Friday, 21 September 2018

US Open Winner Naomi Osaka: Japanese or not Japanese?

In Japanese Studies, one of the first and most fundamental questions is to examine who is (and equally importantly who is not) considered to be "Japanese" - and why. Judging from the popularity of my post on Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro, the issue of Japanese identity is also of interest to a lot of readers, so with this in mind I thought I'd analyse another famous "transnational" figure in the news, this time recent US Open winner Naomi Osaka.

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Unlike Ishiguro, whose parents are both Japanese, Osaka is a so-called "half" (ハーフ), the word used to describe those with one Japanese and one non-Japanese parent (Osaka's father is Haitian). As such, "half" describes the amount of "foreign blood"; the term "quarter" (クオータ), for example, points to someone who is "three-quarters" Japanese (i.e. has one non-Japanese grandparent, such as Namie Amuro). Osaka left Japan for America at age three, two years before Ishiguro left for the UK. Like Ishiguro, Osaka can't speak Japanese well though she says she understands the language better than her attempts at speaking in public suggest. In contrast, she is a huge fan of Japanese popular culture - Pokemon and manga - as well as green tea (ice-cream). Unlike Ishiguro, Osaka has Japanese citizenship, and had (in theory if not necessarily in practice) to choose between Japanese and US citizenship when she turned 22 since Japan does not recognise dual nationality (she chose Japan).

In the Ishiguro post, I introduced the classic "clover-leaf" (NEC) model of Japanese identity, in which nationality, race, and culture are deemed synonymous and form a "set." Using this model for Osaka we could say that Osaka satisfies the legal aspect, half satisfies the racial aspect, and perhaps half for the cultural aspect (represented by a circle and two triangles in the diagram below).
Of course, this is only a very rough and undoubtedly outdated model; in practice, definitions of who is and is not Japanese vary from person to person and depend on the degree of importance they put on nationality, "blood", and culture (or other definers such as self-definition). Some Japanese for example, happily include "half" in the Japanese category while others don't. What is interesting though is how the Japanese media have suddenly moved to embrace Osaka as Japanese after her US success, despite being pretty lukewarm before that. In a Japanese article in the Huffington Post Waseda Professor (and "half") Naomi Iwase notes how the Japanese media are happy to embrace someone like Osaka as Japanese when it suits them, but at other times freely promote negative stereotypes such as foreigners as criminals in a society where discrimination (such as by landlords) against non-Japanese is by no means uncommon."

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What I personally find most disconcerting is that at the same time that foreign media such as the New York Times (here and here) talk about Osaka "bursting expectations" about and "redefining" what it means to be Japanese, the Japanese media is doing its best to "Japanise" Osaka by stressing her typical "Japanese qualities" such as perseverance, shyness, humility, and modesty while playing down or downright ignoring her non-Japanese traits. John G. Russell, in a superb article in the Japan Times, concurs, arguing that the Japanese media (including advertisers) have attempted to reimagine her as Japanese by erasing all markers of her black heritage. He interprets the attempt to present her less as “hāfu” (biracial) and more as Japanese as an attempt to claim her success for its own and thereby elevate Japan’s international standing.

This process of "Japanisation" (=assimilation) is also something I noticed during my research of Asian brides in Yamagata: it was common to see the women pressurised to shed their "foreignness" and assimilate quickly and thoroughly. This process of Japanisation of the foreign (in order to remove the sense of discomfort generated by an incomplete "clover leaf") was brilliantly described in Crafting Selves, a book by Dorinne Kondo, a Japanese-American with minimal Japanese who like Osaka was raised in the US. Below she describes her experience as a grad student in Japan:

"Errors, linguistic or cultural, were dealt with impatiently or with a startled look that seemed to say, 'Oh yes, you are American after all.' On the other hand, appropriately Japanese behaviours were rewarded with warm, positive reactions or with comments such as, 'You're more Japanese than the Japanese.' Even more frequently, correct behaviour was simply accepted as a matter of course. Naturally, I would understand, naturally I would behave correctly, for they presumed me to be, au fond, Japanese...I had to extricate myself from the conspiracy to rewrite my identity as Japanese" (Kondo 1990: 16-17)