“How do you say it was difficult?”
That was the English question Naomi Osaka asked when talking to a reporter from Japan about her victory in the final of the US Open tennis championship.
“Muzukashii” replied the reporter. “Yes, it was muzukashii,” replied Naomi.
It was something of an understatement. To beat the legendary Serena Williams in straight sets at one of the most important sports events in the world was a huge achievement.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe praised Naomi for raising the spirits of a country plagued by severe weather events this summer, including typhoons and an earthquake.
The media is curious about her background.
Naomi Osaka was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a father from Haiti. Some Japanese media reports said her mixed race identity made it hard for her to be accepted as a young child and that was one of the reasons the family moved to America when she was three years old.
She now holds dual Japanese and American citizenships.
The South China Morning Post says that people of mixed descent or from ethnic minorities “often face discrimination in Japan”. It suggests that people with Japanese and Caucasian parents have typically been welcomed but people of African or other Asian descent encounter prejudice.
Discrimination is hard to measure but perhaps sometimes it creeps into the language which people use to talk about race in Japan.
Not half but double
One of the words which sometimes irritates people who have international parents is the word hafu, which comes from the English word “half”. Some people feel is implies that mixed race people are not “whole”.
I remember a discussion about this on Japan Today in which a mixed race person took issue with the phrase “hafu”. He said: “I am not half: I am double – one scoop of vanilla, one scoop of green tea.”
Perhaps Naomi Osaka’s great tennis victory will help to counter any negative perceptions of people who have a mixed racial heritage.