Who Is Japanese? Questions from Naomi Osaka

By Keigo Nishio


[dropcap]N[/dropcap]aomi Osaka’s victory in the US Open raised a question about the nature of Japaneseness. Her win over veteran Tennis champion Serena Williams and the following media fanaticism became an opportunity for Japanese people to think about what counts as Japanese and how being Japanese affects one’s identity.

Naomi Osaka was born in Osaka in 1997 to a Japanese mother and a Haitian-American father and lived in Japan until she moved to the US in 2001. She has a dual citizenship, but she is registered as a Japanese player. Since she is the first Japanese who won the Grand Slam, Japanese people fanatically welcomed the news. All media posts featured her, covering not only her performance in the match but also her life history, identity, and other personal matters. Japanese society as a whole was drawn into a phenomenon called “Naomi Fever.”

On the other hand, some people showed sceptical attitudes towards this enthusiasm, focusing excessively on on Osaka’s Japaneseness. Japanese media sometimes featured her private matters rather than her accomplishment as a tennis player. At a press conference in Japan, correspondents asked what her favourite Japanese food was, what Japanese expression she valued most, or what she thought about her identity. Osaka herself got confused since she had expected to talk about her tennis performance. Some Japanese people emphasised how she behaved like a Japanese woman. For instance, there are many online articles which praise the respectfulness she showed during the press conference or when she bowed to Serena Williams. Some people revealed their repugnance at the excessive emphasis that she is a Japanese woman, regardless of her multi-layered identity.

Japanese people’s attitudes towards multi-ethnicity have been inconsistent. When Ariana Miyamoto, born to a Japanese mother and an African-American father, was crowned Miss Universe Japan in 2015, and when Priyanka Yoshikawa, born to a Japanese mother and an Indian father, was crowned Miss World Japan in 2016, there was a criticism for not crowning “purely Japanese” candidates. In contrast, when Kazuo Ishiguro, who was born in Japan but moved to the UK in his childhood and naturalized there, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017, an enthusiasm similar to “Naomi Fever” rose up since a Japanese novelist won the prize. While half-Japanese models, who were born and brought up in Japan and speak Japanese as their first language, they are prejudiced against because they do not look like what they call “pure Japanese,” Japanese people celebrate the accomplishments of Ishiguro and Osaka, who no longer live in Japan and whose first language is English. These contradictions reveal how arbitrary the concept of Japaneseness is. What makes one Japanese? How can one explain Japanese people’s inconsistent response to those multi-ethnic figures? Are there any consistent criteria?

While it might be possible to argue that Japanese people are becoming more friendly to ethnic diversity, they also seem to be still obsessed with their conception of pure Japaneseness. If they really appreciate ethnic diversity, why did not they describe Osaka as a Japanese-American or Ishiguro as a Japanese-British? The conception of Japaneseness does not tolerate multiplicity, fluidity, or coexistence with other national identity: one is always either one-hundred-percent-Japanese or non-Japanese.

Japanese people’s recent attitudes towards those multi-ethnic Japanese figures remind me, a Japanese student looking at Japanese society from outside, of the country’s history of ethnic discrimination. Since the modernization of the country, Japan has consistently emphasised its ethnic homogeneity, regardless of the existence of ethnic minorities such as the Okinawans (Ryukyuans) or the Ainu. The nation has forced these minorities to assimilate as Japanese and discriminated against them as inferior. People living in the Japanese territory have been judged by a uniform barometre of Japaneseness. Once one turns out not to be one-hundred-percent-Japanese, that person is likely to be exposed to prejudice and discrimination as inferior Japanese, and one’s multi-ethnicity has been one of the major reasons to deny that person’s pure Japaneseness. Former Prime Minister Nakasone’s remarks in 1986 that “Japan is ethnically homogeneous” and that “in Japan there is no minority population that is discriminated against” typically show the Japanese nation’s intolerance to ethnic multiplicity. Given this historical context, Japanese media’s emphasis on Osaka’s Japaneseness can be interpreted as an assimilation pressure for her to behave as a Japanese woman is supposed to do, or even an implicit discrimination by highlighting that she cannot be fully Japanese. If they really recognise her as Japanese, what is the point of asking her favourite Japanese food or expression? Media obsession to depict her as Japanese seems to be paradoxically underscoring her foreignness.

One can indicate some constituents of Japaneseness: appearance; origin; genealogy; nationality; name; use of Japanese as first language; practice of Japanese culture and traditions; political orientation; self-identification as Japanese. Appearance seems to play a major role. The main reason for attacks against Miyamoto and Yoshikawa was that since they are racially mixed, they did not look like Japanese women and therefore inappropriate to represent Japanese women. In contrast, as both of Ishiguro’s parents are Japanese, Japanese people were more willing to accept Ishiguro as Japanese. However, appearance cannot explain people’s affection towards Osaka. Other factors are arbitrary as well. For instance, even today, Zainichi Korean or Chinese (descendants of Koreans or Chinese who migrated or were forcibly brought to Japan during WWII) are experiencing discrimination and hate crimes even though they were born and brought up in Japan, and many of them go to Japanese schools, have Japanese names and citizenship. Moreover, Japaneseness sometimes relates more to political orientation than to identity. There is a tendency in extremely conservative and right-wing circles to call liberals or left-wings “anti-Japanese Zainichi,” regardless of their actual descent, since liberals pursue reconciliation with East Asian war victims (particularly on the issues of historical understanding) and criticize the current conservative government and the Emperor system.

