Naomi Osaka is the 2018 US Open champion, the first Japanese to win a grand slam tennis championship, let alone make it to the semi-finals of one.
And as most sports fans know today, her victory was most bittersweet. Osaka defeated her idol, Serena Williams, who had a monumental emotional meltdown in the second set of the Open finals. Engaging in a battle of wills, Williams and umpire, Carlos Ramos, turned the last 30 minutes of the match into an emotionally charged, penalty-filled drama which helped determine the final outcome.
What should have been the happiest moment in the 20-year-old’s career was instead rendered unexpectedly painful.
Naomi Osaka was crowned champion, after a display of dominant tennis, but thanks to the rain of boos from the New York crowd who sided with Williams, Osaka could only weep for playing a role in the humiliation of her hero. She initially believed the crowd was booing her, which is heartbreaking to think about.
In answer to the question about her dream to play in a finals match against Serena, she replied “I’m going to sort of differ from your question. I’m sorry. I know everyone was cheering for her. I’m sorry it had to end like this.” As soon as Osaka said that, you could hear the crowd groaning in regret for their boos. As the groans turned to cheers, she did something so very Japanese, simply thanking the audience for being there. “I just want to say thank you for watching the match. Thank you.”
With those last two words, she nodded her head in a bow, like so many Japanese do unconsciously every day.
Naomi Osaka, the daughter of a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, does not at first glance appear Japanese. And it is not uncommon for children of mixed race to stick out uncomfortably in Japanese society, sometimes bullied for appearing different.
But in that moment, I suspect many Japanese who watched Osaka’s body language closely, recognized her as their own. Yomiuri, which owns the largest newspaper in Japan, called Osaka a “new heroine that Japan is proud of.”
In the days after Osaka’s US Open championship victory, the Japanese media was thoroughly won over. On the September 13 broadcast of Terebi Asahi Live, the commentators highlighted the reasons why the Japanese of all ages have fallen in love with Naomi Osaka. Among several reasons, they cited qualities that exemplify Japanese values:
- The gap between her cool on the court and her awkwardness in front of the press
- Her caring comments about other players
- Her shy smile and even her broken Japanese.
Awkward Cool: In her appearance on the highly popular talk show Ellen, she answered the first question about becoming the US Open champion by saying, “I’m sorry but it’s so weird…like you’re a real person?” To which, Ellen Degeneres replied that she was indeed real. As many have noted, she puts on no airs in front of the cameras. What you see is what you get.
Caring Comments: In the awards ceremony of the US Open, Osaka was asked what it felt to be the first Japanese, male or female, to win a grand slam final. Again, deflecting the focus off her, she replied that was her dream to play Serena Williams in a US Open Finals. “I’m really glad I was able to do that,” she said looking at Williams. “I am really grateful I was able to play with you. Thank you.”
And again, the head bow to Serena, something so out of place in New York, and so overtly Japanese in its humility.
Naomi Osaka has charmed the world. And Japan has quite unexpectedly made her their own. Even the Japanese government, one run by the fairly conservative Liberal Democratic Party, has slowly eased into the idea that Japan needs to allow greater inflows of foreign immigrants. The Foreign Minister, Taro Kono, explained on September 13 to the World Economic Forum that Japan has to accept more foreigners due to its aging population and low birth rate, citing Naomi Osaka as a symbol for how Japan can benefit from increased immigration.
It’s good to have diversity,” Kono said. “It’s good to have an open policy.”
Before the US Open, there was some hope that a Japanese would win gold at the 2020 Olympics in front of the home crowd. As Naomi Osaka is the newly crowned Queen of tennis, that hope has blossomed into full-blown expectation.