Olympics carry a question: What does it mean to be Japanese?

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FILE - In this July 23, 2021, record photo, Japan's Naomi Osaka holds the Olympic torch during the opening ceremonial successful the Olympic Stadium astatine the 2020 Summer Olympics successful Tokyo, Japan. The radical diverseness Japan showcased astatine the Olympic opening ceremonial besides highlights its deficiency successful Japanese society. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File)

TOKYO – Two multiracial athletes, 2 high-profile roles: Rising NBA prima Rui Hachimura carried the Japanese emblem astatine the Olympics' opening ceremony. Tennis superstar Naomi Osaka lit the Olympic cauldron. For Japan, it was a singular showcase of radical diverseness — but 1 that besides highlighted however overmuch remains missing successful a federation that values homogeneity and conformity.

Osaka and Hachimura, some of whom person 1 overseas genitor and 1 Japanese parent, were cheered warmly by galore adjacent arsenic immoderate nationalists pounded them online for not being “pure Japanese.” It has rekindled a statement connected radical individuality that points toward a peculiar and thorny question: What does it mean to beryllium Japanese?

Osaka and Hachimura person galore fans here. Both look successful commercials for Nissin Cup Noodle. Osaka precocious signed with Panasonic, and Hachimura, a Washington Wizards forward, appears successful ads for a Taisho Pharmaceutical vigor portion and for Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp.


Their occurrence coincides with an summation successful the fig of radical with multiracial and divers taste backgrounds successful Japan that comes arsenic much radical wed foreigners and much overseas workers arrive.

Tolerance to diversity, however, inactive lags.

Children from mixed contention families successful Japan, often called “hafu,” oregon half, relationship for astir 2% of babies calved each year. They are often chided for not being “fully Japanese” oregon bullied for looking different.

Melissa Luna Isomoto, who is of Japanese and Kenyan descent and grew up successful Japan, was delighted to spot her relation model, Osaka, correspond Japan arsenic the torch bearer successful the July 23 event. But she said her bosom sank erstwhile she saw online comments criticizing Osaka for not being Japanese enough.

“Those slandering Naomi-san besides wounded maine and others of mixed-race roots,” Isomoto said successful a caller interrogation successful Japanese from her location successful Yokohama. “It was truthful achy I tried not to work them.”


“She hardly speaks Japanese, and she is not axenic Japanese,” 1 Twitter posting said. “No way. We wanted axenic Japanese, oregon arsenic a compromise, astatine slightest a Japanese-speaking ‘hafu (half-Japanese)’ similar Rui Hachimura,” different tweet said.

Attacks escalated aft Osaka's astonishment third-round nonaccomplishment to Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic 4 days later, and immoderate radical adjacent celebrated her defeat.

Many critics posting online suggest they specify “Japanese” arsenic those whose parents are some Japanese and talk the connection perfectly. Many see those calved and raised successful Japan, specified arsenic Hachimura, arsenic Japanese, but deliberation of Osaka, who grew up mostly successful the United States and doesn’t talk fluent Japanese, arsenic much Japanese-American.

There were besides complaints astir Osaka's enactment of the Black Lives Matter anti-racism question and her comments astir intelligence health. In summation to her Haitian roots, Osaka tends to beryllium an casual people successful Japan, wherever experts accidental biases against women and intelligence wellness issues persist.


Growing up with African roots, Isomoto was repeatedly reminded that she looked different.

“I was often called a foreigner, oregon told to spell backmost to Kenya arsenic different kids knew my Kenyan roots, and sometimes called a gorilla,” she said. “Because of bullying and racism, I often disliked my ain roots and wished I was Japanese."

She gained assurance and started learning much astir her African inheritance erstwhile she met different students of multiracial oregon antithetic taste backgrounds successful precocious school. Still, unit to conform was truthful beardown she got her hairsbreadth straightened similar different Japanese students, trying to blend in.

Japan’s deficiency of tolerance besides affects intersexual minorities and taste Koreans and Chinese, who bash not basal retired by their carnal features but are discriminated against for humanities and governmental reasons, said Julian Keane, an Osaka City University sociologist.

“Naomi Osaka's torch highlighted the usage of diverseness lone erstwhile it is convenient for Japan and brings benefits," Keane said. Multiracial radical are seen arsenic “human resources” and considered Japanese lone erstwhile they execute results without interfering with the privileges of the “majority," helium said.


For example, Japan has eased its migration argumentation to let much unskilled overseas workers to marque up for a declining workforce successful the world's fastest aging state — but connected the information that they travel without their families and permission aft their contracts end.

The word “pure Japanese” is often utilized to beforehand unity and nationalist identity, and to people and exclude others. There is simply a increasing beingness of mixed-race radical successful amusement and sports, wherever their roles are expected and they are marketed for their looks and carnal performance.

Japan’s 580-plus-person Olympic squad has astatine slightest 30 mixed-race athletes, including Abdul Hakim Sani Brown, a sprinter calved successful Tokyo who is the lad of a Japanese parent and a Ghanaian father, and Olympic judo golden medalist Aaron Wolf, an American Japanese calved and raised successful Tokyo.

There are besides divers stars from the past: location tally king Sadaharu Oh, a Chinese national who grew up successful Japan, for example, and shot prima Sachio Kinugasa, calved to a Japanese parent and an African-American soldier, were mostly accepted arsenic Japanese and some received the government's prestigious People's Honor Award. Kinugasa, who was bullied for his mixed contention arsenic a child, died successful 2018. Oh participated successful the Olympic torch relay past period astatine the Games' opening ceremony.


Still, successful a state wherever conformity and homogeneity person been emphasized, beingness tin often beryllium difficult.

In May, Hachimura's younger member Allen, who besides plays hoops connected a assemblage team, cited a caller slander, saying connected Twitter: “People accidental determination is nary racism successful Japan, but immoderate radical marque racist comments similar this. I don't deliberation the revelation tin marque a difference, but I conscionable wanted you to beryllium funny successful the occupation of racism.”

Hachimura responded: “Messages similar this travel astir each day.”

Isomoto says she is present assured astir her mixed roots, and astir who she is. Like Osaka, her relation model, she hopes to assistance others who inactive suffer.

“If asked if I’m Japanese oregon Kenyan, I take neither. I was calved and grew up successful Japan and americium bicultural. I cannot take 1 oregon the other,” Isomoto said. “I’d say, `I’m conscionable me.'”


Tokyo-based AP writer Mari Yamaguchi has covered Japan for 31 years. More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2020-tokyo-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This worldly whitethorn not beryllium published, broadcast, rewritten oregon redistributed without permission.

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