On the night of September 8th, 2018, boos created a deafening roar throughout the stadium at the Billie Jean Tennis Center in New York City. Naomi Osaka had just won the U.S. Open over her long-time idol Serena Williams, denying Williams what would have been a historic 24th Grand Slam title. Osaka stood with tears streaming down her face, head in her hands. She had just become the first Japanese person to win a Grand Slam title. In the following weeks, the media focused more on the controversy between Williams and the umpire, Carlos Ramos. Williams had accused Ramos of sexism after he had penalized her for various code violations. However, beyond that dispute lies another controversy: Osaka’s win highlights the complex nature of race and diversity in Japan and how Japanese identity is evolving.
I first read a discussion about Naomi Osaka and the Japanese media’s varied attitudes towards her biracial identity in a New York Times article by Motoko Rich. The issue stood out to me because, while the world was fixated on the controversy between Williams and Ramos, there was another, lesser-known conversation happening.
Japan is often perceived as utopian. The country is ranked the fifth-best country in the world by U.S. News, which bases rankings on a variety of factors such as literacy rate, infant mortality rate, and life expectancy. Japan also boasts a successful universal healthcare system that takes up only 6.6 percent of the national gross domestic product (compared to the 13.4 percent that the U.S. GDP spends). In 2018, the crime rate fell for the ninth consecutive year to the lowest level in the postwar era. The murder rate is 0.3 per 100,000 people, making it among the lowest in the world. However, beneath the surface of this healthy, utopian society is a country rooted in deep xenophobia and racism.
On the outside, Japan seems to embrace its diversity and changing identity. The day after Osaka’s victory, Sankei Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest newspapers, ran the headline: “The First Japanese Achievement.” Many Japanese people woke up at dawn to watch the match live. “I subscribed to satellite TV to see the match, and I got goosebumps when she won,” said one viewer quoted in the Japan Times. In Tokyo, more than 100 employees gathered around to watch the match at the headquarters of Nissin Foods, one of Osaka’s biggest sponsors. After the match, Kei Nishikori, Japan’s most famous tennis player and one of the country’s biggest athletes, congratulated Osaka on Twitter with a series of emojis. Osaka’s 73-year-old grandfather told reporters at his home in Hokkaido that he and his wife were ecstatic after watching their granddaughter’s victory over 23-time Grand Slam Champion Williams on television.
In Japan, Osaka is considered to be “hafu,” the term for any child with one parent who is not fully Japanese. The term is considered controversial because of its negative connotations and association with the term “half-breed.” Although the word hafu didn’t emerge until the 1970s, discrimination against biracial Japanese people has existed since the 1940s. Despite its negative connotations, however, many mixed-race Japanese people self-identify as hafu. Today, the term hafu projects an image of a person with English ability, foreign cultural experience, and western physical features.
Nevertheless, there are still many traditionalists who cling to a narrow definition of Japanese identity. Stereotyping of and discrimination against mixed-race people occurs based on how their identities, behaviors, and appearances differ from that of a traditional Japanese person. Even certain magazines and news sources carry some level of this traditionalism.
Following Osaka’s win, the Japanese tabloid Nikkan Gendai ran the headline “Harvesting Hafu Athletes.” The opening paragraph remarks, “Is it that we must now rely on the blood of foreigners? … Tennis queen Naomi Osaka has a Japanese mother; her father is Haitian American. She was born in Osaka [Japan] but moved to America when she was three. Now she has dual nationality and can only speak a smattering of Japanese. She is half-black. When [Japanese people] watch her pound out a 200 kilometer per hour serve with her 180-centimeter big-body [and hear her described as] ‘Japan’s first,’ there are probably not too few of us who think that’s weird.” These blatantly racist and offensive characterizations of Osaka illustrate the reluctance of some Japanese people to change their conception of Japanese identity.
Japan is a historically insulated society due to its geographical remoteness and self-imposed seclusion. For 220 years, Japan’s isolationist foreign policy of “Sakoku” essentially cut Japan off from the rest of the world. Foreigners were barred from entering the country, while Japanese people were not allowed to leave. During its post-war economic boom, Japan was able to rely on its own domestic labor force. However, a recession in the ’80s caused the country to revise their isolationist policies. In the ’90s, Japan began exporting labor to foreign countries such as Brazil and Thailand in order to reduce its dependency on imported labor.
