TOKYO —There’s a Japanese saying most high-school students here know, “If you win, you’re the Imperial Army. If you lose, you’re scurvy pirates.” It’s still very applicable to sports in modern Japan, especially when the players are of mixed race. “If you win, you’re Japanese. If you lose, you’re a hafu (half-Japanese).”
“Hafu” is the term in vogue for any child with one parent who is not fully Japanese; the term is controversial because it seems to imply that hafu lack something and is also reminiscent of the pejorative “half-breed.” Yet, alternate terms, like daburu (double), haven’t caught on.
When Naomi Osaka became the first Haitian-American and Japanese woman to win the U.S. Open tennis tournament this month, suddenly most of Japan embraced as her fully Japanese. No scurvy pirate she! Everybody loves a winner. Half-Iranian and half-Japanese major league pitcher Yu Darvish would be another example.
But apart from ebullient praise for super athletes, Japan’s xenophobia runs deep, and it’s something the country will have to conquer if it hopes to be a winning nation—not just an opportunistic fanboy.
The coverage of Osaka’s defeat of Serena Williams in Japan paid little attention to the controversy over the umpire; it was all about Osaka.
NHK, Japan’s state-controlled media, declared, “Naomi Osaka has beaten the American”―seeming to forget that Osaka is also an American citizen. In particular, Japan’s mixed-race nationals saw a kind-of validation in her victory. Chelsea Sakura Bailey, the 25-year-old-daughter of veteran Tokyo reporter James Bailey and Yurika Bailey, cried with tears of joy watching Osaka win. She texted The Daily Beast, “I hope her victory will make Japanese look at people who are not ‘full’ Japanese as an inspiration rather than just ‘different.’”
But will Japan still love her when the 2020 Olympics rolls around? Japan doesn’t allow dual nationality. Osaka, who now holds dual citizenship, must under Japanese law, forsake her other nationalities before she turns 22 if she is to remain “Japanese.” Japanese citizens who have have been nationalized in other countries sometimes learn to their surprise that they’ve been stripped of their Japanese passports and citizenship. A group of them sued the Japanese government this March, declaring the Nationality Law to be unconstitutional, out-of-date, and invalid.
In many ways, Osaka’s victory has raised questions about what it means to be Japanese and whether Japan is ready to create the multiracial society it needs to survive and thrive as a nation. It really does need to do this—the numbers says as much, but we’ll get to that later.
Osaka was born as the youngest daughter of Japanese mother Tamaki Osaka and Haitian-American father Leonard “San” Francois in October 1997 in west Japan. Naomi’s Japanese grandparents did not originally approve of the marriage, but have come to accept and be proud of their multicultural grandchildren.
The entire family moved to New York when Osaka was a toddler. Her father began instructing Naomi and her sister in tennis as soon as they could hold rackets. By the time she was 16, Osaka was playing professionally.
When Osaka now faces questions regarding her nationality, she responds “Japanese” and she can speak rudimentary Japanese and comprehend it; her listening ability may be greater than her speaking ability. Her love of Japanese food, culture, and Pokemon, along with and her humble self-effacing nature, are well-received in Japan.
She’s managed so far to embrace her Japanese background without being drawn into the discussion of defining Japaneseness.
She was asked at a press conference last week, in the Japanese language, “Your achievements have some people saying it’s time to re-evaluate the old idea of Japanese identity, which is to be Japanese you have to be born of a Japanese man and woman... how do you see your identity?”
Perhaps due to the way the question was translated to her by the interpreter, she responded with, “Is that a question?”
The audience laughed.
She went on. “Firstly, thanks. I don’t really think too much about my identity or whatever. For me, I’m just me, and I know the way that I was brought up. People tell me I act Japanese, so there’s that.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tweeted, “Congratulations Naomi Osaka. First Japanese Champion in the four major tournaments. In this difficult time, thank you for the energy and inspiration” after her win. For a man who did not congratulate this year’s Cannes Palme D’Or winner Hirokazu Kore-eda, because his film Shoplifters is rather critical of his current administration, this seemed like a very generous gesture.
However, amidst the celebratory mood, there is an undercurrent of online chatter that seems to disqualify Osaka’s “Japanese-ness” due to her not “looking Japanese enough” or not speaking Japanese well enough. It evokes the heated debate that took place in 2015, when Ariana Miyamoto, who has a Japanese mother and African-American father, was crowned Miss Universe Japan.
Roland Kirishima, renowned photographer, and of Japanese and Scottish heritage himself, tweeted in Japanese, “Japan surprises me still with its racial purism. You know it’s the 21st century right? I’m so sick of this island country insularism.” The tweet has been liked 56,000 times and retweeted more than 20,000 times.
