Naomi Osaka's Critics Pounce on Her Following Her Loss, Undermining Japan's Claim to Diversity
The tennis star, who lit the Olympic cauldron, received a barrage of criticism on social media, with some questioning her identity and eligibility to represent her country.
Only four days after Naomi Osaka ascended the Olympic cauldron to light it, her image as a symbol of a new, more inclusive Japan was shattered on Tuesday by a backlash following her surprise defeat in Tokyo.
Many Japanese were taken aback by Ms. Osaka's third-round loss to Czech Republic's Marketa Vondrousova, despite the fact that she was heavily favored to win the women's tennis gold medal on home soil.
However, as the face of a Summer Games marred by scandal and anxiety over an unrelenting pandemic — Tokyo reported a record number of new coronavirus cases on Tuesday — Ms. Osaka took a beating on Japanese social media, with some calling into question her identity and eligibility to represent the country at all.
“I'm still perplexed as to why she was chosen as the final torchbearer,” one commenter on a Yahoo News story about her death wrote. “Despite the fact that she claims to be Japanese, she is limited in her ability to communicate in the language.” Numerous comments similar to that one, which were harshly critical of Ms. Osaka, received “thumbs up” from 10,000 or more additional Yahoo users.
Ms. Osaka, a Japanese-born daughter of a Haitian American father and a Japanese mother, has aided in the challenge of Japan's long-standing sense of racial and cultural identity.
She is enormously popular in Japan, and on Tuesday, several online commenters expressed their support for her. Her victories receive extensive coverage in the news, and her face appears on advertisements for Japanese products ranging from Citizen watches to Shiseido makeup to Nissin Cup Noodles.
Her selection as the final torchbearer during Friday's opening ceremony demonstrated the Olympic organizers' eagerness to promote Japan's diverse culture. Rui Hachimura, a Washington Wizards player of Japanese and Beninese ancestry, was also a prominent member of the Japanese Olympic team as a flag bearer. However, some segments of society continue to be xenophobic and unwilling to accept those who do not fit a very narrow definition of what it means to be Japanese.
“I was concerned that it might be a little too much, too soon, and that there might be some pushback,” said Baye McNeil, a Black man who has lived in Japan for 17 years and writes a column for the English-language newspaper The Japan Times.
Those who felt uneasy may have reasoned that "if we're going to swallow this Black Lives Matters thing and the country's representation, the least you could do is win" the gold medal, Mr. McNeil said of Ms. Osaka. “So now that she hasn't done that, some people are letting loose their ugliness.”
Even if they were born and raised in the country, mixed-race residents, or "hafu," as they are known in Japan, continue to struggle to be accepted as authentically Japanese.
Melanie Brock, a white Australian who runs a consulting firm for foreign companies interested in doing business in Japan and raised two sons whose father is Japanese, said that despite their education in the Japanese school system, they were frequently viewed as foreigners. Other mothers, she explained, frequently attributed problematic behavior to the boys' mixed race.
“I believe Japan is extremely strict on hafus,” Ms. Brock stated.
When she saw Ms. Osaka light the cauldron during the opening ceremony, she thought the Tokyo organizers made a "courageous choice." “However, I was angry with myself for believing it was courageous. That is not courageous at all. That is correct. She is an extraordinary athlete. She is an outstanding representative, and she is deserving of being lauded as such.”
Ms. Osaka may have pricked some nerves as well when she withdrew from the French Open in May following a disagreement with tennis officials over her refusal to appear at a news conference. She later disclosed on Instagram that she had battled depression and anxiety.
Numerous online comments in Japan following her Tuesday loss made disparaging remarks about her mental health.
“She conveniently became'depressed,' conveniently recovered, and was entrusted with the honor of being the final torchbearer,” one Twitter user commented. “And then she loses a critical game in that manner. I can only conclude that she is trivializing sports.”
In Japan, mental health is still something of a taboo subject. Naoko Imoto, a UNICEF education specialist who also serves as a gender equality adviser to the Tokyo organizing committee and is a former Japanese Olympian who swam for Japan, stated during a Monday news briefing that mental health was not well understood in Japan.
“In Japan, mental health is still taboo,” Ms. Imoto explained. “When Naomi Osaka addressed the issue, she received a barrage of negative comments, which were exaggerated due to the gender issue, her being a woman.”
“I believe that more athletes are coming forward now, and it is actually quite common, and almost every athlete encounters it,” Ms. Imoto explained.
Several of the comments directed at Ms. Osaka appeared to echo conservative criticism of the movement for racial justice in the United States, which the tennis star has vocally supported.
“Her choice as the final torchbearer was incorrect,” another commenter on a Yahoo News story about Ms Osaka's loss wrote. “Was the Tokyo Olympics' theme human rights? Is it to demonstrate Japan's recovery and to express gratitude to the numerous countries that have aided Japan? The theme is not BLM. I believe she was unable to focus on the match, and she deserved to lose.”
Nathaniel M. Smith, an anthropologist at Kyoto's Ritsumeikan University who specializes in Japanese right-wing movements, explained that online critics can now draw on a global pool of commentary.
“A Japanese online right-winger is aware of both Black Lives Matter and how white people critique Black Lives on Twitter as a result of being in the Twitter environment,” Mr. Smith explained. “Therefore, there is this shared digital repertoire of attack techniques.”
However, he added, "I believe it is well beyond the sensibility or awareness of the average television viewer, let alone the average person."
Indeed, some social media comments favored Ms. Osaka. Someone who claimed not to be a fan expressed gratitude for her appearance at the Olympics in one post.
“While I personally dislike Naomi Osaka, allow me to state one thing,” the poster wrote on Twitter. “We appreciate your participation as a representative of Japan. We appreciate your efforts!”