Naomi Osaka continues her astounding performance and her meteoric rise through women’s professional tennis. After some heart-stopping moments, she prevailed in last week’s Australian Open final, and is now the world’s No. 1 female tennis player. As Japan celebrates her win, the country should use her success to think about the meaning of being “Japanese” and how to ensure that all its citizens are recognized and rewarded for their contributions.
Osaka defeated Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic 7-6 (2), 5-7, 6-4 on Saturday night to win the Australian Open and claim her second consecutive Grand Slam title. The match was close. After winning a hard-fought first set, she dropped the second, at one point losing 23 of 27 points, including three match points. She rallied, however, after losing the first game of the third set, reasserting herself to win the set and the match.
The victory gives Osaka her second consecutive Grand Slam win, after defeating Serena Williams in the final of the U.S. Open last September. In beating Williams, she became the first Japanese — male or female — to claim a Grand Slam singles title. She is the first woman to win two major championships in a row since Williams won four straight in 2014-15; eight women have won the last eight women’s major titles. And it has been 17 years since Jennifer Capriati became the first woman to win her first major championship and follow it up with a victory in the very next Grand Slam event.
The win has catapulted Osaka into the world’s No. 1 slot; at 21 years old, she is the youngest woman to hold that position in over a decade. A year ago, Osaka was ranked 72 in the world. Her rise positions her not only to be a dominant force in tennis for some time, but to also be the face of the Japanese team in the Summer Olympic Games that Tokyo will host in 2020.
While Japan celebrates Osaka’s extraordinary performance, her rise has prompted some soul-searching as well. Osaka, whose mother is Japanese and father is Haitian, has lived in the United States since she was 3 years old. She lives in Florida, and holds dual Japanese and U.S. citizenship. Having grown up in the United States, her Japanese is understandably less than perfect, but her hard work and commitment to winning, humility and respect for her mother’s country have endeared her to many Japanese.
There are reports of some Japanese wishing that a person “who was completely Japanese” would win, however, and it is likely that such sentiments are more widely felt than are expressed. After all, Japan remains a country that imposes tight regulations on foreigners who can live and work here. The Justice Ministry reported that as of June 2018, there were 2.64 million foreign residents in Japan, or about 2 percent of the population. And according to figures released last week by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the number of foreigners working in Japan reached a record high of 1.46 million, a 14 percent increase from the previous year and the sixth consecutive annual gain.
There remains ambivalence about that growth. In one recent survey, two-thirds of respondents said that a growing foreign population in Japan is good or somewhat good; less than 30 percent believe it is bad. Another survey showed that 51 percent of Japanese had no contact with foreigners, and that interest in other countries is decreasing. Fortunately, young people tend to be more accepting of foreigners; if they hold to those views as they grow older, that would bode well for Japan’s readiness and ability to accept and integrate that population more effectively.
Japanese companies quickly recognized the power of the Osaka brand and businesses like Nissan, Yonex, Citizen, Nissin and Shiseido have all endorsed her. But even that gesture of support is not uncontroversial. Accused of “whitewashing” Osaka — giving her lighter skin and a narrower nose — in anime-style ads that ran online, Nissin pulled the ads and apologized.
Such gestures are important, and Japan should seize upon this “teachable moment,” but it must also not overshadow or distract from Osaka’s great accomplishment. She deserves applause for her exceptional performance, and the country’s gratitude for showcasing qualities that it holds dear and celebrates. We wish her well and hope that this is only the beginning of a long and successful career at the pinnacle of women’s tennis.