P.K. Sanjun takes a look at some of the common criteria used to define what makes a person “Japanese,” and whether they’ll still be used in the future.

On September 9, Osaka-born Naomi Osaka won the women’s singles crown at the US Open, becoming the first Japanese citizen to win one of the sport’s four top-level competitions. She’s since been featured regularly on the news in Japan, with sportscasters gushing over her performance and rise to worldwide fame.

However, because she’s of mixed heritage and left the country at a young age, some online commenters have been questioning just how “Japanese” Osaka is. Here with his thoughts on the matter is our Japanese-language columnist P.K. Sanjun, who is of Korean heritage but born and raised in Japan.

Naomi Osaka recently became the first Japanese female professional tennis player to win a Grand Slam singles title. While she’s received a tremendous amount of praise for this in Japan, there have also been some unsettling sentiments shown online.

To put it bluntly, some people have been asking the question “Is it OK to say Naomi Osaka is a Japanese person?” I myself am a person of Korean heritage living in Japan, so I’d like to take a moment to talk about what I feel the definition of “a Japanese person” is.

A the very start, I’d like to state that what I’m going to say is strictly my personal opinion. I’m not speaking as a representative of all people of Korean heritage living in Japan, not do my thoughts constitute those of this website. However, I am basing my statements off of my experiences, in which despite being born in Japan, I grew up being seen not as a Japanese person, but as a foreigner.

▼ P.K.

OK, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about Naomi Osaka. Her father is a Haitian-American, her mother is Japanese, and she has dual citizenship (American and Japanese). She was born in the city of Osaka, then moved to the U.S. at the age of 4. She speaks English fluently, but is not as proficient in Japanese. In summary:

● She has dual citizenship
● She is of mixed heritage
● She was born in Japan and primarily grew up overseas
● Her proficiency with the Japanese language isn’t so high

That brings us back to the issue of people on the Internet asking “Is it OK to say Naomi Osaka is a Japanese person?”

▼ Naomi Osaka


To me, there’s a difference in nuance when people use the Japanese words Nihonjin (literally “Japanese person”) and Nihon kokuseki (“Japanese citizen”). As long as your citizenship is with Japan, that makes you a Japanese citizen, but not everyone in Japan would say that being a Japanese citizen makes you a Japanese person.

I think Japanese people are conservatively minded, for better or for worse. The surrounding seas form a natural barrier, and for several thousand years, with the exception of the Ainu and Ryukyu people of Hokkaido and Okinawa, the country was made up of only the Yamato ethnic group, which became the standard image of “Japanese people.”

By comparison, the continuous European landmass meant that from long ago, people were conscious of the presence of other ethnic groups. That’s also true of countries in the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia. But in Japan, for thousands of years, many people lived with a sense akin to “There are only Japanese people in this world.” Japan’s isolated geography and ethnic uniformity influenced the development of its specific culture, and led to a sense that the definition of a Japanese person is being of strictly Japanese descent, born in Japan, raised in Japan, and able to speak Japanese, which is something I won’t say is either good or bad.

However, times have changed. In the last few decades, society has become increasingly globalized, and far-off lands that used to require a death-defying voyage in a wooden boat to set foot on now feel like much closer neighbors. Japanese people finally understand that the world isn’t made up only of Japanese people, but that they, instead, are one of the many ethnic groups that make up the world.

However, in a historical sense, not so much time has passed since that realization was made. It’s only been about 150 years since the Meiji Restoration ended Japan’s feudal era. It’s only been that long since people in Japan wore their hair in topknots and had to bow down at the side of the road when a samurai lord was passing by. People may be able to comprehend new thoughts quickly, but it takes more time for their base feelings to change.

I think that in 100 years’ time, or maybe 200, people will no longer be asking questions like they’ve been doing about Naomi Osaka. And I think the change will happen suddenly. Once again, for better or for worse Japanese people tend to go with the flow, and once the general feeling is that it’s not a question that needs to be asked, pretty much all of Japanese society will stop doing so.

So if P.K. thinks that the old criteria which are often used to determine a person’s “Japanese-ness” will eventually fade away, what does he think will replace them? “A love for Japan,” he replies. “And I don’t think that just goes for Japan, but for other countries as well,” as globalization allows people to increasingly live and work in parts of the world other than the one they were born or grew up in. “One day, it won’t matter what your citizenship is or what language you speak. If you love Japan and think of yourself as a Japanese person, that’ll be enough.”

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