The biggest loser at the Olympics? Japanese racism

·5 min read
Naomi Osaka at the Tokyo Olympic Summer Games on July 27, 2021.
Naomi Osaka at the Tokyo Olympic Summer Games on July 27, 2021.

There has been a lot of concerned talk about proceeding with the first “pandemic Olympics” in Tokyo. But one glaring omission from this media conversation has been the importance of the Summer Games in combating racism, specifically the host country's “hafu” issue.

Hafu literally means half, but it’s used as a derisive term meaning “half-breed," someone born to one ethnically Japanese and one non-Japanese parent. Japan remains one of the most racially insular developed nations, and those considered less than pure Japanese have long faced bullying and discrimination.

Discrimination based on race in Japan

The latest 2018 census identified 98% of citizens as ethnically Japanese, and while we are used to forms asking our ethnicity from a dozen choices, in Japan most paperwork offers only two options: Japanese or foreigner.

CNN related the typical story of David Yano, a half-Japanese, half-Ghanaian citizen who was bullied at school and, in all too familiar fashion, says his looks have caused him to be stopped by police in Tokyo and discriminated against when renting housing.

Ariana Miyamoto, whose father's African American, was born and raised in Japan and speaks the language perfectly – linguistic fluency is a culturally integral part of what it means to be considered “Japanese.” Yet she says most people view her as a foreigner. Growing up, children threw garbage at her and refused to swim in the same pool. After the suicide of a mixed-race friend, she decided to enter a beauty pageant and try to change perceptions. After Miyamoto became the first half-Japanese, half-Black Miss Japan winner, social media was a mixed bag, with some supportive messages, others questioning the validity of a “nonpure” winner.

Fascination with Western music and culture led the entertainment, fashion and makeup industries to market the hafu image, glamorizing an international modelling look. But according to Hyoue Okamura, a Japanese scholar studying the country’s racial history, instead of unity, the fashionable buzz created a divisive “us and them” mentality.

So what has worked? Sports.

Megumi Nishikura, co-director of the documentary "Hafu: The Mixed-Race Experience in Japan," said, “Anybody who is able to represent Japan in a public way who is ‘hafu’ will open Japanese minds and hearts to being more accepting.”

There are few more prominent stages than Japan’s worshipped baseball fields, and before departing for the Chicago Cubs, wildly beloved Yu Darvish was the nation’s best pitcher. Adoration came despite his Iranian father, and in 2015, the Japan Times featured Darvish in an article, “Biracial athletes making strides in changing Japanese society.”

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But the watershed moment was 2018, when Naomi Osaka's U.S. Open victory made her the first Japanese woman to win a Grand Slam tennis trophy. Osaka, whose father is Haitian American, was a starker example of the hafu phenomenon, as she spent most of her life in the United States and English is her first language.

Sporting pride is a priority over racism

Nonetheless, Japan’s sporting pride prevailed, and the country claimed her as its own. “The first from the country to win a Grand Slam singles tennis title, which has upstaged most questions about her mixed background,” wrote local Associated Press reporters. “Japan has embraced the 20-year-old Osaka. ... But her victory also challenges public attitudes about identity in a homogeneous culture that is being pushed to change.”

The New York Times wrote that “Ms. Osaka, 20, is helping to challenge Japan’s longstanding sense of racial purity and cultural identity.” Indeed, her victory ignited a widespread social media discussion of what it means to be Japanese.

Japanese banker Tak Kawamoto read my new book, "Fans," and sent me this e-mail: “Thank you for mentioning Naomi Osaka. She is probably the most impactful mixed race Japanese ever. ... Recently, there have been other mixed race athletes like basketball star Rui Hachimura that have increased the visibility of mixed race Japanese in Japan. Watching YouTube videos, I get the sense that young mixed race Japanese are going from trying to hide their background to feeling a sense of pride thanks to fandom. I think if Naomi Osaka can win a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, it will be a game changer and I am praying for it.”

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“No one will be prouder than me when I compete for Japan in the Olympics,” Osaka recently said. But even though she didn't get a medal, the Tokyo Games look to be a big mover of the social progress needle.

She shares the stage with other mixed-race stars like Hachimura and track phenom Abdul Hakim Sani Brown, a legitimate gold medal contender and Japanese record holder (9.97 seconds) in the 100 meter – one of the highest profile events.

The Japan Times noted, “Some of these children, however, grow up to be Olympians – flying the flag for Japan and challenging the conventional definition of what it means to be Japanese.”

Many unknown athletes will also showcase this issue because the host country has cast a global net to find enough competitors of some Japanese descent to field teams in sports it has traditionally skipped, creating a historically diverse squad. The world’s most famous sprinter, Usain Bolt, was born in Jamaica, and so was Team Japan’s Asuka Cambridge.

So while it is easy to argue that the Olympics should have been canceled due to COVID, there would be other costly prices to be paid, one by Japan’s minority communities.

Larry Olmsted is the author of "Fans: How Watching Sports Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Understanding." Follow him on Twitter: @TravelFoodGuy

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Racism is losing at Olympics due to biracial stars like Naomi Osaka