Following uproar over accusations of whitewashing, Nissin Foods Holdings Co. on Wednesday removed advertisements from YouTube featuring an animated depiction of tennis star Naomi Osaka.
The cup noodle firm, which sponsors the U.S. Open women’s champion, found itself in hot water with its campaign — which also featured fellow tennis star Kei Nishikori — as the pale-skinned character bore scant resemblance to the 21-year-old Osaka.
The ads “have already been dropped,” said Daisuke Okabayashi, a spokesman for Nissin Foods.
“We never had the intention to do what is known as ‘whitewashing,’ but with this becoming an issue, we will pay more attention to respect for diversity in our PR activities,” Okabayashi said.
He added that the firm did not consider either blackening or whitening the skin color of the characters. “We were trying to create them to match the world of Japanese animation,” Okabayashi said.
According to the company, Nissin consulted with the Japanese arm of Osaka’s agency in making the ads but failed to communicate properly with its U.S. parent.
Osaka, who has a Japanese mother, a Haitian father and was raised in the United States, has not commented publicly on the issue as she bids for a second consecutive Grand Slam title at the Australian Open.
In The Japan Times, columnist Baye McNeil wrote: “In a world that already informs people of color in so many ways that their lives are of less value because of something as superficial as appearance, I implore Nissin — or, hell, the country — not to continue down that path.”
The ads sparked debate on social media, with one user writing, “Didn’t anyone question why her skin color was so pale? Her identity is completely ignored.”
Another Japanese Twitter user complained: “This isn’t Naomi Osaka. Isn’t this clearly whitewashing?”
However, others noted that Nishikori was also portrayed with lighter skin, which tends to be the norm in anime.
The real Nishikori “isn’t that light, eyes aren’t that round, and nose is wider. They are both drawn in anime style,” said one defender of the ads.
Osaka has dual Japanese-American citizenship and often replies to questions from Japan’s media in English, apologizing for not knowing the appropriate word when she speaks Japanese.
Osaka became the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam last year after beating Serena Williams at the U.S. Open.
That match sparked a cartoon and race controversy when a caricature of Williams, who is black, showed her as a fat-lipped player jumping up and down on a broken racket. That cartoon was also criticized for whitewashing Osaka, who appears in the background with lightened skin and blonde hair.
The match was marked by heated exchanges between Williams and the umpire.