Naomi Osaka

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.”

Terebi Asahi Live_Naomi Osaka
Terebi Asahi Live, September 13, 2018

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.

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Citi Field 2
April 18, 2017 – great start, lousy finish at CitiField

I had never sat behind home plate in a baseball games. But I sat with my son about 10 rows back, staring straight down center field at Citi Field, home of the New York Mets. It was mid-April in Queens, which meant it was a chilly evening. But the Mets were holding onto a 2-1 lead late into the game…until they didn’t. A dropped pop up by Jose Reyes led to the tying run, extra evenings, and the Metsies’ eventual demise. But as they say, it’s a long season. And I got to spend a few fun hours with my son in a beautiful ballpark.

When I was growing up, Shea Stadium was where we worshipped at the Mets’ altar. When it opened up in 1964, it carried the aura of the 1964 World’s Fair – of a bright shiny future! But as Shea Stadium, located next to the tennis courts of the US Open in Flushing Meadows Park – just a short bike ride from my home – got into it’s 40s, and major league teams were opening new and 21st century ballparks, Shea was looking and feeling its age.

The ownership of both the New York Mets and New York Yankees had been lobbying the New York City government to build new stadiums for years, but the city government showed little interest in allocating tax dollars or tax breaks in the early 2000, when the economy was weak. That is, until Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s and Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff’s New York City bid for the 2012 Olympics bandwagon went off the tracks.

As explained in Part 2 “West Side Story”, the NYC2012 organizers were pinning their hopes on approval for an American football stadium for the New York Jets on the Hudson Yards, over the Long Island Railroad terminal in the southern part of Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan. This stadium would also have played hosts to the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics. When the New York State government, only one month prior to the International Olympic Committee’s selection of the host city, rejected approval for a New York Jets stadium, the organizers suddenly had to scramble.

Citi Field 1
Me at Citi Field

According to this detailed report by Mitchell L. Moss Director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, the New York City government suddenly became very interested in building a baseball stadium in Queens for the New York Mets, announcing a plan to help finance the new stadium, which would also host the Olympics. In those hectic 72 hours of negotiation, the New York Mets agreed to build and pay for a new stadium next to their old stadium for USD600 million. The city would not only not charge for use of the city property, they would spend $180 million on infrastructure projects around the stadium, as well as offer tax-free bonds for construction costs.

Moss explains in the report that “had the IOC awarded the 2012 Games to New York, the stadium would have been converted into an 80,000 seat Olympic stadium for the Games at a cost of $100 million – paid by the City and the State – then converted back to its original baseball configuration.”

In other words, thanks to the New York City bid for the 2012 Olympics, and the failure of the Mayor to win approval of a new stadium in Manhattan for the 2012 Olympics, plans for a new stadium in Queens came to fruition.

Citi Field was born.