Critics Pounce on Naomi Osaka After Loss, Denting Japan’s Claim to Diversity
TOKYO – Just four days after Naomi Osaka climbed the stairs to light the Olympic cauldron, touted as a symbol of a new, more inclusive Japan, that image was undermined by backlash on Tuesday following her surprise loss in Tokyo.
Many Japanese were stunned by Ms Osaka’s third round loss to Czech Marketa Vondrousova after she was favorite to win gold in women’s tennis at home.
But as the face of a Summer Games riddled with unrelenting pandemic scandal and anxiety – Tokyo released a record number of new coronavirus cases on Tuesday – Ms Osaka took a beating on Japanese social media , some questioning his identity or his right to represent the country at all.
“I still don’t understand why she was the last torchbearer,” one commentator wrote in a Yahoo News article about her loss. “Although she says she’s Japanese, she doesn’t speak much Japanese.” Several comments like this one, which were harshly critical of Ms. Osaka, have been praised by at least 10,000 other Yahoo users.
As the Japanese-born daughter of a Haitian-American father and Japanese mother, Ms. Osaka has helped challenge Japan’s long-held sense of racial and cultural identity.
She was extremely popular in Japan and some online commentators supported her on Tuesday. The news media covered his victories extensively, and his face appeared in commercials for Japanese products ranging from Citizen watches and Shiseido makeup to Nissin Cup noodles.
His selection as the final torchbearer at Friday’s opening ceremony showed how keen Olympic organizers were to promote Japan as a diverse culture. Washington Wizards star Rui Hachimura, who is of Japanese and Beninese descent, has also featured prominently as the flag bearer for the Japanese Olympic team. But in some corners of society, people remain xenophobic and refuse to accept those who do not conform to a very narrow definition of what it means to be Japanese.
“I was a little worried that it was a little too early and that there might be some kind of pullback,” said Baye McNeil, a black man who has lived in Japan for 17 years and writes for The Japan Times, a English language newspaper.
Those who felt uncomfortable might have thought “if we were to swallow this Black Lives Matters affair and the representation of the country, the least you could do is win” the gold medal, Mr McNeil told About Ms. Osaka. “So when she didn’t, now some people are releasing their ugliness.”
Métis residents, or “hafu” as they are called in Japan, still find it difficult to be accepted as genuinely Japanese, even though they were born and raised in the country.
Melanie Brock, a white Australian who runs a consultancy firm for foreign companies looking to do business in Japan and has raised two sons whose father is Japanese, said that although they had gone through the Japanese school system, they were often seen as different. Other mothers, she said, often attributed behavior they found problematic to the boys being mixed race.
“I think Japan is very tough on hafus,” Ms. Brock said.
When she saw Ms. Osaka lighting the cauldron at the opening ceremony, “I thought it was a courageous decision” on the part of the Tokyo organizers, she said. “But I was mad at myself for thinking it was brave. It is not courageous at all. It’s just. She is a remarkable athlete. She’s an excellent representative, and she deserves to be presented like this.
Ms Osaka may also have touched nerves when she pulled out of Roland Garros in May after a dispute with tennis officials over her decision not to attend a press conference. She then revealed on Instagram that she has struggled with depression and anxiety.
Many comments online in Japan after his loss on Tuesday made derogatory references to his sanity.
“She became ‘depressed’, conveniently healed and had the honor of being the last torchbearer,” one commenter wrote on Twitter. “And then she loses an important game just like that. I can only say that she doesn’t care about sports.
Mental health is still a taboo subject in Japan. Naoko Imoto, education specialist at UNICEF, gender adviser to the Tokyo organizing committee and a former Olympian who swam for Japan, said Monday at a press briefing that the mental health was not yet well understood in Japan.
“In Japan, we still don’t talk about mental health,” Ms. Imoto said. “When Naomi Osaka brought up the issue, there was a lot of negative comments about her, and that was also exaggerated because of the gender issue, the fact that she is female.”
“I think there are a lot of athletes coming out now, and it’s actually common, and almost all athletes experience it,” Ms. Imoto said.
Some of the comments about Ms Osaka seemed to echo conservative criticism in the United States of the racial justice movement, which the tennis star has vigorously supported.
“Her selection as the last torchbearer was wrong,” wrote another commentator on the Yahoo News article about the loss of Ms Osaka. “Was the theme of the Tokyo Games human rights issues? Is it to show Japan’s recovery and show appreciation to the many countries that have supported Japan? BLM is not the theme. I don’t think she could have focused on the game, and she deserved her loss.
Nathaniel M. Smith, an anthropologist at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto who studies right-wing movements in Japan, said online critics can now copy from a global pool of comments.
“A Japanese online right-winger is aware of being in the Twitter environment of Black Lives Matter but also of how white people criticize Black Lives on Twitter,” Smith said. “So there’s this shared digital repertoire of how to attack.”
But, he added, “I think that’s quite far from the sensitivity or the conscience of the average viewer, let alone the average person.”
Indeed, some comments on social media were more favorable to Ms. Osaka. A post from someone who claimed not to be a fan showed gratitude for his appearance at the Olympics.
“Personally, I don’t like Naomi Osaka very much, but let me say one thing,” the poster wrote on Twitter. “Thank you for playing as the representative of Japan. Thank you for your hard work! “
Hisako Ueno and Hikari Hida contributed reports.
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