Naomi Osaka’s U.S. Open Win and the Biracial Identity in Japan

This Saturday, 20-year-old Naomi Osaka won the U.S. open, becoming the first ever Japanese-born tennis player to claim a Grand Slam championship. Through her victory, Osaka, the daughter of a Haitian-American father and a Japanese mother, has begun to redefine what it means to be Japanese in a country that is still fairly racially homogenous.

Osaka displayed a great deal of humility in recognizing her accomplishment on Saturday, a trait characteristic of Japanese culture. Her mother said of Osaka’s reaction to her win, “Her soul is Japanese. She doesn’t display her joy so excessively. Her playing style is aggressive, but she is always humble in interviews. I like that.”  Osaka even gave a slight bow in acknowledging her fans after the match, a sign of respect integral to Japanese culture. The 20-year-old even made an effort to answer questions in interviews in what the New York Times called her “imperfect Japanese,” further highlighting her Japanese identity.

Osaka’s victory has been regarded as pivotal in changing the sense of what it means to be Japanese. Her victory, in particular, has served to challenge norms of cultural and even racial purity so often expected of Japanese identity. The Japanese media called Osaka’s victory one of Japan’s own, representing a big step forward in terms of embracing mixed race people in the relatively homogenous country. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe echoed, “Thank you for giving energy and inspiration to all of Japan in this troubled time,” referring to the timing of Osaka’s victory with regard to recent natural disasters afflicting Western Japan and Hokkaido.

Still, many have criticized the widespread celebration of Osaka’s victory across Japan, and not for the reasons one might expect. Indeed, while proponents of more conservative definitions of what it means to be Japanese certainly do exist, many of those who’ve criticized the ubiquitous celebration of Osaka’s victory do so as advocates for recognizing biracial identities as Japanese ones. In a tweet that went viral, a user by the handle @phie_hardison reflected, “I feel sick to see people who say that Naomi Osaka is a Japanese or the pride of Japan. You can’t embrace a ‘hafu’ as Japanese only in such times. They are usually discriminated against, aren’t they?”

This tweet highlights the reality many biracial people, often called “hafu,” tend to face in Japanthey are still not fully accepted as Japanese due to antiquated notions of cultural purity still pervasive in the country. Echoing @phie_hardison’s tweet, several people have been quick to note that celebrating Osaka’s victory may be detrimental as it plays into the culture in which only the victories of “hafu” are depicted in mainstream media, not the struggles and discrimination they face day-to-day. In order to truly accept multiracial people in Japan, it can’t just be their victories we celebrate and their wins we recognize.

A similar controversy erupted after Ariana Miyamoto, a half black, half Japanese woman, won Miss Universe Japan in 2015. Several people criticized the pageant judges for not picking a winner who looked “more Japanese,” not fully accepting Miyamoto simply because of her mixed race identity. While the country is changingindeed, Priyanka Yoshikawa, a half-Indian, half-Japanese biracial woman won the beauty contest the following yearit is no secret that the country still doesn’t fully accept hafu.

Baye McNeil, an African American columnist for the Japan Times who reports on his experience as a black man in Japan, noted, “This country prides itself on being homogenous.” Exalting Osaka, a biracial woman, as a national hero for winning the U.S. Open as the first Japanese tennis player to win a Grand Slam puts many Japanese “in an awkward position of sending a message to the world that they’re in a place that everyone knows they’re not,” he cautions.

Despite these criticisms of prematurely celebrating hafu “victories” in Japan, some argue that in a country that is still ambivalent towards mixed race people, any hafu media coverageeven if it is just of victoriesis critical to changing the mindsets of Japanese people. “Anybody who is able to represent Japan in a public way who is ‘hafu’ will open Japanese minds and hearts to being more accepting,” Megumi Nishikura, co-director of “Hafu: The Mixed Race Experience in Japan,” contends.

While it is true that media coverage of hafu is important, the fact that mixed race identities are only accepted in the public eye in Japan when there is some sort of win involved is troubling. What about the discrimination hafu face on a day-today basis? What about the struggles to gain Japanese citizenship as a person of mixed race? Why don’t we see those issues in the media as well? Celebrating Osaka’s victory is a clear first step towards embracing people of biracial identities in Japan. But it is not enough. Their struggles need to be depicted too.

Meera Santhanam