Naomi Osaka: In Japan, blackface is ‘ignorant’ but ‘it’s not really a hate thing’

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@naomiosaka is our September Women's Fashion cover star! In the past year, the word shy has been used to describe her in more than 200 articles. But within a few minutes of speaking to her or reading her Twitter feed (where her banner has a photo of her late mentor, Kobe Bryant, and her bio reads “how to be unprofessional 101”), it’s clear that the Merriam-Webster definition doesn’t exactly fit. She’s not easily frightened, timid or hesitant in committing herself. And in the parlance of her own generation, Osaka is unfiltered. ⁠ ⁠ She doesn’t play shy. “Fear is something Naomi doesn’t know,” says her coach, Wim Fissette, who has been working with her since late 2019, after coaching players like Simona Halep, formerly ranked No. 1. ⁠ ⁠ “There’s no reason to be nervous on the court,” Osaka says matter-of-factly, speaking by Zoom from her home in Beverly Hills. At the time tennis went on hiatus, she was ranked 10th in the world. Of the long climb back to No. 1 that she faces, she says, “I’m not scared.”⁠ ⁠ As the highest-paid female athlete in the world, Osaka is standing up for Black lives while taking inspiration from her late mentor, Kobe Bryant. Read the story at the link in bio. (🖋️: @elk_elisa, 📷: @micaiahcarter for WSJ. Magazine, styling: @jessswill)

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Naomi Osaka won back-to-back Slam titles, the US Open 2018 singles title and the Australian Open 2019 singles title. Following the AO last year, Osaka struggled professionally and personally. Even though she had been working and toiling in relative sports obscurity for years before then, it seemed like a case of “too much too fast.” The hype was out of control, she suddenly got massive sponsorships – she’s currently the highest-earning woman in sports – and her game suffered some pretty deep lows. Naomi is currently in New York for American tennis’s attempt at Bubble Life, and we’ll see if the pandemic time-off did her game any good. In any case, Naomi covers the new issue of WSJ. Magazine, where she talks about Kobe Bryant and race. Some highlights:

Kobe supported her when she didn’t even know he was watching: “There would be some really tough losses. I didn’t even know he was paying attention, but he would text me positive things and tell me to learn from it. For me, it was definitely helpful.”

How people treated her as a half-Black, half-Japanese woman: “It’s a general way people treated me, but also I was representing Japan. So it kind of came from everywhere. … I might get in trouble for saying this, but eventually I’m going to have to talk about it. The issues of America don’t really translate that well in Japan, so sometimes they do blackface and things like that, and it’s a bit ignorant. … It’s not really a hate thing.”

Racial microaggressions within Japan: “I’m just trying to put a platform out for all the Japanese people that look like me and live in Japan and when they go to a restaurant, they get handed an English menu, even though it’s just a little microaggression.”.

One incident: Osaka recalled a tennis match at age 10 when her Japanese opponent referred to her as “that Black girl.” “She was talking with another Japanese girl, and they didn’t know that I was listening [or that] I spoke Japanese. Her friend asked her who she was playing, so she said Osaka. And her friend says, ‘Oh, that Black girl. Is she supposed to be Japanese?’ And then the girl that I was playing was like, ‘I don’t think so.’ I remember that specifically because, yeah, I sometimes feel like a lot of people think that way about me.”

[From People]

I found the racial conversation more interesting than the Kobe Bryant stuff, honestly. Kobe was somewhat well-known for befriending many female athletes in a wide variety of sports, and he was a big tennis fan too. But the race conversation is fascinating to me. Osaka was born in New York to a Japanese mother and Haitian father and she decided early in her career to “play for Japan.” That same multi-ethnic background which makes her so attractive to sponsors has also been a MAJOR conversation in international tennis, specifically in Asian sports and Japanese tennis. Many of those conversations have been racist AF, including this year’s debate in Japan about whether or not Osaka should support or speak about Black Lives Matter. Within Japanese media, her actual skin color is discussed and dissected constantly, with is part of the larger colorism seen writ large in Asian societies. What Naomi says here will 100% be discussed within Japan.

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Cover & photos courtesy of WSJ. Magazine.

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