On Sept. 22, as tennis great Naomi Osaka was delighting fans with her victory at the Pan Pacific Open in Osaka, a two-woman comedy act called A Masso was performing at an event in which they made racialized jokes about the athlete’s skin color. The duo’s jokes suggested Osaka’s naturally brown skin needed “bleaching” and was the result of being “too sunburned.”

In the wake of some apparently unexpected criticism of their remarks, the comedians, Aiko Kano and Ai Murakami, and their management company, Watanabe Entertainment, issued apologies two days later for making “inappropriate, hurtful remarks.” Good for them. And on Sept. 29, Osaka tweeted a response to the joke that deftly plugged one of her sponsors: “Little did they know, with Shiseido anessa perfect uv sunscreen I never get sunburned,” she wrote. Game, set, match!

When I first got wind of this story, I actually felt optimistic about the outcome. That’s because, unlike earlier in the year when noodle company Nissin found itself in hot water for “whitewashing” Osaka in an animated ad campaign — a problem that had to be brought to the company’s attention by non-Japanese people (yours truly among them) — this time around the initial outcry against A Masso’s set came from Japanese participants at the event where the performance took place. To me, that felt like progress. I’m a firm believer that the only way this country will solve its diversity and discrimination issues is if the Japanese people themselves — not the minority non-Japanese population — come to understand how these kinds of things can be detrimental to societal progress and harmful to Japan’s image abroad.

However, something was missing from these apologies that started gnawing at the positivity I was feeling over this little bit of progress. I admit, this is more of a cultural-linguistic thing, but both the members of A Masso and Watanabe Entertainment failed to mention Osaka by name. Without that name, I felt the need to look at the apology a little more closely.

The art of an apology

Go-hon’nin-sama o hajime, sasotte kudasaimashita menbā no mina-sama, shusaisha-sama, sutaffu-sama, shoshite kite-itadaita o-kyaku-sama, hontō ni moshiwakearimasendeshita” (“Beginning with the person in question, all participants who were invited, sponsors, staff and then the people who came to see us, we apologize very much”), said Kano’s written apology. Murakami’s was much the same except she referred to Osaka as, “fuyukai ni shite-shimatta go-hon’nin” (“the person we made feel uncomfortable”). Does this pass muster? It might, in Japanese.

One thing that I couldn’t help but take away from the written apologies is that, even though they might sound sincere in Japanese, they don’t really acknowledge what was done, how it was wrong or the effects of such problematic comments. For a country that apologizes profusely, it felt like these comics had a lot to learn.

Look, some jokes bomb. In the old days comedians would just deal with it and move on. When it comes to racialized humor, though, bad jokes (as well as well-received ones) can leave one hell of an emotional scar.

For example, years ago I used to date a biracial Japanese woman who was the product of an African-American father and a Japanese mother. Though born and raised in this country, her brown skin and curly hair made her look as conspicuously non-Japanese as I do. She was Japanese, though — and a very successful Japanese woman at that. As a business owner she had every reason to walk with her head held high, but she didn’t. One day she confessed to me that what attracted her to me was my “blackness” and her own desire to reconnect with that aspect of herself, the part that was lost having grown up here (her father had separated from her mother and returned to the States to live). For a while, it was working.

However, one day we met up and she’d straightened her hair and powdered her skin to a paler shade of tan — not unlike what was done to Naomi Osaka in that Nissin ad. I was aghast.

She told me she felt that the “blackness” I was putting her back in touch with was having an adverse effect on her clientele. She had actually lost a couple of customers and a couple of potential new ones had gone to her rivals, for which she blamed her rediscovered African-American heritage. Thus, in order to survive, she had to fit in. “Racial cosplay” is what she called it. I swear, when I heard her say all this I nearly shed a tear.

Not that I hadn’t seen this kind of cosplay before. I’m American so of course I have. This level of cosmetic assimilation by humiliation used to be commonplace in the U.S. Even now, “ethnic” looks are still under assault — high school wrestler Andrew Johnson was forced to either cut his dreadlocks or forfeit a match in December (he cut them so as not to let his team down). So, no, I’m no stranger to an oppressed minority’s tendency toward cosmetic conformity.

Still, it was the common-sense rationalizing of my ex-girlfriend’s decision that upset me. She was so Japanese, brought up on the old proverb of “deru kui wa utareru” (“the nail that sticks up is hammered down”), that she never fully acknowledged (out loud at least) the humiliation of this act. That’s what made me almost shed a tear.

In the wake of a joke

Back to this apology.

When kids are bad at school they know exactly what they need to say in order to get out of trouble. That’s what A Masso’s written statements felt like to me. They may be sincere, but I just don’t feel like they appreciate the depth of what they did — using skin color as a punchline in a country that still doesn’t fully accept people of that color. Japanese is worded in a way that if you say the right thing then your words will be accepted. Use the wrong words or language and people may get suspect. I just don’t know if progress is possible if we all read a pre-decided script.

The world is coming to Japan next year — both physically and in spirit — for the Olympics and Naomi Osaka is one of Japan’s potential Olympic heroes. If she stands on that medal podium, I hope she can be proud of her country, and that she won’t think of the tone-deaf jokes made by some people here, nor the rampant racial discrimination that often targets people in Japan who share her hue — those who are here living, loving, raising families, paying taxes and filling Japan’s need for a population to keep its economy alive and kicking.

You can say that what A Masso said was just a joke, but it was a joke that’s indicative of a certain mindset that doesn’t recognize diversity and discriminates with impunity. One that punches down. It was aimed at Osaka with sniper-deadly precision, but instead fired scattershot at her, my ex-girlfriend and any mixed-race kid with “bleachable” brown skin who could be the target of bullying at their school. It was aimed at all of us. And the apologies should reflect that.

I’m sure that there will be more apologies in the future for slips of the tongue and slips of privilege, but if our community can get the Japanese to start addressing the problem with blackface and whitewashing, as I’ve seen personally in the past two years, then they can work on their apologies as well.

Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. For more information, visit www.bayemcneil.com.

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