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Commentary: Social media falls in love with Naomi Osaka as tennis star sparks debate

  • September 22, 2018
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press

By Patrick St. Michel, contributing writer

Naomi Osaka’s women’s singles final victory at the 2018 U.S. Open on Sept. 6 excited netizens in Japan, turning the young tennis superstar into one of the most popular figures online. Her trip to Japan last week only generated more buzz, with users being perpetually wowed by her and serious discussions about her identity sprouting up on social media.


After a brief American media blitz and some viral “Ellen” content, Osaka flew to Tokyo to take part in the Toray Pan Pacific Open. In a sign of things to come, even her plane ride over the Pacific ended up being noteworthy. Japanese musician Yoshiki just happened to be on the same flight, making for an online interaction that charmed many. And that was just the start.


Every upload to Osaka’s social media accounts prompted Japanese netizens to congratulate her on her recent success or applaud her itinerary in Tokyo. Watching sumo for the first time? Shares and excitement on Twitter. Taking photos at a “purikura” booth? Wade through the Instagram comments and you’ll find Japanese contributors lapping it up.


Japanese internet users used the past week as an opportunity to really show their love of Osaka. Some people shared fan art of the young tennis star, including one popular pair of drawings done in the style of “Peanuts.” Others took the chance to dress up as her in cosplay. After she mentioned that she wanted to eat tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlets) and green tea ice cream, fans shared photos of said treats in her honor.


One of the narratives to emerge in English-language media following the U.S. Open is that people in Japan saw Osaka win a major title and suddenly embraced her. This isn’t quite right. Osaka has been receiving attention in Japan for a few years now — TV segments devoted to her rising star aired back in 2016, for example. She also appeared in Japanese commercials well before any major wins. Her victory at the Indian Wells Masters this spring served as a warm up to what would follow, with Osaka’s win going to the top of trending in Japan and inspiring excited tweets. She has been in the spotlight long enough to inspire a groan-worthy comedian imitator.


Osaka’s U.S. Open triumph fired her into the mainstream, however, and set off an ongoing bonanza around her (which, to be fair, is probably true about her in the United States, too). This is actually far more true of traditional media, especially TV, which has covered her trip to Japan breathlessly and, in the case of TV Asahi’s “Good! Morning,” tried to coin the term “Naominomics.” That one isn’t sticking.


Netizens and a handful of online publications, while celebratory, did raise a few eyebrows at the media hoopla. Osaka’s reference to tonkatsu and green tea ice cream kicked off promotions of such goods — still time to get some U.S. Open-themed ice cream — but Business Journal and online users jumped in to remind people that elite athletes don’t typically eat those items regularly. Another article speculated that Osaka’s clothing choices were inspired by the Korean pop group BTS, which she is a fan of. This charmed some users on 2chan (“She’s just like any other 20-year-old Japanese woman!”), while others thought it was a stretch to connect her style to K-pop.


Netizens adopted a more protective stance following Osaka’s first news conference in Japan. Huffington Post Japan reporter Rio Hamada asked her about her identity, seeing as her mother is Japanese, her father Haitian and she grew up in the United States. It was an awkward moment, Osaka first wondering if that was even a question before answering, “I’m me.” The response only won her more praise, while netizens ridiculed Hamada’s question, even piling on via Twitter.


While Hamada bungled it, the issue at the center of his inquiry actually has become a point of discussion online in Japan. Osaka’s background — which she stresses in media appearances, a reminder of the importance of all cultures involved — has prompted many to wonder what being Japanese is really about. Gendai ran a large article on the topic, while other posts looked at the social media response to her background. Osaka’s rise to the limelight gave proponents of Japan adopting dual citizenship a chance to raise their points, while other sites condemned the media and politicians’ use of Osaka to push a “ra-ra-Japan” image forward. Most clearly, Osaka’s rise became a rallying cry for mixed-heritage citizens, as a way to point out the archaic way of “island spirit” and, in an online essay titled “Goodbye, pure-blooded Japanese,” allowed others to share their own experiences of coming from a mixed background in Japanese society.


This discussion certainly isn’t limited to Japan — it also seems to be playing out in Haitian communities (complete with politicians using it for their own ends), while talk of her background garnered plenty in discourse in the United States, too.


While Osaka’s victory has generated plenty of enthusiasm online, she has also helped Japanese netizens question a number of ideas that have long sat dormant.

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