Reina Grace Chelberg, a 27-year-old hafu who works for the United Nations, was happy to see Osaka win, but feared that no matter what happened, the message would get mangled. “For Japan to become more progressive, the discussion shouldn’t be about half-Japanese or not, but simply focus on being happy that a representative from Japan led the victory.”
Apparently, Japan isn’t close to that stage yet.
The evening tabloid Nikkan Gendai ran a tone-deaf feature with the headline “Harvesting Hafu Athletes.” The opening paragraph is as follows: “Is it that we must now rely on the blood of foreigners?…. Tennis queen Naomi Osaka has a Japanese mother; her father is Haitian American. She was born in Osaka but moved to America when she was three. Now she has dual nationality and can only speak a smattering of Japanese. She is half-black. When [Japanese] watch her pound out a 200 kilometer per hour serve with her 180 centimeter big-body [and hear her described as] ‘Japan’s first,’ there are probably not too few of us who think that’s weird.”
The article then points out for Japan to really excel in certain Olympic events, Japan will need to find more half-black athletes.
The same right-wing newspaper Sankei Shimbun that spent most of 2016 spouting bile at a female parliament member Renho because she once had Taiwanese nationality, was quick to claim Naomi Osaka as “Japanese-Japanese.” Keep in mind the same newspaper once ran an op-ed praising apartheid. But will Japan’s right-wing noise machine be tweeting her praises if she discusses sexism, poverty, racism, or opposition to constitutional change in Japan? One wrong word and the establishment will give her the elbow so fast that any umpire would have to call it a foul.
Years ago, a drunken official in Japan’s ministry of education, culture, sports, and science told me the official color of the Japanese people was mugi-iro (wheat-colored), “not yellow,” and then lectured me on the purity of the Japanese bloodline, as opposed to the American mongrels. Presumably, when on Sept. 5, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, also known for his admiration of Hitler, praised Japan for being “the only colored country in the Group of Seven,” he meant that color. Unfortunately, Naomi Osaka isn’t quite wheat-colored, nor are all the people living in Japan.
The alt-right in the U.S. and extremist elements in Japan like to credit ethnic homogeneity in Japan as the reason crime is so low and fatal shootings remain in single digits almost every year.
No. That’s primarily due to an omnipresent well-paid police force and gun-control laws that are strictly enforced. Ironically, the low street-crime numbers are also due to a still powerful organized-crime presence that forbids its members to engage in street crime; give the yakuza their due. Ironically, one-third of these outlaws are made up of Korean-Japanese. Another third is comprised of burakumin, who are descendants of the bottom rung of Japan’s long-abolished caste system often labeled as “untouchables” because they once butchered livestock and did other taboo work that supposedly gives them “tainted blood”
Even in what appears to be an ethnically homogenous society, especially one that values conformity and harmony, there are layers and layers of discrimination and xenophobia. Third- and fourth-generation Korean-Japanese, many of them descendants of slave labor from Japan’s colonial period, are blamed for every crime, accident, and problem in Japan. Many mainland Japanese view Okinawans as “lazy” and not purely Japanese; they are also subject to shoddy treatment. The United Nations has recommended the Okinawans be treated as indigenous people four times. The Japanese government vehemently protested, saying such a recommendation “does not accurately reflect the realities of our country.”
Mixed-race Japanese tend to be treated better the lighter their skin is, probably because Japan, once allied to Nazi Germany, inherited much of the racism that was prevalent in the West before and after World War II. You can still find bookstores with tomes on how the Jews are destroying Japan, in a country where the population of permanent resident Jews is said to be less than 2,000.
You can also be fully Japanese and be treated just as badly as a foreigner. Girls and boys who have lived overseas too long are “returnees” and have to be pounded back into the Japanese mold or face bullying for being “uppity,” “loud,” “opinionated,” “un-Japanese.” Lisa Gazan, a hafu herself who teaches at an international school in Tokyo, says, “In the last 10 years, returnees are more accepted into society but that’s in urban areas. Too much time abroad can make kids be bullied for not being Japanese enough.”
And of course, Japanese women, just on the basis of being women, and the LGBT community here, face discrimination all the time. To paraphrase Cormac McCarthy, Japan is a great country for old men.
Is Japanese an ethnicity or a culture or a nationality? Japan has an entire genre of navel-gazing books about what it means to be Japanese, known as Nihonjinron. The subject fascinates certain elements in Japan. The airwaves these days are filled with TV programs celebrating the uniqueness of Japan and the Made in Japan mythos.
There are of course, cultural values and virtues here that are more esteemed than others, from Akita in the north, down to the Senkaku Islands, all over Japan. These values are part of what makes Japan a great place to live. Often cited “Japanese” values are politeness, humility, service, respect, honesty, group harmony, and of course, reciprocity. All of these virtues can swivel into vices or weaknesses, of course. The value placed on group harmony easily turns into pressure to conform.
