Born in Osaka to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, the young tennis star rose to fame after beating Serena Williams in the 2018 U.S. Open, As reported by South China Morning, one year ago Naomi was ranked number 72 in the world, now she has made history as the first Asian No. 1 player.
And with her new found celebrity comes issues of race.
“When I first saw Naomi play I thought she was really calm, very mature on court,” said China’s Li Na, a two-time grand slam champ. “She was so focused on her game itself, no pressure, point by point and it really impressed me.”
As we previously reported, Osaka was preparing for the quarter-finals in Melbourne last week when controversy erupted after one of her primary sponsors, Nissin Noodles, depicted the biracial player as an unrecognizable white woman in an anime-inspired ads.
The backlash was swift, forcing Nissin to pull the spots and apologize to Osaka.
“I’ve talked to them. They’ve apologized,” she said. “For me, it’s obvious, I’m tan. I don’t think they did it on purpose to be whitewashing or anything but the next time they try to portray me or something, I feel like they should talk to me about it.”
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Words can’t describe this feeling. pic.twitter.com/MUMtR5stV1
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@Naomi_Osaka_) January 26, 2019
Daisuke Okabayashi, a Nissin spokesperson, said “There is no intention of whitewashing. We accept that we are not sensitive enough and will pay more attention to diversity issues in the future.”
New York native and Japan Times columnist Baye McNeil said he was “very surprised” by the ad, noting: “If you are going to sponsor someone who is clearly a woman of colour and famous for that – it’s part of her image and part of the package – why would you erase that in your advertising?”
Critics called out the sponsor for ignoring Naomi’s Haitian-American heritage, even though Japanese culture has long valued lighter skin. Also, despite an infectious and charming personality, not everybody in Japan is happy about it. A number of pundits and social media trolls have already stated that her Japanese is barely passable and she was raised in the US, so how can she be Asia’s first number-one ranked tennis player?
“I thought this was going to be a turning point because there have not been many people of colour representing companies here,” said McNeil.
“Often it’s not perceived as malicious or intentional,” he added. “But at some point you have to start attributing blame. This type of ignorance is by choice.”
Meanwhile, as the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo approaches, Osaka has become the most celebrated Japanese personality in the world.