She’s the first Japanese citizen to ever win a Grand Slam singles tournament, but in Japan it’s her race that’s been taking the spotlight.

What does it mean to be Japanese? It’s a question that foreigners in Japan find themselves asking quite often, especially if they’re half-Japanese, or “hafu” as they’re commonly referred to in the local language.

Now it’s a question that a lot of Japanese people are asking as well, following Naomi Osaka’s win over Serena Williams last week, which made her the first Japanese citizen to ever win a Grand Slam singles tournament.

While it sounds like a clean-cut cause for celebration, Osaka’s win has been marred by a number of incidents, including controversy surrounding Williams’ penalties, statements made to the umpire during their game, and boos from the crowd directed at tennis officials during the official post-match awards ceremony.

Osaka’s victory also made headlines around the world due to her mixed-race heritage and its impact on Japan’s largely homogeneous society. As a half-Haitian, half-Japanese sportswoman who was born in Japan, lives in America and competes professionally for Japan, Osaka doesn’t fit the mould of a typical Japanese athlete, and it’s created a heated debate online, with people leaving comments like:

“She doesn’t look Japanese.”
“If she’s playing for Japan she should at least be fluent in Japanese.”
“You should all just shut up — if she has Japanese nationality, then she’s Japanese.”
“Her name is Japanese, so to me she’s totally Japanese.”
“All these comments about how she’s not typically Japanese makes me feel so bad for her — perhaps she’d be better off playing for Haiti instead.”
“Would she prefer to play for America, a country that boos like that at the awards ceremony?”
“All these comments online make me realise that racism exists everywhere, even in Japan.”
“She’s brought happiness to Japan — isn’t that good enough?”

The range of comments and opinions being shared by Japanese people on Twitter and other online discussion forums shows there’s a wide range of possible answers to the question, “What does it mean to be Japanese?” For some its purely appearances, for others it’s about language fluency, and for others it’s a case of nationality.

For others though, it’s simply enough for Osaka herself to tell us all who she is. For her, looking a certain way or speaking a certain way or even having multiple ethnicities doesn’t mean she’s not entitled to be Japanese, especially given that she was born in the country and owns a Japanese passport. Her identity in terms of her diverse background seems to be more of an issue for those around her than it is for herself — as she put it to one interviewer at a press conference in Yokohama the other day: “I’m just me“.

▼ Osaka pictured with her mother, father, and 22-year-old sister, Mari.

Still, Osaka’s background is prompting some to wonder whether she will continue to represent Japan in the future, particularly at the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

Because Japan doesn’t legally allow its citizens to possess dual citizenship with another country after the age of 21, 20-year-old Osaka — who currently holds both Japanese and American citizenship — will have to decide whether to keep her Japanese citizenship or renounce it for that of another country before she turns 22 on 16 October next year.

Given her love of Japan and her decision to represent her country of birth in the first place, it’s highly likely that Osaka will continue playing tennis for Japan in the future, especially now that she’s been given lucrative deals from a number of big Japanese brands like Nissan, Nissin, Yonex, and Citizen.

The more Osaka continues to be in the spotlight for her sporting prowess, the more the debate about what it means to be Japanese will no doubt be in the spotlight as well. With international marriages rising steadily in Japan, it’s no longer possible to put a generic stamp on the definition of a Japanese person, but some remain resistant to change.

Hopefully the debate will encourage those with narrow-minded opinions to broaden their views and reconsider their ideas about what it means to be Japanese. After all, this blonde-haired, Swedish-born gardener considers himself to be Japanese, so why can’t she?

Source: Niconico News via My Game News Flash
Featured image: Instagram/naomiosakatennis