Multiracial athletes sparking debate in Japan ahead of 2020 Games

TOKYO — Amid a shifting cultural landscape, a handful of talented multiracial athletes are among some of Japan’s best chances to reach the podium at next summer’s Tokyo Olympics and consequently draw attention to an often ignored yet growing segment of the country’s population.
At the top of that list is tennis superstar Naomi Osaka, who catapulted to the top of the WTA rankings following her breakout 2018 season and is now — to the host nation’s delight — a prime candidate for gold at the 2020 Summer Games kicking off in less than a year in Japan’s capital.

Osaka, who shares the name of her city of birth, was born to a Japanese mother and Haitian father before moving at an early age to the United States, where she still resides. The 21-year-old, who rarely speaks Japanese to reporters, has recently been the most prominent face put to the question of what it means to be “Japanese.”

Tennis star Naomi Osaka. Kyodo News photo

But according to Lawrence Yoshitaka Shimoji, a lecturer of sociology with American roots at Kokushikan University in Tokyo’s Setagaya ward, Osaka is just one of a new generation of multiracial Japanese in their late teens to early 30s born after Japan relaxed its immigration policy in the 1990s.

“There are people of mixed roots not just in sports but in every field (in Japan). It’s just that the sports world is more visible,” Shimoji said.
Shimoji says the prevalent view of the “Japanese character” was formed in Japan during the 1970s and 1980s based on a variety of factors such as nationality, appearance, and whether or not one could speak Japanese. “Naomi Osaka is complex in that respect,” Shimoji said, because “her outward appearance ‘isn’t Japanese,’ she doesn’t speak much Japanese and grew up mainly in the United States.”
But while opting to represent Japan over Haiti or the United States, Osaka — who at times exudes a typical Japanese demeanor — often dodges questions regarding her race and upbringing, saying she rarely gives it thought.

Likewise, Shimoji believes the goal of Japan’s multiracial athletes like Osaka and recent NBA draftee Rui Hachimura is not to change how society sees them, but to simply “post a good record in their sport, so they shouldn’t be asked to change the views of Japanese people.”

For Osaka at least, that seems to be the case. She summed up her feelings on the issue in a recent Nike ad where the young star shushes inane questions from English-speaking and Japanese reporters in order to focus on her game.

Osaka’s meteoric rise from 72nd in the women’s rankings in Jan. 2018 to world No. 1 a year later, however, has cast an inevitable spotlight on what it means to be an athlete of mixed heritage who competes under the Japanese flag.

“The arrival of Osaka and others has triggered the question of ‘What is Japanese?’“ Shimoji said. “It’s no longer strange to see people with roots from abroad. It’s common to see people from countries like Vietnam or Myanmar working in Japan. Osaka evokes debates like ‘She’s not Japanese’ and ‘No, I disagree.’“

Making an impact on and off a different court is Hachimura, who will likely head the Japanese men’s basketball team in an attempt to capitalize on its first Olympic appearance since 1976 after securing a host nation berth from FIBA.

Born to a Japanese mother and Beninese father, Hachimura made headlines with the Gonzaga Bulldogs and history when he became the first Japanese to be selected in the opening round of the NBA draft, taken ninth overall by the Washington Wizards.

With the Wizards’ backing, Hachimura will continue his role on the Japanese national team at the upcoming FIBA World Cup before making his debut in the world’s premier basketball league. The 21-year-old Toyama native will likely be one of the focal points for the hosts in 2020 as Japan attempts to win its first Olympic medal in the sport.

On the athletics track, Abdul Hakim Sani Brown looks primed to punch his Tokyo 2020 ticket after recently joining the sub-10-second club over 100 meters and later winning both the 100 and 200 races at the national championships in June. The 20-year-old University of Florida student, born to parents from Japan and Ghana, set a new Japan record in the 100 when he clocked 9.97 seconds at the NCAA Division I outdoor athletics championships earlier the same month, shaving 0.01 off Yoshihide Kiryu’s 2017 national record mark.

200 meters Japan champion Abdul Hakim Sani Brown. Kyodo News photo

Lauded by IAAF chief and two-time Olympic gold medalist Sebastian Coe as a “phenomenal talent,” Sani Brown is the latest multiracial runner to represent Japan. A pair of sprinters with Jamaican roots, Asuka Cambridge and Julian Walsh, have seen respective success on Japan’s 4×100 and 4×400 relay teams.

In judo, Aaron Wolf has been making his case to represent Japan at the 2020 Games after becoming the first judoka of American descent to win the national championships open-weight tournament in April.

Judo world champion Aaron Wolf. Kyodo News photo

Wolf, the 2017 men’s 100-kg judo world champion, recently won a Grand Prix gold medal in Budapest and appears likely to follow in the footsteps of fellow Japanese. American Mashu Baker, who won the 90-kilogram gold in Rio in 2016.

The 23-year-old has a shot at getting an official stamp of approval should he successfully capture his second title in the men’s 100-kg class at the upcoming world championships at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan.

Shimoji said he hopes the future success of Wolf, Osaka and other multiracial athletes can change the idea of “Japaneseness” but concedes that such a task may not be so simple.

“There is also the question of whether a handful of people like Osaka can really play an active role in getting people with diverse roots recognized in Japanese society,” he said.

Osaka’s choice to represent Japan — like that of Hachimura, Sani Brown, and Wolf — reflects the inherent difficulty of defining nationality for those with various roots, raised all over the world in an unprecedented era of globalization.

While Shimoji could not say whether such athlete’s success at the 2020 Games will leave a lasting mark on Japanese society, he believes it will at least get people of the ethnically homogeneous nation talking about its changing identity.

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