It didn’t take much of my 17-year tenure in Japan to learn that being Japanese has little to do with what country issued your passport. It’s actually about what I call the “ABCs”: appearing Japanese, behaving Japanese and communicating fluently in Japanese. And neither Hachimura nor Osaka can claim all these essential ABCs of being Japanese — because they’re both Black.
Even Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso has asserted that Japan is “one nation, one civilization, one language, one culture and one race”; he said words to this effect as recently as last year. And to my knowledge, aside from the recognition at long last of the Ainu as an indigenous people in 2019, there has not been an official nor unofficial shift from this position.
A survey of foreign nationals living in Japan found nearly a third of respondents say they have experienced derogatory remarks because of their background, while about 40 percent have suffered housing discrimination. Though there don’t appear to be similar surveys specifically of biracial Japanese, their experiences — caught between their Japanese identity and the country’s patterns of exclusion — no doubt come with their own challenges.
But there is increasingly a growing place for multiculturalism and “Blackness” in Japan in arenas such as music, comedy, beauty pageants and athletics. And for the purposes of the Olympics, Japan has decided to utilize the Black athleticism and excellence at its disposal. In doing so, the country stands to reap the benefit of appearing to the outside world as more open-minded and colorblind than it really is.
This could be an opportunity for greater understanding and inclusivity. However, the decision to spotlight Osaka and Hachimura was done without acknowledging that Japan is not made up of just one race. That persistent belief marginalizes many biracial and untraditional Japanese and encourages the erasure of issues pertinent to them, such as racial discrimination, diversity and inclusion. Indeed, the prominence of Japan’s biracial athletes should not be used to lend legitimacy to the inaccurate belief that there is no racial discrimination in the country.
If the exploitation of the Olympics by governments to make political statements about race and nationalism — and the presence of athletes whose experiences counter these narratives — sounds familiar, that’s because this is part of a much larger history.
In 1936, when Nazi Germany hosted the Olympics, America’s great hope to counter the racist myth of Aryan supremacy was Jesse Owens. A victim of America’s own evil system of discrimination and segregation, Owens undoubtedly understood he was being used. But he also recognized that this was an opportunity to show the world not so much America’s greatness, but the courage and character of Black Americans. And this he did admirably, victoriously, despite being snubbed by both Hitler and President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Then, amid the civil rights movement, sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the iconic Black Power salute in the 1968 Olympics. Their politicization of the Games, in protest of injustice in the United States and apartheid in Rhodesia and South Africa, was penalized severely. They were expelled from the team and forced to return home, but their victory and message will never be forgotten.
I don’t expect any of the biracial Japanese athletes in Tokyo to overtly use this Olympic platform to speak out. I’d die of pride — and surprise — if an athlete said, “Just because Japan sees 20,000 biracial children born every year doesn’t mean we are treated as Japanese.” But I expect nothing of the sort.
However, by fully vesting themselves in what makes athletics so compelling in the first place — the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat and the humanity of it all — I expect these athletes, whether they medal or not, to win over the masses in the end. Simply letting their spirits shine through, they can’t help but break through some of the ignorance and stereotype-driven presumptions. And this will slowly reshape what it means to be Japanese, until notions of homogeneity are revealed to be what they truly are: asinine.