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Naomi Osaka’s Second U.S. Open Tennis Title

By Ichiro Suzuki  On Saturday, at Flushing-Meadows, NY, 22 year old Naomi Osaka won her second U.S. Open and third grand slam tennis title. She was born in Osaka, Japan between a Haitian-American father and a Japanese mother. Her skin is dark though she does have a Japanese face. Naomi represents a growing number of mixed-race (many of them half black) young athletes in Japan, who are increasingly well accepted in the society. In the 2016 Olympics in Ro de Janeiro Japan finished second (ahead of the U.S.) in men’s 4x400m relay, and the anchor, Cambridge Asuka, was born in Jamaica to a Japanese mother. Rui Hachimura was picked in the first round of the 2019 NBA draft and had a reasonable rookie season with the Washington Wizards until the season was suspended. His father came from Benin to Japan. Chicago Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish, who is leading the major league with 7 wins through Saturday, was born between Iranian father and Japanese mother. These top athletes are well received. Naomi became an overnight celebrity two years ago in Japan as well as in the U.S. Forbes ranks her at the top of the best-paid female athlete list, with $37 million in 2019. Corporate Japan is known for pampering top athletes with a global reach, in the hope of projecting their brand’s image internationally. Ichiro Suzuki, the baseball player, has been extremely paid well, outside of his baseball salary. Kei Nishikori is one of the best paid male tennis players though he never won a grand slam title. (Runner-up in the 2014 U.S. Open was as far as he went, so far.) After winning the 2018 U.S. Open, Naomi faced a decision on her nationality. She had citizenship both in Japan and the U.S. Japan does not allow dual citizenship and requires two citizenship holders to pick one before he or she turns 22. Naomi chose Japanese as her nationality, stating her dream of representing Japan in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, which is postponed by a year. However, a real reason behind the choice could be commercial. Her life can be better financially with Japanese sponsors. Two years ago, Naomi has moved what it means to be Japanese in an ethnically-obsessed society, probably a few steps forward. For every two steps forward, however, there is a step back. In 2015, a half black woman named Ariana Miyamoto won a Miss Universe Japan contest. Though she was congratulated by many, some old guards raised their eyebrows complaining to the selection committee that why a woman who didn’t look like them were selected. Despite rising acceptance of those who don’t look like us, some people never lose a zeal in an attempt to keep the society as it has been. Mixed-race kids are often bullied at school by their classmates for not looking like them. Kids are often ruthless and cruel. Naomi left Japan when she was three and never attended a school in Japan. Had she stayed longer, she probably would have gone through bullying. While the Japanese society is slowly adjusting its attitude to people who don’t look like us, Naomi appears to have unintentionally raised the bar on the society’s acceptance of minority, by not behaving like typical Japanese. Since early summer, she has been openly speaking of her identity as a black woman. Then she became very active with the rise of “Black Lives Matter” movement, leading the rally among tennis players. She believes that she has a duty to raise her voice as one of the top-ranked players. In this U.S. Open, she brought seven black masks, each with a different name of a black person who is a police brutality victim, to be worn at each round of the tournament. At the beginning of the tournament, she had hoped that she would have a chance to wear all seven of them, and she just did it. Japanese fans in general have not been comfortable with Naomi as an activist. There have never been a Japanese athlete who was so active on political or social issues. In addition, racial injustice in the U.S. is an issue that resonate with few Japanese fans. They have heard of it, but it is not something they have a deep sympathy with. Many of them think athletes should be concentrated in their game, and nothing else. Though a Japanese citizen, Naomi shows scant interest in what is said about her in the Japanese internet space, in part because she doesn’t read the language, but predominantly because of her conviction. She keeps doing what she believes is a right thing. If she didn’t win the tournament, a shower of criticism might have fallen over her, that would have said “You didn’t win because you were distracted by something other than tennis.” With the victory, she has silenced such voice. Naomi has presented a next step for the Japanese society in general and Corporate Japan as well, about treating “people who don’t behave like us and act differently”. While diversity has become a popular buzzword at Corporate Japan, it is often very narrowly defined as having more women in professional positions or on corporate boards. At corporations, the realm of diversity has been expanded into hiring young people with foreign passports. Very often, however, these foreign employees who look differently are expected to behave in line with other people in the company. They are more or less required to ‘read the air’ and conform to the implicit norm. This is often how Japanese organizations are managed, causing confusion to many outsiders. Then, here is Naomi Osaka who has little interest in reading the air. She behaves as she likes and acts differently, but gets her job done better than anyone. In a sense, she is almost like young Steve Jobs in Silicon Valley. He kept doing what he believed in, without being worried about how he was taken by others, and delivered results over a long period of time though he caused a few messes. Here is an old Japanese saying: The nail that sticks out gets hammered in. Naomi is a nail that sticks out. Hopefully she doesn’t get hammered in. Receiving people who acts differently is the next step of diversification. Otherwise, Japan remains a suffocating dull place for bright, young talents who look differently from the majority of people. This is a loss for a country where its population becomes smaller each passing year. About the author: Mr. Suzuki is a retired banking executive based in Tokyo, Japan.


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