Naomi Osaka, a New Governor and Me
Posted October 7, 2018 1:19 a.m. EDT
Updated October 7, 2018 1:24 a.m. EDT
TOKYO — Just over 40 years ago, when my family moved from California to Tokyo, the fact that my mother was Japanese did not stop schoolchildren from pointing at me and yelling “Gaijin!” — the Japanese word for foreigner — as I walked down the street.
After seeing my red-haired, blue-eyed father, a shopkeeper in the suburb where we lived asked my mother what it was like to work as a nanny in the American’s house.
When we moved back to California two years later, I entered fourth grade and, suddenly, I was the Asian kid. “Ching chong chang chong ching!” boys chanted on the playground, tugging at the corners of their eyes. Classmates scrunched their noses at the onigiri — rice balls wrapped in dried seaweed — my mother packed in my lunch bag. When our teacher mentioned Japan during a social studies lesson, every head in the class swiveled to stare at me.
Now, back in Tokyo as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, I am no longer pointed at by people on the street. But I am incontrovertibly regarded as a foreigner. When I hand over my business card, people look at my face and then ask in confusion how I got my first name. My Japanese-ness, it seems, barely registers.
In the past few weeks, covering local reaction to tennis champion Naomi Osaka, the daughter of a Japanese mother and Haitian-American father, and Denny Tamaki, who is the son of a Japanese mother and a white American Marine and was elected governor of Okinawa last weekend, I have wondered whether Japanese attitudes toward identity are slowly starting to accommodate those of us with mixed heritages.
For the past two decades, roughly 1 in 50 children born in Japan each year have had one foreign parent. Here, we are known as “hafu,” which comes from the English word “half,” and our existence challenges the strain in Japanese society that conflates national identity with pure-blooded ethnicity.
During Tamaki’s campaign for governor in Okinawa, some on social media insinuated he wasn’t really Japanese. Others likened his candidacy to that of Barack Obama in 2008. “A ‘hafu’ child is going to become a leader,” someone wrote on Twitter. “Let’s see a dream in Okinawa, too, just like people saw when Obama became the president in America.”
When Osaka arrived in Tokyo last month shortly after winning the U.S. Open playing for Japan, a Japanese reporter asked her what she thought about her identity, setting off a contorted debate in traditional and social media about whether the question was appropriate. Osaka delivered the best possible reply: “I’m just me.”
Her relaxed, even insouciant, sense of how her heritage defines her has made me feel less tortured about my own. I have long felt like a bit of an impostor because I am not quite fluent in the language. But Osaka’s Japanese is imperfect, too.
As a champion, Osaka has been widely feted, with Japanese media following her breathlessly during her stay in Tokyo last month, obsessing over her search for good green tea ice cream. A Yonex tennis racket similar to one she uses and a Citizen watch model that she wore when she beat Serena Williams at the Open are selling vigorously in Japan.
Osaka seems to have been more publicly welcomed than Ariana Miyamoto, a half-black, half-Japanese woman who was crowned Miss Universe Japan in 2015. Then, the judges who selected her were criticized by people who said she did not look sufficiently Japanese.
Still, the public has embraced a number of “hafu” athletes and television performers in Japan, although their popularity can disguise an underlying ambivalence. “There is a mixture of envy and discomfort,” said Gracia Liu Farrar, a professor of sociology at Waseda University in Tokyo who studies immigration.
I am acutely aware that to the extent otherness is increasingly accepted, it is of the variety that most Japanese people can immediately see. Being part-white in Japan accords privilege that people with mixed-Asian heritage rarely enjoy. When a half-Taiwanese politician ran for leadership of the opposition party, for example, nationalist critics nearly derailed her candidacy as they accused her of duplicity for not having officially renounced Taiwanese citizenship.
Osaka’s popularity in Japan appears to depend in part on what commentators see as her quintessentially Japanese behavior. She has repeatedly been praised for her humility, with the media zeroing in on her apology for winning against Williams.
I have chafed at similar interpretations of my behavior in the United States. When I have been reserved or less assertive than people think a situation calls for, they have attributed it to my “Japanese side.”
Here in Japan, I know my “American side” can work to my advantage. Particularly for a woman in a male-dominated society, it is useful to be regarded as foreign first and female second. Suzanne Kamata, an American writer who has lived in rural Shikoku for 30 years and raised 19-year-old twins with her Japanese husband, said her children’s bicultural identity can free them from some of the most rigid expectations of Japanese society.
“Japanese identity seems so all-consuming, and there are so many rules and this idea that all Japanese have the same way of thinking,” Kamata said. “So I suppose it’s good to be ‘other.'”
Americans often subscribe to the myth that we already live in a society that accepts all kinds of other. But when colleagues have mistaken me for another Asian employee in the newsroom, I’ve realized that some people still instinctively want to pigeonhole me as one, but not both.
When my husband and I moved here with our two school-age children two years ago, we enrolled them in an international school, where many of their classmates are biracial. Having grown up in a town where so few people looked like me, I am grateful that they are spending their adolescence surrounded by friends who share their mixed heritage.
Shortly after we arrived in Tokyo, I went out to dinner with a white American friend of my parents who is the mother of two daughters with her Japanese husband. When I asked what it had been like for them to grow up here as “hafu,” she suggested I should adjust my language. She tells her children that they should never think of themselves as less than, but more. Instead of “hafu,” she said, she calls them “double.” That works for me.