There isn’t much recent data on how the people of Japan define being Japanese―maybe it’s a poll no one wants to do. We did our best on Twitter, in Japanese. In 24 hours, out of 682 people who responded, those who felt it was nationality were 46 percent; 30 percent felt it involved accepting Japanese values and being a member of Japanese society. Another 16 percent voted that if you lived in Japan permanently and paid taxes, you were Japanese. Only 9 percent considered it to be a race.
That’s a surprisingly tolerant and inclusive view of Japaneseness.
However, what would seem to be the Japanese government’s view on the issue is put forth bluntly by Naoko Hashimoto, a Nippon Foundation International Fellow studying national identity in England. She wrote to the Associated Press: “In my opinion, it still appears that Japanese are generally defined as those who are born from a Japanese father and a Japanese mother, who speak perfect Japanese and ‘act like Japanese.’”
Hashimoto has also worked on refugee issues for the Japanese government in the past, so her opinion matters. And how Japan deals with refugees tells us a lot about the current government.
Japan last year accepted a total of 20 refugees out of the nearly 20,000 who applied. Japan then, in January, began limiting the right of asylum-seekers to work. This has reportedly resulted in an increase in the numbers in Japan’s 17 detention centers nationwide, where nearly 14,000 were already detained. The centers themselves have been plagued by a number of mysterious deaths and conditions are abysmal. The xenophobia behind recent “crackdowns” is apparent.
Prime Minister Abe has announced bold plans to bring more foreign workers into Japan, but refuses to use the word “immigration” or offer up any road map to let these people of “gaijin blood” become Japanese citizens. The government has been faulted by the United Nations for failing to deal with hate speech and appears to even be stoking the flames of xenophobia and prejudice. The administration was recently been chastised by even the conservative Japanese media, such as Kyodo News, for a much ballyhooed investigation into insurance fraud by foreigners that fizzled out, but still left the impression that non-Japanese were stealing tax dollars.
It’s not surprising former adviser to President Trump, Steve Bannon, praised Abe as “Trump before Trump.”
With a dwindling population but a slightly increasing number of international marriages, Japan has to decide how to combat racism, embrace multiculturalism and tolerance if it wants to survive.
Japan has to become more welcoming of foreigners and multinationals.
Yes, ironically, in a broader sense Nikkan Gendai is correct: Japan is really going to have to “rely on foreigner blood.”
It’s a matter of mathematics.
As far back as the year 2000, the United Nations Population Division in a paper, “Replacement Migration: Is It a Solution to Declining and Aging Populations?” noted, “In order to keep the size of the working-age population constant at the 1995 level of 87.2 million, Japan would need 33.5 million immigrants from 1995 through 2050.”
Japan’s ruling party, the Liberal Democrats, wasn’t always this ass-backward. In 2008, Hidenao Nakagawa, the secretary general of the Liberal Democrat Party (at the time), and his colleagues drew up a plan to admit 10 million foreigners by 2050, and at least 1,000 asylum seekers and others on humanitarian grounds. The proposal also advocated creating a “multiracial symbiotic society” that provides training and education for the newcomers. Good luck finding a copy of that proposal now―it’s probably in the pile of shredded documents relating to Abe scandals.
Japan isn’t even close to the number of immigrants the U.N. said it would need in 2000. The Nakagawa proposal would be a good start, if Japan actually wants to survive.
Japan won’t continue as a powerful and innovative nation if it only welcomes superstar tennis players with a great serve.
Those in the Japanese government who haven’t drunk the Nippon Kaigi Kool-Aid are very aware that the country has to entice people to come here and keep young people working here, especially with an increasing elderly population and ever declining birth-rate.
I’d have to say I’m not completely objective on the issue. I have two hafu-lings, and my oldest daughter, Beni, 17, will have to choose her nationality within four years. If she asked me for advice, I’d probably recommend to choose not to choose for as long as possible; there may be nearly 800,000 dual nationals who have done so and remain under the radar, living in quiet fear and trepidation. But as far as I’m concerned, and many here in Japan are starting to agree, even if she doesn’t choose Japanese nationality, she’s still Japanese. I’ve lived here 30 years. If you asked me if I considered myself Japanese... I don’t know how to answer. I’m a permanent resident so there’s that, but if I could have dual nationality, I’d take it.
Changing the laws to recognize multi-nationality wouldn’t be hard. It would certainly be much easier than a vigorously opposed attempt to rewrite Japan’s constitution. Discouraging racism, embracing diversity, and welcoming more people to Japan–the government can do that. They even had a plan to do so, a decade ago.
At the end of day, Japan shouldn’t be giving its people another reason to leave; it should be giving them a reason to stay.
— Mari Yamamoto contributed to this article.