Critics pounce on Osaka after loss, denting Japan’s claim to diversity
By Motoko Rich
Just four days after Naomi Osaka mounted the stairs to light the Olympic cauldron, presented as a symbol of a new, more inclusive Japan, that image was undermined Tuesday by a backlash that followed her surprise defeat in Tokyo.
Many Japanese were stunned by Osaka’s third-round loss to Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic after she had been favored to take the women’s tennis gold medal on home soil.
But as the face of a Summer Games riddled with scandal and anxiety over an unstinting pandemic — Tokyo posted a record number of new coronavirus cases Tuesday — Osaka took a drubbing on Japanese social media, with some questioning her identity or right to represent the country at all.
“I still can’t understand why she was the final torchbearer,” one commenter wrote on a Yahoo News story about her loss. “Although she says she is Japanese, she cannot speak Japanese very much.” Several comments like that one that were critical of Osaka were given “thumbs up” by 10,000 or more other Yahoo users.
As the Japanese-born daughter of a Haitian American father and a Japanese mother, Osaka has helped to challenge Japan’s long-standing sense of racial and cultural identity.
She has been enormously popular in Japan, and some online commenters voiced support for her Tuesday. The news media covers her victories extensively, and her face appears on advertisements for Japanese products ranging from Citizen watches to Shiseido makeup to Nissin Cup Noodles.
Her selection as the final torchbearer at the opening ceremony Friday demonstrated how eager the Olympic organizers were to promote Japan as a diverse culture. Washington Wizards star Rui Hachimura, who is of Japanese and Beninese descent, also featured prominently as a flag-bearer for the Japanese Olympic team. But in some corners of society, people remain xenophobic and refuse to accept those who don’t conform to a very narrow definition of what it means to be Japanese.
“I was a little concerned that that might be a little too much too soon and that there might be some kind of pushback,” said Baye McNeil, a Black man who has lived in Japan for 17 years and writes a column for The Japan Times, an English-language newspaper.
Those who felt uncomfortable might have thought “if we had to swallow this Black Lives Matters thing and the representation of the country, the least you could do is win” the gold medal, McNeil said of Osaka. “So when she didn’t do that, now some people are unleashing their ugliness.”
Mixed-race residents, or “hafu” as they are known in Japan, still struggle to be accepted as authentically Japanese, even if they were born and raised in the country.
Melanie Brock, a white Australian who runs a consulting firm for foreign companies looking to do business in Japan and raised two sons whose father is Japanese, said that even though they went through the Japanese school system, they were often viewed as different. Other mothers, she said, often ascribed behavior they deemed problematic to the fact that the boys were mixed race.
“I think Japan is very hard on hafus,” Brock said.
When she saw Osaka light the cauldron at the opening ceremony, “I thought it was a brave decision” by the Tokyo organizers, she said. “But I was angry at myself for thinking that it was brave. It’s not brave at all. It’s right. She’s a remarkable athlete. She’s a terrific representative, and she deserves to be heralded as that.”
Osaka may have also touched some nerves when she pulled out of the French Open in May after a dispute with tennis officials over her decision not to appear at a news conference. She then revealed on Instagram that she had struggled with depression and anxiety.
Many of the online comments in Japan following her loss Tuesday referred disparagingly to her mental health.
“She conveniently became ‘depressed,’ conveniently healed, and was given the honor of being the final torchbearer,” wrote one commenter on Twitter. “And then she loses an important game just like that. I can only say that she is making light of sports.”
Mental health is still something of a taboo subject in Japan. Naoko Imoto, an education specialist at UNICEF who is an adviser on gender equality to the Tokyo organizing committee and a former Olympian who swam for Japan, said in a news briefing Monday that mental health was not yet well understood in Japan.
“In Japan, we still don’t talk about mental health,” Imoto said. “When Naomi Osaka came out with the issue, there were a lot of negative comments on her, and that was also exaggerated because of the gender issue, her being a woman.”
“I think there are a lot of athletes coming out now, and it’s actually common, and almost every athlete experiences it,” Imoto said.
Some of the comments about Osaka seemed to echo conservative criticism in the United States of the movement for racial justice, which the tennis star has vocally supported.
“Her selection as the final torchbearer was wrong,” wrote another commenter on the Yahoo News story about Osaka’s loss. “Was the theme of the Tokyo Games human rights issues? Is it to show Japan’s recovery and show appreciation to the many countries which supported Japan? BLM is not the theme. I don’t think she was able to concentrate on the match, and she deserved her defeat.”
Nathaniel M. Smith, an anthropologist at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto who studies right-wing movements in Japan, said that online critics could now copy from a global pool of commentary.
“A Japanese online right-winger is aware from being in the Twitter environment of both Black Lives Matter but also how white people critique Black Lives on Twitter,” Smith said. “So there is this shared digital repertoire of how to attack.”
But, he added, “I do think it’s pretty far afield from the sensibility or awareness of the average TV viewer, much less the average person.”
Some comments on social media were more supportive of Osaka. One post from someone who claimed not to be a fan showed gratitude for her appearance at the Olympics.
“I personally don’t like Naomi Osaka very much, but let me say one thing,” the poster wrote on Twitter. “Thanks for playing as a representative of Japan. Thank you for your hard work!”