A Japanese noodle company acknowledged “whitewashing” Naomi Osaka in online ads that it said it has pulled. The tennis star, who plays for Japan and is also of Haitian descent, was depicted as having lighter skin and a narrower nose in the anime-style ads, which caused an outcry.
“We never had the intention to do what is known as ‘whitewashing,’ but with this becoming an issue, we will pay more attention to respect for diversity in our PR activities,” a Nissin spokesman told the Japan Times.
The “Hungry to Win” ad campaign was designed by manga artist Takeshi Konomi, based on his popular “Prince of Tennis” series, and it also featured Kei Nishikori, the ATP’s ninth-ranked player. The company said the depiction of Osaka, 21, was in keeping with Konomi’s well-known style, but a spokesman told The Guardian, “We accept that we are not sensitive enough.”
Osaka signed with Nissin in 2016, then enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2018 that culminated in a defeat of Serena Williams in September for the U.S. Open title, marking the first Grand Slam singles title for a player representing Japan. Seeking to win consecutive Grand Slam titles, Osaka defeated Karolina Pliskova in the semifinals of the Australian Open Thursday, with her Grand Slam exploits making major news in Japan. She will play two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova on Saturday for the Australian Open title; the winner will become the world’s top-ranked player.
Osaka was born in the Japanese city of the same name to a mother from that country and a father from Haiti, then moved to the New York area when she was 3 before honing her tennis skills in Florida. She holds dual U.S. and Japanese citizenship, but her father reportedly chose the latter country’s tennis federation, although Osaka has said she is uncomfortable trying to speak Japanese in public.
Baye McNeil, an American-born columnist for the Japan Times who focuses on the intersection of race and culture in his adopted country, wrote recently that he had been “anticipating Osaka’s appearance” in Nissin’s promotions “since it isn’t often that a high-profile woman of color is featured in a major Japanese ad campaign.” He said he was “truly disappointed to see that there was no woman of color to speak of in the commercial,” adding: “Everything that distinguishes Osaka from your typical Japanese anime character was gone, and what was left? Your typical Japanese anime character.”
“She looks totally like a white woman in the ad,” McNeil said of Osaka to the Associated Press. Claiming that Japanese companies would do well to address issues of inclusion when trying to reach a global market, he said: “They are not thinking on that level. . . . It may be painful, but Japan is going through growing pains right now.”
“We as a company put human rights first, and our stance of valuing diversity is unchanged,” a Nissin spokesman told the AP. “Whitewashing has never been our intention.”
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