National / Social Issues

Naomi Osaka is Japan’s tennis darling, but could she eventually decide to play for the U.S.?

by Sarah Suk

Staff Writer

Amid the excitement of Naomi Osaka winning the women’s title at the U.S. Open tennis tournament last weekend, some in Japan are wondering whether she will continue to compete for their country at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The 20-year-old has dual nationality — Japanese and American — and under Japanese law will have to choose one by the time she turns 22 on Oct. 16 next year, although that regulation is rarely enforced. While the Justice Ministry officially has the right to warn dual nationals to choose one, it has never done so, and the Foreign Ministry has said it does not track dual nationals.

“I’m so proud of her,” said Hiromi Shibata, a 32-year-old Tokyo resident and tennis fan. “It doesn’t really matter what flag she represents because that doesn’t change the fact that she has Japanese heritage, but deep down I’m hoping she will play for Japan at the next Olympics.”

Osaka, whose world ranking rose 12 spots to No. 7 on Monday, made history on Sept. 8 in New York by becoming the first Japanese to win a Grand Slam singles title, beating decorated veteran Serena Williams in straight sets. Although Osaka was born in Japan, she moved to the United States with her family — including her Japanese mother and Haitian-American father — at age 3. She lacks confidence in her Japanese language ability as a result, and is often assisted by an interpreter during news conferences and other events here. She is among a growing number of prominent athletes representing Team Japan who have fathers from overseas.

They include 23-year-old judoka and 2016 Rio Olympic champion Mashu Baker, whose father is American; sprinters Abdul Hakim Sani Brown, 19, who has a Ghanaian father, and Asuka Cambridge, 25, whose father is Jamaican; and 26-year-old javelin thrower Genki Dean, whose father is British. There are some for whom this raises a question over the athletes’ identities as Japanese. But many in the nation welcome their contribution to raising the country’s sporting presence in the world of sports.

Kohei Kawashima, professor of sports sciences at Waseda University, emphasized the importance of embracing a “broader, multicultural” notion of what makes someone Japanese. As for the possibility that Osaka might choose to represent the United States in the future, Kawashima said, “I think it’s best for society to respect” any decision she makes.

Osaka is said to have expressed her intention to represent Japan at the Tokyo Games.

But Shukan Shincho, a Japanese weekly magazine, reported in the spring — after Osaka won her first WTA title in March at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California —that tennis officials here are worried people within U.S. tennis circles might try again to lure the young star, who has spent most of her life in the States, just as they did two years ago. Back then, the Shincho report indicated, people involved in U.S. tennis offered to “look after her in various aspects” but Osaka chose to continue to represent Japan.

That apprehension may have been amplified now that she’s won the U.S. Open and taken the tennis world by storm. She was unfazed by facing her idol in the women’s final at Flushing Meadows, in front of a crowd that was overwhelmingly partial to the 36-year-old Williams — who lost her cool during the match and repeatedly confronted the umpire after she was given multiple code violations.

Speaking mostly in English at a news conference in Yokohama on Thursday, hours after arriving from the United States, Osaka didn’t seem concerned despite the attention some have paid to her background.

“I don’t really think too much about my identity or whatever,” she said when asked what she thinks of overseas media reporting about her Japanese roots. “For me, I’m just me. And I know that the way that I was brought up — I don’t know — people tell me I act kind of Japanese so I guess there’s that.”

Tokyo will host the Summer Olympics for the second time from July 24 to Aug. 9, 2020, and the tennis competition will be held on hard courts — the same surface as the U.S. Open.

Regardless of which national team Osaka represents, the new darling of women’s tennis, who studies Japanese by watching dramas and listening to music, knows what she will be aiming for in two years’ time.

“I’m very excited and I know everyone’s very excited that the Olympics are going to be held in Tokyo,” she said. “I feel like it’s every athlete’s dream to play in the Olympics so I’m looking forward to that a lot, and I feel like if you play then of course you would want to go for gold so that would be my goal, too.”