TOKYO – Just four days after Naomi Osaka climbed the stairs to ignite the Olympic cauldron unveiled as a symbol of a new, more inclusive Japan, that image was undermined on Tuesday by a backlash following her surprise defeat in Tokyo.
Many Japanese were stunned by Ms. Osaka’s third-round loss to Czech Republic’s Marketa Vondrousova after winning the gold medal in women’s tennis on home soil.
But when the face of the Summer Games was riddled with scandals and anxiety over an unshakable pandemic – Tokyo reported a record number of new coronavirus cases on Tuesday – Ms. Osaka was beaten on Japanese social media, with some questioning her identity or right of representation represented the country at all.
“I still can’t understand why she was the last torchbearer,” one commenter wrote on a Yahoo News story of her loss. “Even though she says she is Japanese, she doesn’t speak much Japanese.” Several comments like this one that harshly criticized Ms. Osaka were given “thumbs up” by 10,000 or more other Yahoo users.
As the Japanese-born daughter of a Haitian American father and Japanese mother, Ms. Osaka helped challenge Japan’s longstanding sense of racial and cultural identity.
It’s hugely popular in Japan and some online commentators came out in favor of it on Tuesday. The news media covered her victories extensively, and her face appeared in advertisements for Japanese products ranging from Citizen watches to Shiseido makeup to Nissin cup noodles.
Her election as the final torchbearer at the opening ceremony on Friday showed how eager the Olympic organizers were to promote Japan as a diverse culture. Washington Wizards star Rui Hachimura, who is of Japanese and Benin descent, also played a major role as the standard bearer for the Japanese Olympic team. But in some corners of society, people remain xenophobic and refuse to accept those who do not adhere to a very narrow definition of Japanese.
“I was a little concerned that it might be a little too early and that there might be some kind of kickback,” said Baye McNeil, a black man who has lived in Japan for 17 years and who writes a column for the Japan Times , an English language newspaper.
Those who felt uncomfortable might have thought, “If we had to swallow this Black Lives Matters thing and the portrayal of the country, you could do the least thing to win the gold medal,” said Mr. McNeil of Ms. Osaka. “When she didn’t, some people are now unleashing her ugliness.”
Mixed race residents, or “Hafu” as they are called in Japan, still struggle to be accepted as authentic Japanese, even if they were born and raised in the country.
Melanie Brock, a white Australian who runs a consultancy for overseas companies looking to do business in Japan and who has raised two sons whose father is Japanese, said that even though they attended the Japanese school system, they were often viewed as different . Other mothers often attributed their problematic behavior to the fact that the boys were multiracial.
“I think Japan is very tough for Hafus,” said Ms. Brock.
When she saw Ms. Osaka light the kettle at the opening ceremony, “I thought it was a brave decision” from Tokyo organizers, she said. “But I was mad at myself because I thought it was brave. It’s not brave at all. That’s right. She is a remarkable athlete. She is a great Presenter and she deserves to be advertised as such. “
Ms. Osaka may also have touched some nerves when she pulled out of the French Open in May after an argument with tennis officials over her decision not to appear at a press conference. She then revealed on Instagram that she was struggling with depression and anxiety.
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Much of the online comments in Japan after her loss on Tuesday were derogatory about her mental health.
“She conveniently became ‘depressed’, was comfortably cured, and was honored to be the last torchbearer,” wrote a commenter on Twitter. “And then she just loses an important game. I can only say that she takes the sport lightly. “
Mental health is still a taboo subject in Japan. Naoko Imoto, UNICEF education specialist, Tokyo Organizing Committee’s gender equality advisor and former Olympian who swam for Japan, said in a press conference Monday that mental health is not yet well understood in Japan.
“In Japan we still don’t talk about mental health,” said Ms. Imoto. “When Naomi Osaka came up on the subject, there were a lot of negative comments about her and that was exaggerated because of the gender issue as she is a woman.”
“I think a lot of athletes are coming out now, and it’s actually common, and almost every athlete experiences it,” Ms. Imoto said.
Some of the comments on Ms. Osaka seemed to reflect the conservative criticism of the Racial Justice Movement in the United States, which the tennis star has vociferously endorsed.
“Your selection as the last torchbearer was wrong,” wrote another commenter on the Yahoo News story of the loss of Ms. Osaka. “Was the theme of the Tokyo Games human rights issues? Should it show Japan’s recovery and show appreciation to the many countries that have supported Japan? BLM is not the issue. I don’t think she could focus on the game and she deserves her defeat. “
Nathaniel M. Smith, an anthropologist at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto who studies right wing movements in Japan, said online critics could now copy from a global pool of comments.
“A Japanese online right-winger is aware that he is in the Twitter environment of Black Lives Matter, but also as whites criticize Black Lives on Twitter,” said Smith. “So there is this common digital repertoire of how to attack.”
But he added, “I think it’s pretty far from the sensitivity or awareness of the average television viewer, let alone the average person.”
In fact, some comments on social media were more supportive of Ms. Osaka. A post from someone who claimed not to be a fan showed gratitude for their appearance at the Olympics.
“Personally, I don’t particularly like Naomi Osaka, but let me say one thing,” the poster wrote on Twitter. “Thank you for playing as the representative of Japan. Thanks for your hard work! “
Hisako Ueno and Hikari Hida contributed to the coverage.