One of the most notable changes to Japan’s once-homogenous sports scene over the last decade has been the rising prominence of multiracial athletes, a change that was spotlighted at the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony by Naomi Osaka and Rui Hachimura.
With Osaka taking center stage lighting the cauldron at the opening ceremony and Hachimura carrying the Japanese flag alongside wrestler Yui Susaki — not to mention a 583-athlete delegation that includes a significant number of athletes from various backgrounds — the shift is becoming increasingly obvious.
“Undoubtedly the greatest athletic achievement and honor I will ever have in my life,” Osaka tweeted after the opening ceremony. “I have no words to describe the feelings I have right now but I do know I am currently filled with gratefulness and thankfulness.”
Historically, the public has tended to separately classify multiracial citizens from monoracial citizens.
But Kohei Kawashima, a professor of Sport Sciences at Waseda University, said that the definition of “Japanese” has gradually transformed over the last “10, 20 years,” with the public becoming more aware that a greater number of multiracial people — including in the world of sports — are part of Japanese society.
“Hopefully, the Tokyo Olympics are an opportunity for Japan to stop differentiating biracial athletes from those who are not and view them all as just the same,” Kawashima told The Japan Times in an online interview on Tuesday
Still, Kawashima noted that Japan is seeing multiracial athletes playing team sports, not just individual ones, coming through the ranks alongside monoracial athletes, working toward common goals and achieving victories.
“I’ll watch team sports like rugby and basketball with curiosity this time because they’ve got athletes from different backgrounds who are working together to win,” Kawashima said. “I think the public seeing that will have a bigger impact (on society).”
Indeed, at the Tokyo Games, biracial athletes won’t just be competing — many are expected to be standing on medal podiums before the games are finished.
Among the contingent of multiracial Japanese, some of the biggest names are Osaka, a two-time U.S. Open champion, Hachimura, of the NBA’s Washington Wizards, and sprinter Abdul Hakim Sani Brown.
World No. 2 Osaka, whose father is Haitian, will be facing high expectations of a gold medal from the home fans at her first Summer Games.
According to a recent survey conducted by Sanno University about Japanese athletes at the Olympics, the four-time Grand Slam winner was predicted to win gold by 34.3% of the 8,164 respondents — the highest rate, and outpacing badminton’s Kento Momota and swimmer Rikako Ikee.
Due in part to the nature of tennis as an individual sport, the 23-year-old will likely draw enormous attention off the court, as well.
Osaka has been vocal about human rights through the Black Lives Matter movement and more recently drew both praise and criticism following her decision to skip news conferences at the French Open, citing mental health concerns. She later withdrew from the tournament after her first round match.
Hachimura, whose father is Beninese, is another big name to look out for.
In Japan, basketball has long lagged behind baseball and soccer in terms of popularity, but Hachimura has helped raise the game’s profile significantly over the last few years with his ascension to the NBA.
Japan’s national basketball team, itself, could also play a role in highlighting diversity since a number of its players besides the budding NBA star also have international backgrounds.
Including Hachimura, four of the 12 players on the roster are biracial and two others are naturalized Japanese citizens. The women’s national squad and the men’s and women’s 3×3 teams also have diverse rosters.
Sani Brown, meanwhile, has struggled since the start of the pandemic, which wreaked havoc with athletes’ training and competition regimens. At the Olympic trials in June, he barely managed to secure Olympic spots in the 200 meters and on the 4×100-meter relay team.
Prior to his slump, Sani Brown was hyped as the potentially dominant new kid on the block for Japanese athletics. He advanced to the 200-meter final at the 2017 World Championships in London at age 18 and broke the national 100-meter record (9.97), a time that was later bested by current teammate and Japan captain Ryota Yamagata, at the NCAA championships in 2019.
All three could prove to play key roles at the Games in helping shift public perceptions.
Kawashima, the Waseda professor specializing in the theory and history of sports culture, particularly that of the U.S., cited the influences sprinter Jesse Owens and baseball’s Jackie Robinson brought to the United States decades ago in breaking down color barriers.
Drastic social change, however, was unlikely to result overnight from the mere appearances of these athletes. That, he said, was likely to take a generation.
“So the current children see more influential biracial athletes competing and when they reach their 20s, 30s, then Japanese society might look differently from what it does today,” Kawashima said. “And if that happens, this Tokyo Olympics is going to be a turning point — I’d like to believe that.”
Other prominent biracial Japanese athletes at the Tokyo Games
Beyond big-name figures like Naomi Osaka, Rui Hachimura and Abdul Hakim Sani Brown, Japan has a number of other multiracial athletes looking to make their mark at the Tokyo Games.
Sani Brown’s fellow biracial sprinter, Bruno Dede, has recently drawn attention with his exploits. For the 100 final at the national championships a month ago, the spotlight was on the battle between the five established male sprinters —Sani Brown, Ryota Yamagata, Yoshihide Kiryu, Yuki Koike and Shuhei Tada – for spots in the Olympics. But the 21-year-old Dede stunned spectators by finishing second, only behind the winner Tada, with a personal best of 10.19.
Dede, whose father is Nigerian, finished runner-up with another personal best of 20.63 in the 200 as well and was later selected as a 4×100 relay member for the Games.
In the men’s welterweight boxing competition, Sewon Okazawa is looking to capture a medal. The 25-year-old southpaw, whose father is Ghanaian, triumphed in an event in Khabarovsk, Russia, over other powerhouse boxers last month to give himself momentum heading into the Summer Games.
The men’s national handball squad has a pair of multiracial players in Remi Anri Doi and Adam Yuki Baig, who have French and Pakistani fathers, respectively. The 31-year-old Doi, who played for C’Chartres Metropole of the French league second division, is one of the faces for Japanese handball and his popularity is evident by the 2.4 million followers he has on his TikTok account.
In men’s judo, Aaron Wolf, whose father is American, represents Japan in the 100-kg class and hopes to bring the country its first Olympic gold in the division since Kosei Inoue at the 2000 Sydney Games.
Sergio and Ricardo Suzuki were born to a Bolivian mother and Japanese father and will take the mat in the men’s taekwondo competition. Both got their start in the sport when they were living in Bolivia with Sergio, the older brother, having been inspired by Bruce Lee’s film “Enter the Dragon.”
Tennis player Ben McLachlan, partnering Kei Nishikori in men’s doubles, and Reo Takahashi, of sailing’s 49er class, have fathers from New Zealand. Kenji Nener of the men’s triathlon was born to Japanese mother and Australian father.
Yasuaki Yamasaki, a Yokohama DeNA BayStars reliever who is part of the national baseball team, has a Filipino mother.
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