After all, Japaneseness looks like a mass sensation with no objective criteria. Japanese people accept as Japanese only those who glorify the country but do not threaten the homogeneity of the nation. Celebrities like Ishiguro and Osaka add to Japan’s national glory but do not challenge its national homogeneity. Both of them do not live in Japan or speak fluent Japanese, so they are just “outside contributors” to Japan. However, people like Miyamoto, Yoshikawa, or Zainichi citizens force Japan to doubt its myth of ethnic homogeneity, and liberals support their human rights and dignity. They also challenge the boundary between Japanese and non-Japanese from inside Japan. Accordingly, those people are regarded as “internal threats” and denied their Japaneseness in the worst case. If my analysis is correct, the current conception of Japaneseness is merely an arbitrary and egocentric illusion.

The question posed by Osaka inspired Japanese American Students here at Yale. On October 14th, Japanese American Students Union (JASU) held a discussion event entitled “Who is Japanese?” and discussed the identity issue of being Japanese or Japanese-American. In the event, Japanese-American students revealed their complex feelings about having both Japanese and American identities. Some students said that they were treated more kindly when they spoke Japanese or showed their “typically Japanese” names during their stays in Japan. They said their appearance also played a big role since their Japanese-like appearance evoked Japanese people’s sympathy towards them. One said, “If you are white, even if you have been living in Japan for decades or naturalised as Japanese, you are still likely to be treated as a ‘foreigner.’” On the other hand. appearance can also be a cause of discrimination: those students agreed that they would be treated less favourably when they were mistaken as a Korean or Chinese. While their Japanese-like appearance serves to help them harmonise with Japanese people, the students also revealed that they had to emphasise their foreignness since Japanese people seemed to assume that they could not be fully Japanese. They don’t know much about Japanese etiquettes, traditions, or colloquial expressions. One said, “Even though I can speak fluent Japanese and was working for a Japanese organisation, people still treated me as a foreigner.” Another pointed out that such exclusiveness originates from Japanese people’s cultural conservatism. They are too afraid that their traditions would be destroyed by people outside Japanese culture.

The sense of alienation from Japanese culture creates a tension in the minds of Japanese Americans, especially later generations (like fourth or fifth generations). They have not visited Japan, or even their grandparents do not speak Japanese. Although they perceive themselves as more American than Japanese, they are still “Japanese-American,” and some of them have Japanese names, eat Japanese cuisine at home, and “look like” Japanese. Biological and mythical connection to Japan; sense of expectation to be like Japanese; unlikeliness to become or be regarded as fully Japanese. Being Japanese-American means living with these ambiguities, seeking to reconcile one’s multiple identities, but having no idea what exactly makes them Japanese (or non-Japanese).

Based on these students’ remarks, the conception of Japaneseness seems to be too burdensome. In order to be regarded as Japanese, you have to have fully Japanese biological trait, have a Japanese name, be able to speak Japanese and behave in accordance with Japanese traditional manners. Otherwise, you would be simply treated or even discriminated against as non-Japanese, or you would be welcomed merely as Japanese-like (or even as inferior Japanese). Japanese people are still refusing to broaden the conception of Japaneseness so that it can accommodate multi-layered identities. However, why should this conception be so rigid? Why should it be a source of mental tension between sense of expectation to be Japanese and inability to live up to this expectation? The conception of Japaneseness seems to be always reliant on how one is perceived by Japanese people, not on how one perceives themselves. But if the criteria of the perception of Japanese people are arbitrary, why does one have to care about that perception?

Today, it is necessary to liberalize the conception of Japaneseness so that it can be more friendly to the multiplicity of identity. Given the pressing need for labour force due to the 2020 Olympics and social aging as well as the rise of international marriages, the nation is necessitated to accept a great number of migrant workers. At the same time, some Japanese people have chosen to emigrate to and remain in foreign countries, but still feel some connection towards their country of origin. The conception of Japaneseness should also be open to those people.

Otherwise, Japan can not eliminate ongoing discrimination and assimilation pressure, which are creating unnecessary divisions and discords within the country. When Osaka was asked about her identity, she replied, “For me, I’m just me.” One is Japanese just in case that person perceives him- or herself to be so, and this is no obstruction to having another form of identity. Identity must not be imposed by society, nor can anyone judge the purity of another’s identity. It should be one’s means of self-perception and self-expression. If one feels connected to Japan, that person has every right to perceive and express him-or herself as Japanese. If one does not feel comfortable with being seen as Japanese, that person can reject any pressure to be Japanese. Once Japaneseness has become liberal, Japanese society as a whole can be more inclusive, harmonised, and attractive. I hope the conception of Japaneseness will be liberalized so that everyone related to Japan can say, “For me, I’m just me.”


Keigo is a sophomore in Branford College. You can contact him at keigo.nishio@yale.edu.