Naomi Osaka tells the story. It comes from Florida, where the world’s best young tennis players gather and compete. Osaka, about ten years old, was preparing for a match at the prestigious Orange Bowl tournament. Osaka overheard her opponent’s conversation while preparing within earshot of her Japanese opponent.
“She was talking with another Japanese girl, and they had no idea I was listening or spoke Japanese,” Osaka explained. “When her friend asked who she was playing, she replied, ‘Osaka.’ ‘Oh, that black girl,’ says her friend. ‘Shouldn’t she be Japanese?’ Then the girl I was playing with said, ‘I don’t think so.’
Everyone is aware now. Osaka, the daughter of a Japanese mother and a Haitian father raised in the United States, is the face of Tokyo 2020.
At every bus stop in Tokyo, the 23-year-old stares down from an advertisement, greeting local and international passengers. She’s dressed to the nines in a neon pink jacket over black activewear.
The slogan is written in English and Japanese. It is the word ‘new,’ followed by a symbol that can mean either ‘world’ or ‘generation.’
It is effective. Because Osaka, who renounced her US citizenship in 2019 in favor of her Japanese ancestry, is bringing more than titles back to Japan. She is bringing about change. You don’t have to go back to Osaka’s childhood to have doubts about her place in Japanese society.
She is not the first mixed-race or ‘hafu’ athlete to raise such concerns. Baseball greats included Sachio Kinugasa and Hideki Irabu.
Neither they nor the Japanese public were interested in discussing their American fathers, the soldiers who occupied the country after WWII, or the discrimination they faced.
Osaka entered the players’ bubble at the US Open last year with a plan. She had seven different face masks packed. There will be one for each round of the tournament. Each bears the name of a black American who was killed as a result of alleged police or racist violence. On her way to the title, she used them all, displaying the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Trayvon Martin to a global audience.
It’s a topic that Japan, one of the world’s least ethnically diverse countries, is still grappling with.
Last year, Japan’s public broadcaster NHK apologized after an animated film explaining racial justice protests caricatured black people and left out some of the key reasons for the movement.
In 2019, the Japanese instant noodle company Nissin created, then removed, an advertisement featuring a white-skinned manga illustration of Osaka.
It also goes back a generation. When Osaka was three years old, her mother and father emigrated to the United States, cutting her off from her disapproving maternal grandparents.
If last year was about Osaka’s origins, this year has been about where she is now.
After initially stating that she would not speak to the media during the French Open, she withdrew from that tournament, as well as Wimbledon, in May, citing her poor mental health and long bouts of depression over the previous three years. Her return to the court after a two-month hiatus is scheduled for the Tokyo Olympics.
She is the most well-known, but far from the only, Japanese celebrity to bring up the subject of mental health in public. Kumi Yokoyama, a 27-year-old international footballer, revealed last month that they were transgender and planned to transition fully to a man once they retired from the sport. They explained how their experiences in the United States and Germany had made them aware of prejudice and ignorance in Japan.
Hana Kimura, a professional wrestler, committed suicide in 2020 after appearing on the popular reality show Terrace House.
From 1999 to 2014, the number of people reporting mental health problems in the general Japanese population more than doubled.
And Whiting knows exactly where the change is coming from. “However, this generation of Japanese is much more sophisticated than previous generations, with the internet and countless TV channels, they have a much more global outlook.” There is a broader understanding that did not exist when I arrived in the 1960s or the 1980s and 1990s. The world has shrunk significantly, and Japan has benefited as a result.”
It’s a new world. The next generation. Osaka is a big part of it, no matter how you translate it.