Japan is?).
    Naomi IS a Japanese who lives in America!

    I guess he actually just insulted her.

  • Yeah, Naomi should take a lesson from Julia Roberts…”A veteran male announcer coached her on how to conduct a conversation with a foreign celebrity and advised her to save her best question for last. That turned out to be, “Do you like Japan?” Having only arrived the day before, Roberts responded the only way she could. “This is all I know about Japan,” she said, indicating the room.

    The question was pointless but representative. ”

  • As Debito predicted news programs are starting to debate about Naomi 日本人らしさ
    it took only one week to gp back to typical Japanese mentality

    • As I have always maintained about doing business, or anything, in Japan, its all about an endless analysis of personality (and how it fits in with “typical Japanese”) rather than the content or advantages your business has to offer. If you have a personality certain seniors like, it trumps business opportunities and even money you are bringing in.

      I remember one time I offered to save an ailing business by bringing in a new demographic of customers (NJ) they couldnt. The owner says OK, lets try.You can be the manager.
      A week later, he gets talking to a young, inexperienced Japanese guy at a Chinese airport and offers him the role of manager! Purely based on personality.

      Needless to say he got in the way, always vetoing any request I had, forgetting cash is king (not sure it is in Japan). I had a fight with him, he tried to frame me for drugs, I left and the business collapsed a couple of months later.

      Anecdotal but I have many.

  • realitycheck says:

    I am bumping this as recently Naomi Osaka has been on twitter sending shots at people – probably white – in the USA who like African American culture but are not getting involved in key issues such as racism.
    That is her right especially as a woman of black and Asian ethnicity.
    As tragically seen a few days ago, the death of African American George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minnesota blatantly captured on video reminds us that minorities in western cuontries, especially African Americans, quite rightly feel targeted by personal and systemic racism.
    However, I would like to have commented on Ms Osaka’s twitter as reported in the LA Times but couldn’t.
    Where are your comments Naomi when African men are choked to death on airplanes at Narita because they are being deported by Immigration police despite being residents of Japan and having family ties here?
    Where are you when other non Japanese have been subjected to the same treatment as George Floyd although in a different context?
    I am not on twitter but I urge those of you who are to tweet Naomi some home truths about the Japan she refuses to publicly talk about. Different country from the USA but a similar horrendous attitude by authorities and a population that smugly tells us there is no racism in Japan.

    • David Markle says:

      I doubt she spends enough time in her ‘adopted native country’ to even qualify as a tourist, much less spend enough time here to find out what being a gaijin is really like.


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