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

  • Not sure what to make of Ms. Osaka. She seems to have escaped the scrutiny that comes with being a “halfu” in Japan by moving to the U.S., but has taken on Japanese citizenship. There was a lady, I believe some post about her here, Ariana who is halfu and suffered quite a bit, but speaks native Japanese and conducts interviews in Japanese, even to the foreign media who took an interest in her.. It “appears” Osaka does not speak Japanese, but she has a Japanese mother, and spent some of her formative years in Japan. As a gaijin, I often feign not speaking Japanese when confronted with uncomfortable or intrusive questions (all the norm in Japan). Not saying Osaka is doing this, but I find her to be quite the outlier. Shes Japanese but doesnt speak any Japanese….that doesnt fit well into the Japan world I live in. Interesting.

  • I ‘ll bite. Several unfortunate cultural and dare I say it, racial things at play. Osaka has perhaps inherited the “Japan as Victim” complex and hypersensitivity/perennially butthurt from that culture?
    Just asking the question.
    Yet, she has been largely shielded from the harsh realities of living in Japan ordinary people face by 1. leaving and 2. fame.
    However, as others have predicted, start to lose matches and they will drop you like a hot potato.

    I will not comment on her American background as this is a site about Japan. But I think overall her self identity issues are a factor in her playing the role of “Spoilt Millenial” to a tee. Her Life Matters.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Being told ‘you suck!’?
    Terrible. I’d hate to see her meltdown when she gets told to ‘go home gaijin’ and told she’s not ‘real Japanese’ or barred from the onsen for not ‘looking Japanese’.

  • @ Jim. She is obviously hyper sensitive to criticism and that is quite common in Japan, IMHO.
    However, so long as she is recognized, she can benefit from the exceptionalist Celeb Worship in Japan, though it may not last all her life.
    Unless she employs a Gaijin Handler (which she can do) to explain why she she be allowed into the onsen etc because she was once a famous tennis player with a Japanese surname.

    I recall once asking for directions from a woman outside Jonathans in a remote part of Kanto. She replied in fluent American accented English but then a Gaijin Handler came rushing up saying “You cant talk to her, she is a famous Korean TV tarento in Japan” Actually a very minor, short lived one we have never heard of and I replied as such, with a similar name to Yong sama (the famous one), she went back to Korea, got married and then bad mouthed Japan which is apparently a rite of passage there, thereby burning her bridges.

    So, so long as Naomi can always have a hired gopher shepherding her around, she can maintain an illusion of ivory tower isolation from any negative experiences.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Ahhh, now it makes sense!
    Osaka thinks she’s one of the ‘erai-hito’ and hecklers should be pounced upon by a dozen plain clothes and uniformed cops who push them down the street for a dozen meters and follow them around afterwards?

    How does this fit with her BLM police brutality thing?

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Actually, Abe is also known to be thin-skinned and gets pissy when heckled. Maybe that’s why after he was heckled doing a stump speech in Tokyo last time he ran, he switched to bussing the same group of supporters around the country to cheer him on when his speeches were shown on the news?

  • @ JDG Looks like Abe is continuing the tradition of his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi. I guess removing people with different opinions runs in the family.

  • @ Niklas, Kishi Nobu-sukebe (pun intended) was most notable for being a Class A war criminal and a sex addict though I am not sure if he used comfort women or just bullied waitresses into sex (“as a part of his dining experience”) and secondly for being the “Vampire of Manchuria” in a recent play which alleges his abuse of Chinese women, but also Kishi was nicknamed the “Monster of the Shōwa era” (昭和の妖怪; Shōwa no yōkai) (岩見隆夫 (2012). 昭和の妖怪岸信介. 中央公論新社. ISBN 978-4122057234. The author Takao Iwami (under his pseudonym 田尻育三)
    in which ‘ he saw little point in following legal or juridical procedures because he felt the Chinese were more akin to dogs than human beings and would only understand brute force” (Driscoll 2010, P266).

    And thirdly for mishandling of the 1960 revision of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty led to the massive 1960 Anpo protests, which were the largest protests in Japan’s modern history and which forced him to resign in disgrace.

    I cant find any reference to him removing people who disagreed with him, though a fourth shameful thing Kishi did was create the infamous 1955 System, thus ensuring LDP dominance of politics forevermore and dooming the Japanese to a backward looking society.
    As this system is tantamount to indeed removing opposition parties from ever having a fair chance, while maintaining a fig leaf of democratic charade, I suppose it does indeed run in the family though I could not find particular instances of Kishi removing (Japanese) people per se. .
    I wonder why Abe venerated him so? Maybe he saw his sukebe-ness as virile? I would welcome any further insights into this anyone here has.

    —- Or not. We are now far afield from this blog post entry topic. Bring it back.

  • @Baudy I was talking about the May 19 incident where Kishi removed opposition members from parliament and passed the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty with only his party present to vote on it.

    „Finally on May 19, 1960, in the so-called “May 19 Incident,” Kishi suddenly called for a snap vote on the treaty.[13] When Socialist Diet members attempted a sit-in to block the vote, Kishi introduced 500 policemen into the Diet and had them physically removed from the halls of the Diet by police, and rammed the treaty through with only members of his own party present. Kishi’s actions were widely perceived as anti-democratic, and provoked nationwide outrage from across the political spectrum.

    I don‘t want to further derail from the original topic, but just wanted to explain what I meant by my original comment.

  • Michael Penn of SNA wrote about this column (forwarding with permission):

    “Debito found a way to provoke them again, and I must say that I don’t understand the way a lot of people think these days. Those who read the article and interacted with what was written tended to say on social media that they largely agreed with it. But there was a more vocal cohort who, not really disagreeing with any specific arguments made, were outraged on the basis that Debito, a white man, had dared to give any advice to Naomi Osaka. Apparently, we are now supposed to live self-contained within our own little tribal identities, and universal humanity is no longer recognized as sufficient grounds to express an opinion, even for a news columnist whose job is to comment on public affairs.”

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @Dr. Debito,
    Re: Micheal Penn’s comment;
    How dare anglophone SNA readers criticize Dr. Debito, a Japanese! That’s cultural imperialism right there!

    See, anyone can play this game. Not very productive is it?

    Yeah, I remember Osaka posting the monkey meme, the following outrage, and her total indignant surprise that she was criticized by Japanese. I guess that she just didn’t know that calling a Japanese a ‘monkey’ is as likely to cause offense as calling a black person the ‘N’ word. Boy seeing as she’s ‘culturally Japanese’ and all (as I’ve repeatedly been told), you’d have expected her to know about this.
    Or maybe she just knows absolutely nothing about racism in Japan (a few bad apples, like her maternal grandparents).

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