Baye McNeil is an author who lives in Japan and writes a column for the Japan Times.
This week, Naomi Osaka became the face of Japan to the world. By capturing the 2019 Australian Open, she has raced to No. 1 in the tennis world rankings, becoming the first Asian to ever achieve that honor.
But even as this exceptionally talented biracial, multinational and (as she phrased it) obviously tan woman was displaying why she’s a champion, one of her sponsors, the Japanese food brand Nissin, released an anime-style advertisement portraying Osaka as essentially white. The company would spend most of the end of the Australian Open apologizing for the backlash over its whitewashed depiction of the athlete.
In her response to the controversy, Osaka said, “I don’t think they did it on purpose to be ‘whitewashing’ or anything.” But I disagree. In my 15 years in Japan, I have seen the same racialized carelessness when it comes to people who are not traditionally Japanese on many occasions.
Nissin might not have intended to offend, but the company’s executives likely believed that a commercial campaign targeting Japanese consumers would be well-received if it featured a light-skinned talent — and that they could get away with replacing Osaka’s Haitian features with more typical Japanese anime characteristics.
Unfortunately, Japan has a track record of squandering opportunities to embrace the country’s growing diversity. As with Osaka, the Japanese public has often discounted the Japanese-ness of mixed-race people — but hypocritically claims their successes when they rise on the global stage.
Osaka is not the first brown woman who has risen to prominence in a country that unabashedly worships “bihaku” (skin whitening). In 2015, Ariana Miyamoto, the daughter of a Japanese woman and a black American man, was crowned Miss Universe Japan. The following year, Priyanka Yoshikawa, another brown-skinned woman of Japanese and Indian descent, was crowned Miss World Japan. Both women faced unreasonable criticism on social media for not appearing “Japanese enough." Courageously, they both used their platforms to speak out about their identities and concerns. With their wins, even those of us with biracial, multicultural families and friends living in Japan began to feel more optimistic that our voices were finally being heard.
Yet time and time again, our optimism was eroded by disturbing instances of narrow-mindedness and insular thinking. For example, blackface continues to be a recurring issue. In 2015, the groups Rats & Star and Momoiro Clover Z decided to team up and perform on national television in blackface. Though there was a successful petition that preempted its airing, it failed to make inroads into public discourse.
But, when another disturbing blackface incident occurred in 2017, something changed. Instead of the criticism being ignored, there was finally public discourse on blackface on television, in print media and on the Internet. The Tokyo Broadcasting System even invited me to teach the staff and executives about the history of blackface in Japan and to counsel them on what measures the company could take to increase diversity and representation in the media. These were positive steps forward.
Now, after Osaka’s win and the response to the Nissin ad, I’m hopeful that there will be an even stronger response. The consensus, even on Japanese social media, is that Nissin deserves at least some of the criticism it has received. Osaka herself gently rebuked the company when she said, “I definitely think that, next time they try to portray me or something, I feel like they should talk to me about it.” Her rise and dignified response to this incident has elevated the issue and catalyzed an important conversation.
Japan is at a critical juncture in its history. It must decide how the country will face the future. Will it move forward and acknowledge with respect the vast array of races, ethnicities and cultures that call this country home? Or will it move backward and continue to maintain the myth that it is homogeneous?
The reality is that Japan has an expanding biracial population. With more than 20,000 international marriages per year and an estimated 36,000 children with at least one non-Japanese parent born per year, the country is changing — and it’s time to recognize and embrace that.
The days of hiding behind notions of homogeneity are numbered. Japan is a multicultural country, and its diversity — exemplified by women such as Osaka, Miyamoto and Yoshikawa — is rising to the top. The rapidly approaching 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, which will spotlight other nontraditional Japanese athletes, in addition to Osaka herself, will present numerous opportunities for Japan to show which direction it has decided to take. And the world will have front-row seats.