Although the initial reaction on Japanese social media to tennis star Naomi Osaka’s refusal to sit for the press at this month’s French Open as mandated by the organizers, as well as her subsequent withdrawal from the tournament over the reaction to that announcement, included strained attempts to explain her actions with references to her Japanese background, for the most part Japanese Twitter users were supportive of Osaka and required no further explanations. They accepted her admission of mental suffering, which is only surprising in that depression is still a relatively taboo subject in Japan (or, at least, it is when the object of scrutiny is a Japanese person).
Osaka is Japanese by birth, so her connection to her mother’s country has been thoroughly discussed and analyzed by local media, but, in the end, they have mostly given up on trying to find her Japanese essence. She is what she is, and if the French Open dispute proves anything, it’s that she isn’t going to be anything else. In fact, the local writer with the most critical take on the affair may be Robert Whiting, an American who has lived in Tokyo and written about Japanese sports for many years and who described Osaka’s actions as childish in the tabloid Yukan Fuji.
In that light, the most useful advice offered to Osaka as a means of dealing with her stated aversion to the obligations of superstardom came from local TV personality Dave Spector, also an American, who in a June 1 post on Twitter said that in the future she should just prepare a script for news conferences and then continually read from it verbatim regardless of the question being asked. Spector was thinking of the operating mode of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who wrote the ruling party playbook for confounding inconvenient press inquiries by repeating the same empty talking points until reporters just throw up their hands in frustration.
Spector was joking, but, in fact, Osaka is notorious for being a cagey interview subject, which is one of the reasons for her popularity — both in Japan and abroad — as pointed out by Louisa Thomas in an article for The New Yorker. Thomas writes that few people involved in professional tennis like news conferences, including the press, but they do have their uses depending on how you view famous athletes and whether they have an obligation to reveal themselves to the public.
Although news conferences don’t always filter out inane or redundant questions, they do filter out managers whose job is to make sure their charges don’t say anything embarrassing and, as a result, set conditions for individual interviews. Osaka is one of the few stars who has figured out how to get through news conferences, as well as the few interviews she does, without compromising her values and yet remain an interesting interlocutor, if not necessarily a completely cooperative one.
The question that Thomas provokes but doesn’t answer is whether this kind of response is a coping mechanism. In an article for the online web magazine Sportiva, Akatsuki Uchida mentions remarks made by Canadian journalist Stephanie Myles about Osaka’s behavior around the media. Myles is struck by the difference between Osaka’s attitude toward Western reporters and that toward Japanese reporters. With the latter, she is “professional” and talks about tennis, while with the former she seems to act the way the reporter expects her to act, meaning “like Naomi Osaka.” Such an approach could actually be quite stressful.
This isn’t to say Japanese sports writers don’t ask pointless questions the way Western reporters do. Retired baseball star Ichiro Suzuki was always quick to express annoyance with Japanese media, but because those interactions were in Japanese he could convey his irritation freely and immediately. Osaka is not confrontational, but since her Japanese-language ability is not advanced, she has the luxury of dodging inconvenient questions from Japanese reporters due to incomprehension. Myles’ assessment of Osaka’s behavior toward Japanese media was based only on her responses, which were in English. Non-conversant in Japanese, Myles didn’t understand the questions, which sometimes are pointless.
In an article for weekly magazine Aera, Asahi Shimbun editor Kosuke Inagaki wrote that one of the reasons for Osaka’s global popularity is her active interest in matters that have nothing to do with tennis, including the Black Lives Matter movement. What Inagaki neglects to point out is that this willingness to enter conversations on contentious topics distinguishes her from most other internationally active Japanese athletes, who would never risk their standing at home by courting controversy. (Exceptions are basketball player Rui Hachimura and pitcher Yu Darvish, who are also of mixed heritage.)
However, none of her various sponsors in Japan seem to be bothered by her outspokenness. They have come out in support of her during this difficult time, and though they may simply be reading the present situation, it’s hard to imagine that her actions in Paris reflect negatively on their brands. Thanks to her endorsement agreement with Wowow, the satellite channel was the only media that talked to her after her sole match in France, thus giving them the kind of scoop they could only dream about. Moreover, due to the monetary nature of their relationship, Osaka could probably count on them not to ask difficult questions.
So the only sports venue left where Japan can claim Osaka as one of its own is the Olympics, which is why some of the local coverage of her problems in Paris has been characterized by a nervous tone. Will she be well enough to show up for the Tokyo Games? After all, one of the reasons she gave for choosing Japanese nationality over American when she turned 22 was so that she could represent Japan.
Prior to last week’s announcement that she would play at the Olympics, an article in the weekly women’s magazine Shukan Josei had combed through remarks Osaka made in recent months in order to figure out the risk of her possibly withdrawing. The one hopeful note the article struck was that at least the Olympics organizers do not require athletes to appear at news conferences.
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency in Japan, please call 119 for immediate assistance. The TELL Lifeline is available for those who need free and anonymous counseling at 03-5774-0992. For those in other countries, visit International Suicide Hotlines for a detailed list of resources and assistance. Visit www.philipbrasor.com for addenda to Media Mix contributions.
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