Naomi Osaka tells a story.
It happened in Florida, where the best young tennis players in the world congregate and compete.
Osaka, in her 10s, was preparing for a game at the prestigious Orange Bowl tournament when she overheard a conversation from her Japanese opponent.
“I was talking to another Japanese girl,” Osaka told the newspaper. Wall Street Journal.
“And they didn’t know that I was listening or that I was speaking Japanese.”
“Her friend asked her who she was playing with,” Osaka said. “And her friend said, ‘Oh, that black girl. Is she supposed to be Japanese?’ And then the girl she was playing with said, ‘I don’t think so.
Everybody knows it now. Osaka, the daughter of a Japanese mother and Haitian father, raised in America, is the face of Tokyo 2020.
At every bus stop in Tokyo, the 23-year-old appears looking down from an advertisement, greeting local and international passengers. She is dressed in a neon pink jacket over black sportswear.
The ad slogan is written half in English and half in Japanese. It is the word “new”, followed by a symbol that can be translated as “world” or “generation”.
It works. Because Osaka, who renounced her American citizenship in 2019 in favor of her Japanese heritage, is bringing more than titles to her homeland. She is bringing change.
“We feel a bit removed from her”
You don’t have to go back to Osaka’s childhood to find yourself with questions about how you fit into Japanese society.
“To be honest, we feel a bit alienated from her because it is very different physically“said Nao Hibino, currently Japan’s number three, as Osaka made her way to the higher echelons of women’s tennis in 2018.
“He grew up in a different place and doesn’t speak that much Japanese,” he added. “He is not like Kei (Nishikori), who is a pure Japanese player.”
Osaka is not the first mixed-race or “hafu” athlete to raise such questions.
Sachio Kinugasa and Hideki Irabu were baseball stars.
Neither they nor the Japanese public were interested in talking about their American parents – soldiers who occupied the country after World War II – or the discrimination they faced.
“Some older people have come up with ideas about how a Japanese athlete should speak and behave in public,” explains Hiroaki Wada, a reporter for the newspaper. Mainichi from Japan.
“Naomi doesn’t fit that traditional mold. She made these problems visible through her words and actions in Japan, “he adds.
“The issue of race and identity was discussed more in the media and on social networks thanks to her, including her political statements. She is a figure that awakens thoughts and reactions.”
Your complaints against racism
Osaka entered the club reserved for players at last year’s US Open with a plan. He packed seven different face masks. One for each round of the tournament. Each named after a black American who died of alleged racist or police violence.
He used them all, showing the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Trayvon Martin to a global audience on his way to the title.
That’s an issue that Japan, one of the least ethnically diverse nations in the world, still struggles with.
For example, Japanese public broadcaster NHK apologized last year after an animated film explaining the racial justice protests caricatured black people and excluded some of the key reasons for the movement.
And in 2019, the Japanese instant noodle company Nissin published, and later withdrew, an ad featuring an illustration of Osaka with white skin.
It is a theme that is deeply ingrained in other generations. Osaka’s mother and father immigrated to the United States when she was 3 years old, without the approval of her maternal grandparents.
“I think what has happened in the last year has been a learning process for the Japanese“says Robert Whiting, author of Tokyo Junkie, a book detailing his nearly 60 years living in the city.
“There has been a discussion on TV shows, explaining why Naomi feels that way and talks the way she does.”
“In Japan, tradition is to avoid conflict and discussions. It’s not like in the United States, where it is common, “adds Whiting.
“Generally, the more famous, the more taciturn you are. You don’t want any controversy, you don’t want that to reflect on your teammates, your organization or sponsors.”
“Individualism is something highly valued in the West, but not in Japan. Here, harmony is the most important thing,” he explains.
Long bouts of depression
If last year the theme revolved around the origin of Osaka, this year it has been about his life.
In May, after initially saying that he would not speak to the media during the French Open, he withdrew from that tournament and then Wimbledon, citing mental health problems and long bouts of depression over the previous three years.
The Tokyo Olympics mark his return to the pitch after two months.
She is the highest profile Japanese figure to have installed the mental health problem in public opinion. But it is not the only one.
International soccer player Kumi Yokoyama, 27, revealed last month that she is transgender and that she intends to fully transition to male once she retires from the sport.
He explained how playing in the United States and Germany had made him aware of ignorance and prejudice in Japan.
In 2020, Hana Kimura, a professional wrestler, took her own life after appearing in Terrace House, a popular reality show.
In the general Japanese population, the number of people reporting mental health problems has doubled between 1999 and 2014.
“Traditionally in our nation, remembering as a child, 40 years ago, it was shameful that you or a relative of yours had a mental health problem,” said journalist Hiroaki Wada.
“In general, the perception of weakness, probably more among athletes, has prevented people from speaking.”
“But things are changing. People are becoming more open to admitting that people have mental health issues and that it is something we have to deal with, “he said.
Osaka and the new Japanese generation
And Whiting has no doubt where that change is coming from.
“I think Naomi Osaka and other mixed-race Japanese are still outsiders to some extent,” he says.
“But this generation of Japanese is much more sophisticated than previous generations, they have a much more global perspective with access to the internet and countless television channels “.
“There is a broader understanding that did not exist when I arrived in the 1960s or the 1980s and 1990s. The world is a much smaller place now and Japan has benefited from that.”
A new world. A new generation. However you explain it, Osaka is an important part of the change.
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Tokyo: Naomi Osaka, the “rebel tennis player” who is changing Japan