Japan’s diverse Olympic stars reflect a country that’s changing (slowly)

TOKYO — When the Japanese Olympic team marched at the opening ceremony in Tokyo Friday, towering over the rest of the delegation was flag-bearer Rui Hachimura, a rising NBA star who was born and raised in Japan.

His background is evident in his reflexive bow of the head when he greets people, his love of his mother’s beef sukiyaki, even his appearance in an instant-noodle ad featuring a yodeling baby sardine. But he is also helping to redefine what it means to be Japanese.

In an insular nation known for racial homogeneity, Hachimura, 23, is the son of a Japanese mother and a father from Benin. He is tall, as befits a power forward for the Washington Wizards, and Black, as befits the country’s new generation of mixed-race athletes.

At least 35 members of the 583-strong Japanese Olympic team are multiracial. They are considered medal contenders in tennis and judo and will compete in boxing, sailing, sprinting, rugby and fencing, among other sports.

Their ranks include two of the highest-wattage athletes on Team Japan: Hachimura and Naomi Osaka, the tennis champion whose father is Haitian American and whose mother is Japanese. On Friday, Osaka, 23, climbed a flight of stairs etched into a pyramid shaped like Mount Fuji and lit the Olympic cauldron perched on top.

That two of the opening ceremony’s star roles went to multiracial athletes underscores how eager Japan is to present a diverse face to the world. Osaka’s and Hachimura’s popularity in Japan had already been confirmed when Nissin, the instant noodle manufacturer, affixed their faces to Cup Noodle packaging, an advertising honor akin to appearing on a cereal box.

But even as Japan celebrates the accomplishments of its “hafu” athletes — “half,” as in half-Japanese and half-something else — it must still contend with xenophobia in a society whose ideas of nationhood are tied to race.

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“My entire existence has been a challenge to those around me of what it means to be Japanese,” said Sewon Okazawa, an Olympic welterweight boxer who is the son of a Japanese mother and a Ghanaian father.

Japan’s growing roster of multiracial Olympians reflects how the country, with its fast-aging population, has had to crack open its doors to immigration, despite a powerful tradition of isolation. Today, about 1 in 50 children born in Japan has a foreign-born parent, according to the nation’s health ministry.

“They are a new spectrum of Japanese,” said Edward Y. Sumoto, the Venezuelan Japanese founder of a Facebook group called Mixed Roots Japan. “There are now Black, brown, blond Japanese.”

For hundreds of years, that was unimaginable. From the 17th century to the 19th, the country kept nearly all foreigners out and nearly all Japanese at home, in one of the world’s most extreme examples of isolationism.

An unspoken hierarchy in Japan prizes paler skin over darker shades. Darker-skinned Japanese endure racist barbs. (Japanese with one parent from other East Asian countries can face bullying, too.)

Okazawa grew up in a snowbound city in northern Japan, reciting Buddhist sutras with his grandmother. He has never been to Ghana and does not speak English. Still, he said, he was recruited to his high school boxing team because a classmate thought he looked the part.

“I forget I’m Black sometimes,” Okazawa said. But, he added: “When I look at myself in the mirror, I don’t look Japanese.”

The country’s sporting establishment has hailed the successes of mixed-race athletes. But their accomplishments are often characterized in the discredited language of eugenics: fast-twitch muscles, explosive reflexes, inherent physical power.

“If you are hafu, people will always compare high performance with some sort of genetic triumph,” Sumoto said. In the nation’s popular culture, Black Japanese are often slotted into limited career categories: athlete, rapper, beauty queen.

In May, after his brother endured a racist attack online, Hachimura said on Twitter that he, too, was subjected to such abuses “almost every day.”

Hachimura learned English only upon going to Gonzaga University in 2016, where he played college basketball. In the United States, as in Japan, few recognized him as Japanese, even though he was the first from his country to be a first-round NBA draft pick.

The Tokyo Olympics were meant to signify a more cosmopolitan Japan. In 2013, when the country bid to host the Games, it deployed Christel Takigawa, a French Japanese television presenter, to make its case to the International Olympic Committee in flawless French. Tokyo, she said, was a hospitable place. She later expressed hope that the Olympics would make the city more international.

One motto of the Tokyo Games is “unity in diversity,” a point made with a fleet of drones that hovered over the Olympic Stadium Friday and formed a giant, shimmering globe, shortly before Osaka lit the cauldron.

But Tokyo itself remains remarkably monochromatic. Only about 4% of residents were born outside Japan, according to the city government — about twice the national figure. (By contrast, more than 35% of London and New York residents were born abroad.)

Marie Nakagawa, a Sengalese Japanese former model, said she felt like an “alien” growing up in Japan. Even today, she regularly endures catcalls from men who say she is a ringer for Osaka, whose racial justice advocacy has forced the country to confront an issue that many here think does not apply to them.

“I hear experts say all the time that things have changed since Naomi Osaka, but the bullies are still the same,” Nakagawa said. “They have not been reeducated.”

In 2019, as Osaka was winning her second Grand Slam at the Australian Open, Nissin depicted her with pale skin and brown hair in a marketing cartoon, prompting accusations of whitewashing.

“It’s obvious I’m tan,” Osaka responded. Nissin apologized.

Takeshi Fujiwara, a sprinter who specializes in the 400 meters, grew up in El Salvador, where his Japanese name raised eyebrows. His mother is from there, and his father is Japanese. Even after Fujiwara competed in the Athens Olympics for El Salvador, the whispers about his nationality continued.

In 2013, he switched his allegiance to Japan and moved to his father’s homeland. The welcome was not immediate, he said, even if people commented favorably on his “macho macho” muscles.

“When I came to Japan, I thought, ‘Hey, I’m here in my country.’ They would say, ‘Hey, where are you from?’” Fujiwara said. “It has gotten better, but we’re still a long way to getting to a place where multiracial Japanese are seen as normal.”

Last month, after undergoing 14 days of COVID-19 quarantine, during which he could not practice and missed the birth of his daughter, Fujiwara came up just short in the Olympic trials. He will not be sprinting in the Games, but he would like to think that he is bringing some benefit to the country.

“I understand Japan was closed for so many years, the traditional mentalities and one of the strongest homogeneous cultures in the world,” he said. “But what Japanese don’t see is that change is for the better in the sense that we’re citizens of the world.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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