The controversy over the behavior of Serena Williams at the US Open final overshadowed the powerful performance of the winner Naomi Osaka who showed great power and skill during a match that she dominated from the start. But while the US media may have talked most about Williams, in Japan it was quite different, and they exulted in Osaka’s win, which also had the effect of bringing to prominence the role of mixed-nationality people in a society that struggles with xenophobia and outright racism. As Jake Adelstein points out, pride in her victory enabled most people to overcome, at least in the short run, the antipathy felt by many towards those who are not considered ‘truly Japanese’, which not only means having both a Japanese mother and father but also having been born and grown up in Japan.
When Naomi Osaka became the first Haitian-American and Japanese woman to win the U.S. Open tennis tournament this month, suddenly most of Japan embraced as her fully Japanese
But apart from ebullient praise for super athletes, Japan’s xenophobia runs deep, and it’s something the country will have to conquer if it hopes to be a winning nation—not just an opportunistic fanboy.
Japan doesn’t allow dual nationality. Osaka, who now holds dual citizenship, must under Japanese law, forsake her other nationalities before she turns 22 if she is to remain “Japanese.”
Osaka was born as the youngest daughter of Japanese mother Tamaki Osaka and Haitian-American father Leonard “San” Francois in October 1997 in west Japan. Naomi’s Japanese grandparents did not originally approve of the marriage, but have come to accept and be proud of their multicultural grandchildren.
The entire family moved to New York when Osaka was a toddler. Her father began instructing Naomi and her sister in tennis as soon as they could hold rackets. By the time she was 16, Osaka was playing professionally.
When Osaka now faces questions regarding her nationality, she responds “Japanese” and she can speak rudimentary Japanese and comprehend it; her listening ability may be greater than her speaking ability. Her love of Japanese food, culture, and Pokemon, along with and her humble self-effacing nature, are well-received in Japan.
But it is a not all good feelings. There have also been people who have questioned whether she is ‘truly Japanese’. Adelstein points to numerous similar examples of right-wingers in Japan disparaging anyone who is not ‘pure’ Japanese. (Adelstein has lived in Japan for thirty years, is a permanent resident, married to a Japanese, and has two children and thus has some personal experience with this issue.)
Mixed-race Japanese tend to be treated better the lighter their skin is, probably because Japan, once allied to Nazi Germany, inherited much of the racism that was prevalent in the West before and after World War II. You can still find bookstores with tomes on how the Jews are destroying Japan, in a country where the population of permanent resident Jews is said to be less than 2,000.
However, what would seem to be the Japanese government’s view on the issue is put forth bluntly by Naoko Hashimoto, a Nippon Foundation International Fellow studying national identity in England. She wrote to the Associated Press: “In my opinion, it still appears that Japanese are generally defined as those who are born from a Japanese father and a Japanese mother, who speak perfect Japanese and ‘act like Japanese.’”
Prime Minister Abe has announced bold plans to bring more foreign workers into Japan, but refuses to use the word “immigration” or offer up any road map to let these people of “gaijin blood” become Japanese citizens. The government has been faulted by the United Nations for failing to deal with hate speech and appears to even be stoking the flames of xenophobia and prejudice. The administration was recently been chastised by even the conservative Japanese media, such as Kyodo News, for a much ballyhooed investigation into insurance fraud by foreigners that fizzled out, but still left the impression that non-Japanese were stealing tax dollars.
It’s not surprising former adviser to President Trump, Steve Bannon, praised Abe as “Trump before Trump.”
In a larger sense, this should not matter in the case of Osaka. Nationality labels serve purely bureaucratic purposes and do not say anything about the individual. Osaka has proven herself to be someone with formidable tennis skills and, since she is just 20 years old, is set to make a major mark on the sport for years to come.
Japan will have to come grips with the reality that its declining and aging population requires immigration to meet its workforce needs. This will force it to re-examine its outdated attitudes about who is ‘truly Japanese’.