Naomi Osaka tells a story.
He’s from Florida, where the world’s best young tennis players come together and compete against each other.
Osaka, around 10, was getting ready for a game at the prestigious Orange Bowl tournament.
Preparing within earshot of his Japanese opponent, Osaka overheard his conversation.
“She was talking with another Japanese girl”, Osaka told the Wall Street Journal.
“And they didn’t know I was listening or speaking Japanese.
âHer friend asked her who she was playing with, so she said ‘Osaka’. And her friend said ‘Oh, that black girl. Is she supposed to be Japanese?’ And then the girl I was playing with said, ‘I don’t think so.’ “
Everyone knows now. Osaka, the daughter of a Japanese mother and Haitian father raised in the United States, is the face of Tokyo 2020.
At every bus stop in Tokyo, the 23-year-old looks down from an advertisement, greeting local and international passengers. She is decked out in a neon pink jacket over black sportswear.
The slogan is written half in English, half in Japanese. It is the word “new”, followed by a symbol which can be translated either as “world” or as “generation”.
It works. Because Osaka, which renounced its American citizenship in 2019 in favor of its Japanese heritage, brings more than titles back to its native country. She brings change.
You don’t have to go back to Osaka’s childhood to doubt his place in Japanese society.
âTo be honest, we feel a bit removed from her because she is so different physically,â said Nao Hibino, currently number three in Japan, as Osaka entered the upper echelons of women’s tennis in 2018.
âShe grew up in a different place and doesn’t speak Japanese as much.
“It’s not like Kei (Nishikori), who is a pure Japanese player.”
She is not the first MÃ©tis or âhafuâ sportswoman to ask such questions.
Sachio Kinugasa and Hideki Irabu were baseball stars.
Neither they nor the Japanese public were interested in talking about their American fathers, the soldiers occupying the country after WWII, or the discrimination they faced.
Osaka is different.
âSome older people have ideas about how a Japanese athlete should talk and behave in public,â says Hiroaki Wada, a reporter for the Mainichi newspaper in Japan.
âNaomi doesn’t fit into this traditional mold. She made these issues very visible through her words and actions in Japan.
âRace and identity have been discussed more in the media and online because of her, including her political statements. She is a figure that sparks thought and reaction.â
Osaka entered the player bubble at last year’s US Open with a plan. She packed seven different masks. One for each round of the tournament. Each named after a black American who died as a result of alleged police or racist violence.
She used each, displaying the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Trayvon Martin to a worldwide audience on her way to the title.
It is a subject that Japan, one of the least ethnically diverse nations on the planet, still struggles with.
Japanese public broadcaster NHK apologized last year after an animated film explaining the racial justice protests caricatured black people and excluded some of the main reasons for the movement.
In 2019, the Japanese instant noodle company Nissin made, then shot, an advertisement featuring a white-skinned manga illustration from Osaka.
It is also sinking into a generation. Osaka’s mother and father immigrated to the United States when she was three, cut off by her disapproving maternal grandparents.
âI think what happened is that last year was a learning process for the Japanese,â says Robert Whiting, author of Tokyo Junkie, a book that details his nearly 60 years of life in the city.
âThere were talks on variety shows on TV explaining why Naomi felt that way and spoke like she did.
âIn Japan, the tradition is to avoid conflicts and arguments. It’s not like in America where you have this audience coming and going.
âIn general, the more famous you are, the more low-key you are. You don’t want controversy, you don’t want it spilling over to your teammates, your organization or your sponsors.
“Individualism is highly valued in the West, not in Japan. Here, harmony is the most important thing.”
If last year was about where Osaka was from, this year was about where it is.
In May, after initially saying she would not speak to the media during Roland Garros, she withdrew from that tournament and then from Wimbledon, citing poor mental health and long bouts of depression over the previous three years. . Tokyo Olympics should mark his return to court after two months.
She is the most prominent Japanese figure, but far from the only one, to raise the issue of mental health in the public eye.
International footballer Kumi Yokoyama, 27, revealed last month that they are transgender and intend to become fully a man once they retire from the sport. They explained how playing in the United States and Germany made them aware of the ignorance and prejudice in Japan.
In 2020, Hana Kimura, professional wrestler, committed suicide after appearing on Terrace House – a popular reality show.
In the general Japanese population, the number of people reporting mental health problems doubled from 1999 to 2014.
âTraditionally in our country, when I was a kid 40 years ago, it was a shame if you or someone you loved had a mental health problem,â Wada said.
âIn general, the perception of weakness, probably more in athletes, kept people from speaking.
“But things are changing. People are more and more open to admitting that people have mental health issues and that is something we have to deal with.”
And Whiting has no doubts where this change is coming from.
âI think Naomi Osaka and other mixed-race Japanese are still foreigners to some extent,â he says.
âBut this generation of Japanese is much more sophisticated than previous generations, they are much more global in their outlook with the Internet and countless TV channels.
“There is a larger understanding that did not exist when I came in the 1960s or the 80s and 90s. The world is now much smaller and Japan has benefited from it.”
New world. New generation. However you translate it, Osaka is a big part of it.