Naomi Osaka and racism in Japan


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’.

Comments

  1. busterggi says

    “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’.”

    You know, I can think of another country that coudl be substituted for Japan in that quote.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    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’.

    Or force it to accelerate robot development to the point that immigrants become unnecessary. I know which I’d bet on happening sooner.

  3. says

    Racists always go on surface appearance, don’t they? She looks “Japanese” and that’s enough. It has to be, because there is no substance to ‘race’ otherwise.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    Racists always go on surface appearance, don’t they?

    Er… no. Otherwise they wouldn’t need a “one-drop” rule to make sure they catch people who based on surface appearance are white.

  5. John Morales says

    sonofrojblake, you might think you’re disputing Marcus’ claim, but you’re not really doing so unless you imagine he intended “Always and only“. And why would you do that?

    (Obviously, if surface appearance fails to be an apparent determinant, one must resort to further rationalisations to make a determination)

    To be on topic, what’s vaguely interesting here to me is how, in this case, it is nationalism (how else would one take pride on the nationality/ethnicity of some contestant in another country playing for money for themselves?) which may be a vector for cognitive dissonance on the subject of Japanese national status relative to ethnicity.

  6. says

    The “one drop rule” depended on someone challenging a person’s ancestry if they didn’t “pass” – it was not applied to people who were obviously ‘white’.. Which is why “passing” was a thing in the first place.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Aw c’mon now – numerous expert commentators at Pharyngula insist that only whites commit racism, and who can argue with that?

  8. Saad says

    Pierce, #7

    Aw c’mon now – numerous expert commentators at Pharyngula insist that only whites commit racism, and who can argue with that?

    They insist that in Japan only whites commit racism?

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    Saad @ # 8 – In the whole wide world. Or maybe the galaxy.

    Sorry, I can’t come up with a link, as it happened in a thread I didn’t post in – sometime in ’17, I think.

  10. sonofrojblake says

    @Pierce R. Butler: you’ll really need to come up with that link.

    I think I know what you’re getting at, and I can argue with it – the SJW contention is that in America (and the UK and some other European countries) only white people can be “racist” because “racism” isn’t what the dictionary says, but rather it’s prejudice PLUS power. Merely hating white people isn’t enough qualify a black person in the US as racist because there’s not much they can do with their hate because of their position as an oppressed minority. I can understand why white people who’ve been abused or physically attacked on the basis of their race by black people would be infuriated by this sophistry, but I can equally understand why the SJW definition is an important and accurate observation of reality.

    Whichever way you define it – the narrow, dictionary definition, or the more subtle SJW-preferred way – Japanese are absolutely capable of it, since they are thanks to an imperialist history in a position of material and sociological power to oppress minorities within their borders. I’ve been to Tokyo – one of the main things that struck me about the place was the incredible racial and physical homogeneity of the most-densely populated place I’ve ever been. I was the tallest, fattest man I saw for seven days (I have a BMI just under 25). Also, for a capital city it makes remarkably few concessions to any visitors who don’t speak and read the unique local language. Japanese absolutely are racist by both definitions, if anything more so that Europeans, because they don’t generally feel they owe anyone an explanation, much less an apology.

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    sonofrojblake @ # 10 – How do you suggest I find a link for a thread for which I can recall only words found in almost every discussion on a seriously prolix blog? My offline life is kinda busy – I’d have to charge quite a bit per hour to do it by eyeball.

    … “racism” is… prejudice PLUS power.

    Yes, that sums up the argument made quite concisely (to my oh-so-fallible recall).

    … this sophistry… is an important and accurate observation of reality.

    The problem, to my eye, lies in insisting on excluding everything that doesn’t fit said observation as a definition of a general word, rather than doing the work of defining and using a more rigorous term (e.g, “institutionalized white USA racism”).

    … Japanese are … thanks to an imperialist history in a position of material and sociological power to oppress minorities within their borders.

    Not to mention a history of oppressing others beyond their borders (e.g., Koreans, Chinese, arguably Okinawans). “Within their borders”, however, possibly ethnocultural unification and island geography could account for that even without any emperors.

    I was the tallest, fattest man I saw for seven days…

    You didn’t hang out around the sumo dojos, I s’poze.

    … they don’t generally feel they owe anyone an explanation…

    Haven’t been there or even close, but have met numerous quite approachable Japanese individuals happy to answer naive questions at great length. So, I surmise that either one or the other of us had an atypical experience, or they behave differently when at home or abroad, or the usual combination of answers.

    I was about to get back to the question of defining racism, but realized that requires a good definition of “race” – and that gets into so much arbitrary and anti-scientific word-wrangling we’d have to go on and on for weeks just to reach agreement with each other, never mind come up with something anyone else would accept.

  12. Pierce R. Butler says

    Fortunately, I consider my regrettable html fail @ # 11 as not quite seppuku-worthy – even if I were deemed honorable enough to attempt such self-chastisement, which I suspect traditionalists and modernists alike would dispute. In any case, apologies.

  13. sonofrojblake says

    How do you suggest I find a link

    /shrug/ You brought it up. Find it, don’t find it, but referring to something in support then pleading inability to link to it just looks weak. Good form when it crosses your mind to say something like that is to find the link first, and if you find you can’t, to make your point without mentioning it. Just my 2c.

    The problem, to my eye, lies in insisting on excluding everything that doesn’t fit said observation as a definition of a general word, rather than doing the work of defining and using a more rigorous term (e.g, “institutionalized white USA racism”).

    Dude – you’re voluntarily in the space of the PharynguLeft. If you’re not down with taking common words and hugely narrowing the definition, then getting abusive with anyone who doesn’t hew to your new definition, you’ve either not been paying attention, or you’re being disingenuous. And since you’re referencing a post or posts you can’t find from last year in a thread you didn’t even post in, you HAVE been paying some attention.

    In the context here even you concede it’s clear what’s meant.

    possibly ethnocultural unification and island geography could account for that

    Those factors account in exactly the same way for the fact that powerful population of Australia is white. Except the Australians – surely among the world’s most famously cheerfully, comfortably racist nations – at least admitted Aborigines existed. The Japanese government legally acknowledged the existence of the inidigenous Ainu just a little over ten years ago. Not a typo – June 2008. Do some research.

    Haven’t been there or even close, but…

    …feel qualified to comment.

    I surmise that either one or the other of us had an atypical experience

    Well, yes. One of us talked, in their home country, to some tourists or expats, and one of us went to Japan. And works with Japanese people every day. For a Japanese company. ffs.

  14. Pierce R. Butler says

    sonofrojblake @ # 13 – Sorry for the lag in replying.

    Since you don’t seem to have had any difficulty in recognizing and identifying my reference, I can’t feel a whole lot of guilt or inadequacy in not refreshing your memory with a link.

    … exactly the same way for the fact that powerful population of Australia is white. Give or take a couple of thousand years for the Japanese population we now know to root themselves in their seismic little archipelago (eventually pushing the Ainu into the equivalent of a reservation, a lot more than ten years back).

    And the one of us who spoke only to traveling Japanese has had that experience on three continents, and outside the constraints of corporate hierarchy and protocol. It seems one can have prejudicial and factually wrong presumptions about persons of the same “race” and language also – who’da thunk it?

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