How a tennis player, a beauty queen and pot noodles are challenging what it means to be Japanese.
Remember in 2016 when Beyoncé dropped her Formations video and America realised that Beyoncé was Black? SNL even made a horror film parody titled “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black,” where white people freaked out. Well, Naomi Osaka’s sudden rise to fame and popularity in Japan might force the land of the rising sun to consider what it really means to be Japanese.
On Monday Naomi became the world number one tennis player after winning her second consecutive grand slam, the Australian Open. After the controversy surrounding the US Open back in September, where she beat her childhood idol, Serena Williams, in the final, this finally felt like it was her moment for the taking: a new era in tennis. As well as her talent on the court, if you follow her on social media or watch any of her interviews, — her seemingly effortless, very real and endearing vibes — it’s very easy to see why the world is falling in love.
Back when she won the US Open, the global headlines were all about Serena’s outburst, but for me there is far more interesting story around Naomi’s national identity. Naomi is a half Japanese half Haitian and as far as the world is concerned she is free to move between her hyphens, Japanese — American — Haitian, while representing the land of the rising sun. But for the Japanese, there is a unique term that is more apt to describe people like Naomi and myself, hafu: taken from the English word half, meaning half Japanese and typically half Caucasian.
The stereotype of a hafu, — generally attractive with pale skin, big eyes and a tall nose — while fetishised, is not negative for the Japanese; I describe it as ‘not too white but familiar enough for the Japanese palette’. Japan is an ethnically homogenous society, with immigrants only making up one per cent of the population and has through centuries of isolation (island mentality) and having endured wartime racial ‘exceptionalism’ propaganda, developed a pretty ingrained notion of what it is to be Japanese. Although the nation faces a shrinking population, Japan continues to have tough immigration policies, to the extent that biracial people like myself are not officially allowed to hold dual nationalities: we have to choose at the age of 21.
To me, the acceptance of hafu into one of the most mono-ethnic country in the world always felt tokenistic: a way to make it easier for everyone to understand. For my generation, born in the 80s, the hafu people I knew or saw in popular culture were all half white. In part because during the economic bubble era, white American and European men travelling for business often met Japanese women (the case for my father), but also because of the influence of American culture, that since the end of the war, brought with it an influx of products promoting a white western standard of beauty. The entertainment and fashion industries reflected this and used hafus as models and celebrities across their campaigns. These ultra-beautiful hafus were to set a beauty standard not only for us mere-mortal hafus, but for the population itself. Of course, Japan isn’t the first and won’t be the last to have a white standard of beauty imposed on her people.
The idea of hafu encompassing anything more than half white was only challenged recently, when in 2015, a half black woman, Ariana Miyamoto, born and raised in Japan, won the Miss Universe Japan Pageant. The reaction on social media made it clear that the country wasn’t ready for a biracial woman, let alone a black woman, to represent Japanese beauty. “Even though she’s Miss Universe Japan, her face is foreign no matter how you look at it!” tweeted one user, another posted “The contradiction that is having a hafu Miss Universe Japan …”. While the Japanese media mostly ignored the beauty queen, the international press covered the story widely, where to her credit Ariana used her newly found platform to openly discuss the discrimination that she has experienced.
Fortunately, the sporting world is more open to the idea of mixed-race athletes and with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics around the corner the timing couldn’t be better. Japan embraced Naomi Osaka’s US Open win, with Prime minster Shinzo Abe congratulating and thanking her for “giving Japan a boost of inspiration at this time of hardship” — referring to the recent typhoon and earthquake to hit the country; The Yomiuri Shimbun, a conservative broadsheet, hailed her as “a new heroine Japan can be proud of”. The media widely reporting that after her win, the thing she was most looking forward to was having a katsu curry!
But can Naomi and her katsu curry symbolise a change in racial identity?
There is still a long way to go, as proved this week, when one of her Japanese sponsors, Nissin Foods, ran a whitewashed cup noodles advert in Japan during the Australian Open. The light-skinned animated depiction of the tennis star has now been removed and the company have publicly apologised with a rather basic line ‘we will pay more attention to respect for diversity in our PR activities’. As with many of the advertising blunders of 2018, (Pepsi, Puma, L’Oréal) I often wonder how these things get through advertising agency and brand meetings. Surely at some point there is someone in the board room, or editing suite that pointed out ‘but isn’t Naomi half black?’
I asked my Japanese mother, a tennis fan, her thoughts but while she is very accepting of Naomi representing Japan, when I suggested that she could shift perception, she answered “It won’t make a difference. It’s not because Naomi is Japanese that she won, it’s because she trained and lived in the USA from a young age. She isn’t Japanese in the same sense, everyone knows she was brought up abroad”
Unfortunately, I think my mother’s honesty reflects what the average Japanese person is thinking. It’s not ok but, I can see how Japan won’t accept her as ‘Japanese in the same sense’. Instead of whitewashing her though, the noodle company could have made a radical move and, you know, used the actual colour of her skin, so the advert could at least challenge the stereotype of the always-white hafu.
Then, why is the reaction in Japan so different for the beauty queen and the tennis player?
The answer lies in the subtle difference in the tennis player representing the country but not claiming to be Japanese. The beauty queen, while also representing the country, is claiming to be Japanese and this is what I think the average person finds uncomfortable. It’s the claim to nationality, compounded by the fact that she supposedly symbolises Japanese beauty.
If it’s a step too far to claim Japanese ‘in the same sense’ then the disparity between reactions lies with how well they fit into the typecast model of a hafu. These women are both half black but Naomi Osaka, with her love of Katsu Curry, is version of hafu that is easier to accept because she grew up in America, only has a basic grasp of the language and has a friendly appreciation of Japanese culture. Ariana Miyamoto on the other hand is harder: she was born and bred in Japan actively identifies as Japanese (albeit through a hafu lens), won based on beauty alone and is openly using her platform to talk about discrimination.
The only solace I take is that the definition of hafu has been slightly widened to include half black people. If they want to use Naomi as a symbol for Japan, especially come the Olympics, they need to accept all of who she is. Even if they try to whitewash her, even if it’s tokenistic, I believe that Naomi’s win and world number one spot will help shift perceptions in Japan. Yes, these Women of colour hafu (new acronym alert WOCH) will have it harder to be accepted as ‘Japanese’ than white hafus like myself, but it’s not as if black women aren’t used to fighting the same good fight outside of Japan.