By Ichiro Suzuki
Prior to the 2021 French Open Tennis Tournament, Naomi Osaka has declared that she was boycotting post-match interviews that are mandatory for all the players regardless of the result of a match, citing her mental health. She went on to make her decision public knowing the $15,000 fine on a player for non-compliance, imposed by the tournament. After a first round win, she skipped the press room and was fined $15,000. In addition, the tournament authority threatened her possible expulsions from future grand slam tournaments and the WTA tour. Then she pulled her out of the French Open, and confessed her struggle with depression for two and a half years, since her first grand slam title at the 2018 U.S. Open.
International media has been largely supportive of Naomi, interpreting this issue from a broader perspective. The Wall Street Journal ran an article “Naomi Osaka, reluctant star, and the sports world’s mental health challenge”. The Financial Times had it as “Naomi Osaka shows sports’s shift in balance of power”. Notable athletes in other sports, such as basketball superstar Stephen Curry, came around to her side.
On a variety of articles and commentaries that sprang up on the internet, fans and readers posted comments that are overwhelmingly sympathetic with what she is going through. Such public responses have also moved the grand slam tournaments, which are now trying to lend her helping hands though it is not certain what they are exactly thinking about.
While the world at large is rallying around Naomi, one corner of the world remains harshly critical of her and of her conduct. It is Japan. Distinctively unkind comments on her are seen in the Japanese internet space. Japanese netizens call her selfish. They tell her that giving an interview as an obligation is stipulated in a contract. They ask “Why did you not tell your mental condition before the tournament rather than boycotting an interview?”
To begin with, Japanese fans would not like to see athletes making a statement to challenge authorities. They want to see a model athletes, by the standard of them, who perform brilliantly and behave perfectly ‘properly’. Some went on to compare Naomi with figure skater Mao Asada, who always gave polite answers to any question with her trade mark smile. Mao represents a sharp contrast to Naomi who sometimes gives a funny look that implies “Why do you ask such a stupid question?” to some journalists. To many ‘men’, Mao is what a female athlete should be. Japanese netizens made no shortage of negative comments when Naomi made a statement in the 2020 U.S. Open with black masks in sympathy with the Black Lives Matter movement. While her off-the-court conduct won her a wide support in the U.S. and around the world, Japanese fans raised their eyebrows at her action at Flushing Meadows. The majority of them was not able to stand with the fact an athlete was making political statements. Even worse, BLM was utterly beyond their comprehension.
At a deeper level, the vast majority of Japanese has little understanding of a struggle to win a right to something. There has never been such a fight as the War of Independence or the Civil War in the case of the United States. In the last 150 years Japan experienced two major events that were tantamount to revolutions. The 1868 Meiji Restoration defeated the rule of Tokugawa Shoguns that spanned the previous two and a half centuries and created a modern state under the Emperor. The move was made in response to aggression by foreign powers that tried to ply open the country that had been closed to foreign trade for 200 years. Some progressive feudal lords and their samurais rose against the Shogun over its weakening ability to govern for fear that the country might be run over by foreign invaders. It was not people’s uprising for their rights and freedom.
Another dramatic change hit Japan in 1945 when the country surrendered unconditionally to the Allied Forces. All of a sudden, Japanese people were relieved from an oppressive military regime that intruded into every corner of their lives and vehemently told them what they could and could not say. The occupation forces headed by General Douglas MacArthur removed a totalitarian regime and gave people freedom and democracy, which all of a sudden became popular buzzwords. Japanese were given these precious commodities top-down overnight, without ever shedding blood for them, unlike countries where democracy flourishes and some other countries where they are fighting for it.
Under the protection of freedom and democracy, as well as the nuclear umbrella provided by the United States, the post-war Japanese economy took off. Prosperity brought by the economy’s almost miraculous run for 20 years through the early 1970s became an envy of the world. At a time when factories in Japan were cranking out goods that were exported to the rest of the world, men and women who selflessly devoted themselves to their jobs at offices or factories, without questioning authorities, were given good marks. They were a kind of people the country needed in those years. After all, Japan is a country based on a strong Confucius tradition. The Japanese society had little problem in supplying obedient and well-behaved, as well as well-educated, workers. There has been no place for rebels.
So here we are. In the third decade of the 21st century, the Japanese society continues to hold onto images of what was believed to be a role model half a century ago, applying such images to athletes, students and men and women at the office. It has little capacity to digest someone who behaves differently from the most accepted norm even though talking about ‘diversity’ is fashionable lately. With a lack of deeply-rooted experiences of fight for their rights and freedom, most Japanese are clueless about Naomi’s struggle. Of course they have little knowledge of Billy Jean King who brought women’s tennis to where it is today. Naomi is merely a nuisance in a society where everyone behaves on a tacitly-agreed code of conduct. Before this French Open, Naomi was already a global cultural icon for what she did at the 2020 U.S. Open, and the rest of the world leaves Japan further behind. Headed by Nike, international sponsors are praising Naomi for her courage to bring a sensitive issue to light, probably raising her commercial value, while narrowly-focused Japanese fans remain frowned at her.
Naomi Osaka, reluctant star, and the sports world’s mental health challenge https://www.wsj.com/articles/naomi-osaka-french-open-mental-health-11622580539?mod=e2fb&fbclid=IwAR0ONnGT9ySTlRDbRmHy4yVUbqPRT7r6JUEgc-D7RJOl8SeCCWR_sJ8kisI Naomi Osaka shows sports’s shift in balance of power https://www.ft.com/content/7a380a76-9bd7-4d8e-8cc9-5544c6f51b68?fbclid=IwAR1SRhX8eZo-kF5vglhKTxjTPRdf-FizbgzGX3knGbexaJQ0ZOTzKUuinDQ
About the author: Mr. Suzuki is a retired banking executive based in Tokyo, Japan.