“For me, right now, I feel very, very proud,” Osaka told reporters Sunday at Ariake Tennis Park.
That message might be obvious for a young woman born in Osaka to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father. Though she was raised on Long Island and lives in the United States, she has chosen to compete for the country in which she was born. That choice, it’s clear, makes Japan proud.
That she is embraced here so much that she was granted the Olympics’ ultimate honor before she even struck a ball says plenty about her cross-cultural appeal. It may say more about the increasing willingness of Japan’s people to open their minds, hearts and homes to people who aren’t purely, solely Japanese. Both are weighty ideas, a lot to roll around in the head.
A symbol of a new Japan? Osaka’s deep thoughts on those topics — on being mixed race and a woman of the world but still accessible enough to be adored and marketable both where she lives and where she’s from — will have to wait for another day. Most likely, they will come in a medium decidedly different than a 140-second question-and-answer session held after her uneventful 6-1, 6-4 victory over China’s Zheng Saisai in the opening round of the Olympic tournament. Such interactions can be impersonal and perfunctory, and Osaka has served to highlight those deficiencies.
Speaking, then, is only remarkable because she did it at all. Friday night’s appearance at National Stadium — where she opened Tokyo’s first Olympics in 57 years — was among her first in public since she won her opening match at the French Open. She had issued a statement before the tournament saying she would not be speaking to the press over the course of her stay in Paris, a duty considered mandatory by tournament officials.
All of this created a debate, which is silly. If she says she’s struggling with issues so many athletes — shoot, so many people — have struggled with since the coronavirus pandemic strangled life as we know it, why can’t we trust her? As Osaka wrote in a cover story for Time, “It’s O.K. to not be O.K.” She starred in her own Netflix documentary, with a production credit to LeBron James, a project that began well before her decision in Paris. In the series, she conveys as vulnerable and uncertain of herself, even as she was becoming an international star.
What she is telling people — that even the most fortunate and driven among us aren’t always on steady footing in their own heads — is a message that should ring out from these Olympics. Indeed, it should be among the most prominent.
But the byproducts followed, none of which she wanted or deserved. Among them would be the typical tsk-tsk-ing from the Neanderthal set in America and elsewhere. Such thinking would have that because Osaka appeared in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and because she posed for fashion shoots in Vogue Japan and because she penned her essay for Time and because she promoted a Barbie doll and participated in her documentary — well, she must not be shy to the point of paralysis.
Look! She’s in a magazine! She’s not struggling with depression! Suck it up and talk!
It’s not worth giving the attention-seekers the attention they’re seeking for poking at Osaka. It is worth listening to her when she does speak because it’s clear that one of the reasons she’s reluctant to do so is she’s searching for the right answer — even if she can’t be sure what it might be.
“For me, honestly, I don’t feel that weird about it,” Osaka said of appearing before a few dozen print reporters Sunday. “It might feel weird to you guys, but I don’t know. I’m happy that I guess you guys are asking me questions, but more than anything I was just focused on playing tennis, and I guess I feel a little bit out of my body right now.”
That last part rings true, and it presents Osaka a challenge going forward. She is far closer to the beginning of her career than the end, so she faces the prospect of endless post-match news conferences. Athletes at the Olympics aren’t required to speak to the press, but they are required to walk through a cordoned-off area called a “mixed zone,” where reporters typically stop them for interviews.
On Sunday, Osaka stopped. She spoke.
“I think when I lit the flame, I was super honored,” Osaka said.
Is that particularly insightful? No. Is there value in interacting in this way? Absolutely. Osaka is better at answering questions than she possibly imagines, and the totality of those answers gives us insight into who she is and how she thinks.
But this is a process. It is a process here, in the country she chose to represent, where she became one of the Tokyo Games’ brightest stars without uttering a word. It will be a process over the rest of her career because she won’t continue to skip the French Open and Wimbledon annually.
And it’s a process that, perhaps appropriately, takes its next step at an Olympics because the Olympics are supposed to promote unity and solidarity and, not to be overlooked, understanding. Let’s take the next several days to watch Naomi Osaka play tennis and appreciate that because it can be wonderful. But let’s also listen to her, to what she says and what she doesn’t, to make sure she has the space she needs.