On September 8, Naomi Osaka soundly defeated Serena Williams at the 2018 US Open in New York, becoming the first ever Japanese Grand Slam winner and igniting dialogue on Japanese ethnic identity. Osaka, 20, triumphed in straight sets against Williams, winning 6-2, 6-4, and maintaining poise despite a heated argument between her opponent and umpire Carlos Ramos. This victory makes Osaka the first Japanese player to win an international tennis tournament and rocketed her into the number eight spot in the international singles rankings.
Born in the city of Osaka to a Haitian father and Japanese mother, Osaka moved with family to the New York during childhood. Her dual citizenship has allowed her to play for Japan since the beginning of her tennis career in 2013, despite current residency in Florida. Osaka’s stardom as a biracial Japanese woman reflects the growing inclusivity of national identity in Japan, a country long viewed as ethnically homogenous. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe publicly congratulated Osaka on twitter, thanking her for boosting national moral in difficult times, in reference to the spate of natural disasters that hit Japan in early September.
Osaka’s background spans three countries and grants her unique international appeal, but she is not the only Japanese biracial star to make international news. In a country plagued by population aging — more than 27% of the population was over 65 last year — one demographic that continues to grow is mixed-race Japanese. The last few years have seen Japan embrace a more diverse understanding of national identity, evidenced by the emergence of biracial Miss Universe Japan winners Ariana Miyamoto (2015) and Priyanka Yoshikawa (2016). Osaka is not the first mixed-race Japanese athlete to represent the country, either. Olympic sprinter Asuka Cambridge and US Major League baseball pitcher Yu Darvish have also boosted the visibility of biracial Japanese athletes in sports.
A growing population of both Japanese Americans and Americans living in Japan shows strong people to people relations between the two countries, which have long enjoyed a bilateral alliance built on shared democratic and economic values. There were over 55 thousand Americans living in Japan in 2017, and 1.4 million Japanese Americans living in the United States in 2016, including Osaka; over the last few years, these figures have been on the rise.
The future is bright for Osaka on and off the court. Already endorsed by several large Japanese companies, the tennis sensation signed marketing deals this year with Citizen Watch Co., Nissan, and Adidas. Beloved by sports fans in Japan, the United States, Haiti, and beyond, Osaka embodies the power of cross-cultural appeal in today’s interconnected world.
Elyse Mark is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington.
Image: By Peter Menzel (Naomi Osaka) CC by 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons