The Olympian Rise of Japanese Halfs: Aska Cambridge and Mashu Baker Redefining What It Means to be Japanese

aska cambridge in rio
Aska Cambridge

When around 98% of a nation is perceived to be of the same ethnicity, it stands to reason that nationality and ethnicity are viewed as one and the same.

But Japan has been a magnet for those seeking opportunity as well as for Japanophiles, particularly since the economy boomed in the 1980s. As the influential Japanese television entertainment industry increasingly viewed diversity as a way to get more viewers, Japanese-speaking foreigners became more popular. Children of mixed marriages, those who essentially grew up Japanese, have now become de rigeur on Japanese television.

I was one of those foreigners who came to Japan in the 1980s, but because I am of Japanese ethnicity, I have been able to blend in. I get neither fingers pointed at me, nor praise for my Japanese proficiency. But even though my cultural background is American, I can see why the attention of Japanese still, to this day, perk up when a non-Japanese is in their midst. The non-Japanese is such a tiny population that they really do stick out. Like the majority of the film, Lost in Translation, the minority experience for the “gaijin” in Japan is clichéd. And yet true.

So when the Japanese men’s 4X100 relay team very unexpectedly took silver at the Rio Olympics, losing only to the vaunted team from Jamaica, it was a very special moment for Japan. Not only did the Japanese excel in an area they are not customarily strong in – the sprint – a 23-year-old named Aska Cambridge (ケンブリッジ飛鳥), the child of a Japanese mother and a Jamaican father – was a proud member of those Japanese speedsters. He ran for the Japanese squad, he speaks fluent Japanese, and yet, he doesn’t fit the everyday look of what most Japanese perceive as Japanese.

Mashu Baker and his mother
Mashu Baker and his mom.

When a 21-year-old Japanese won judo gold in the 90kg weight class at the Rio Olympics, Japan cheered. At the 2012 London Games, no Japanese won gold in judo, the most Japanese of all the Olympic competitions. In fact, no Japanese had won the 90kg weight class since it was introduced in 1980. So who brought back the glory? A person named Mashu Baker (ベイカー茉秋), the son of a Japanese mother and an American father.

At first glance, he looks Japanese. But it’s the name that sticks out. Baker is clearly not a Japanese name, and it is written in the press in katakana, the script reserved for foreign words. Interestingly, the first name “Mashu”, while spelled out in Chinese characters, was likely chosen because of its close approximation to the name “Matthew”. I don’t know what’s written on his US passport, but it’s possible the Bakers decided they wanted their son to be identified in Japan as a “ha-fu”, a child of mixed parentage.

“Ha-fu” over the decades, perhaps centuries, have on the whole experienced more prejudicial than preferential treatment. But I do not underestimate the power of role models. I am sure that the brilliant examples of Aska Cambridge and Mashu Baker will continue to help revise how Japanese, and the rest of the world, perceive what a Japanese is.

And that’s a good thing.