Since 1988, Japan’s Ministry of Labor has accepted a small number of foreigners into the country who have “high skills and qualifications.” In response to a growing labor shortage in the 1990s, the country began to encourage the return of people of Japanese descent, under a special visa program.
The only foreign-employment opportunity the government offers is a heavily criticized program in which foreign workers, predominantly from China and Southeast Asia, travel to Japan to work in the agriculture and manufacturing industries. The program, which allows workers to stay for three years, is advertised as providing laborers with new skills they can use when they return home. Many experts say the program is used to exploit workers, giving them menial jobs instead of ones where they actually learn technical skills. A Vice News report from 2015 found that a group of workers from China had been stripped of their freedom and forced to stay in Japan to work for more than three years.
Although Japan was ranked the fourth biggest contributor to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2016, it has long been closed to immigration and reluctant to accept refugees. Immigrants make up 1 percent of the population, with most from Korea or China. According to a report by the Guardian, in the entirety of 2017, Japan accepted 20 asylum seekers out of 20,000 applicants—a 0.1 percent acceptance rate. Recently, Japan has been getting even tougher in its immigration policies. In an attempt to reduce the number of “bogus” applications from people who are simply seeking work, the government started limiting the right to work to those regarded as genuine asylum seekers. The Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe controversially stated in 2015 that Japan should improve the lives of its own people—namely women and the elderly—before accepting Syrian refugees (only 12 were accepted into the country last year). Steve Bannon once praised Abe as “Trump before Trump.”
Japan’s resistance to immigration could have serious consequences for its own labor force. According to a projection by the Japanese Health Ministry, by 2060, the country's population is expected to plummet by more than 40 million. This year, Japan faced the largest labor shortage since the ’70s. Instead of opening Japan’s doors, Abe has shifted his focus to increase the number of women in the workforce, but to little avail. Economic growth has remained stagnant and numerous scandals involving sexism and discrimination in the workplace have marred Abe’s effort.
In an article by Chiaki Ogihara for the Asahi Shimbun, the public was asked about their personal opinions on Osaka’s identity as Japanese. Naomi Iwazawa, a 23-year-old university student, said she is unsupportive of the celebratory response many had towards Osaka’s win. Jun Soejima, a 34-year-old entertainer, said that he was not upset by the celebratory reactions, but felt uncomfortable by the racist remarks he heard. After Osaka’s win, Soejima overhead a man at a bar say, “Frankly speaking, a genuine Japanese would have been better, if anybody were to become the first Japanese champion.” Soejima said the man used the term “100 percent Japanese” to explain his reservations about Osaka’s triumph. Soejima is discomforted by the thought that many Japanese people probably feel a similar reluctance. Despite the mainstream media painting a picture that Japan has embraced Osaka with open arms, there are still objections among the public.
Osaka grew up in New York and she considers herself Japanese. Despite her rudimentary knowledge of the language, Osaka feels connected to the culture; a fact well-received by the Japanese media. After winning the U.S. Open, a Japanese reporter asked Osaka what she thought about her racial identity, setting off a heated debate about whether the question was appropriate. Osaka replied: “I’m just me.”
The generally positive reaction to Osaka’s win and the mainstream embrace of her mixed identity shows that Japan is starting to broaden its view on Japanese identity. Although this evolution will likely have a positive impact on Japanese society and economy, there are certainly those opposed to this change. Many conservatives still cling to a very narrow definition of what it means to be Japanese, but Osaka’s win and her exploding popularity in Japan brings hope to the multiracial Japanese community. As a biracial woman in an overwhelmingly homogenous country, Osaka’s success establishes her as a role model to current and future generations. The largely positive reaction to Osaka’s win and the acceptance of her identity as a Japanese woman might indicate that Japan is developing a more inclusive conception of what it means to be Japanese.
Bad Issue | December 2018