Japan’s diverse Olympic stars reflect a country that’s changing (slowly)

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TOKYO — When the Japanese Olympic squad marched astatine the opening ceremonial successful Tokyo Friday, towering implicit the remainder of the delegation was flag-bearer Rui Hachimura, a rising NBA prima who was calved and raised successful Japan.

His inheritance is evident successful his reflexive bow of the caput erstwhile helium greets people, his emotion of his mother’s beef sukiyaki, adjacent his quality successful an instant-noodle advertisement featuring a yodeling babe sardine. But helium is besides helping to redefine what it means to beryllium Japanese.

In an insular federation known for radical homogeneity, Hachimura, 23, is the lad of a Japanese parent and a begetter from Benin. He is tall, arsenic befits a powerfulness guardant for the Washington Wizards, and Black, arsenic befits the country’s caller procreation of mixed-race athletes.

At slightest 35 members of the 583-strong Japanese Olympic squad are multiracial. They are considered medal contenders successful tennis and judo and volition vie successful boxing, sailing, sprinting, rugby and fencing, among different sports.

Their ranks see 2 of the highest-wattage athletes connected Team Japan: Hachimura and Naomi Osaka, the tennis champion whose begetter is Haitian American and whose parent is Japanese. On Friday, Osaka, 23, climbed a formation of stairs etched into a pyramid shaped similar Mount Fuji and lit the Olympic cauldron perched connected top.

That 2 of the opening ceremony’s prima roles went to multiracial athletes underscores however anxious Japan is to contiguous a divers look to the world. Osaka’s and Hachimura’s popularity successful Japan had already been confirmed erstwhile Nissin, the instant noodle manufacturer, affixed their faces to Cup Noodle packaging, an advertizing grant akin to appearing connected a cereal box.

But adjacent arsenic Japan celebrates the accomplishments of its “hafu” athletes — “half,” arsenic successful half-Japanese and half-something other — it indispensable inactive contend with xenophobia successful a nine whose ideas of nationhood are tied to race.

“My full beingness has been a situation to those astir maine of what it means to beryllium Japanese,” said Sewon Okazawa, an Olympic welterweight boxer who is the lad of a Japanese parent and a Ghanaian father.

Japan’s increasing roster of multiracial Olympians reflects however the country, with its fast-aging population, has had to ace unfastened its doors to immigration, contempt a almighty contented of isolation. Today, astir 1 successful 50 children calved successful Japan has a foreign-born parent, according to the nation’s wellness ministry.

“They are a caller spectrum of Japanese,” said Edward Y. Sumoto, the Venezuelan Japanese laminitis of a Facebook radical called Mixed Roots Japan. “There are present Black, brown, blond Japanese.”

For hundreds of years, that was unimaginable. From the 17th period to the 19th, the state kept astir each foreigners retired and astir each Japanese astatine home, successful 1 of the world’s astir utmost examples of isolationism.

An unspoken hierarchy successful Japan prizes paler tegument implicit darker shades. Darker-skinned Japanese endure racist barbs. (Japanese with 1 genitor from different East Asian countries tin look bullying, too.)

Okazawa grew up successful a snowbound metropolis successful bluish Japan, reciting Buddhist sutras with his grandmother. He has ne'er been to Ghana and does not talk English. Still, helium said, helium was recruited to his precocious schoolhouse boxing squad due to the fact that a classmate thought helium looked the part.

“I hide I’m Black sometimes,” Okazawa said. But, helium added: “When I look astatine myself successful the mirror, I don’t look Japanese.”

The country’s sporting constitution has hailed the successes of mixed-race athletes. But their accomplishments are often characterized successful the discredited connection of eugenics: fast-twitch muscles, explosive reflexes, inherent carnal power.

“If you are hafu, radical volition ever comparison precocious show with immoderate benignant of familial triumph,” Sumoto said. In the nation’s fashionable culture, Black Japanese are often slotted into constricted vocation categories: athlete, rapper, quality queen.

In May, aft his member endured a racist onslaught online, Hachimura said connected Twitter that he, too, was subjected to specified abuses “almost each day.”

Hachimura learned English lone upon going to Gonzaga University successful 2016, wherever helium played assemblage basketball. In the United States, arsenic successful Japan, fewer recognized him arsenic Japanese, adjacent though helium was the archetypal from his state to beryllium a first-round NBA draught pick.

The Tokyo Olympics were meant to signify a much cosmopolitan Japan. In 2013, erstwhile the state bid to big the Games, it deployed Christel Takigawa, a French Japanese tv presenter, to marque its lawsuit to the International Olympic Committee successful flawless French. Tokyo, she said, was a hospitable place. She aboriginal expressed anticipation that the Olympics would marque the metropolis much international.

One motto of the Tokyo Games is “unity successful diversity,” a constituent made with a fleet of drones that hovered implicit the Olympic Stadium Friday and formed a giant, shimmering globe, soon earlier Osaka lit the cauldron.

But Tokyo itself remains remarkably monochromatic. Only astir 4% of residents were calved extracurricular Japan, according to the metropolis authorities — astir doubly the nationalist figure. (By contrast, much than 35% of London and New York residents were calved abroad.)

Marie Nakagawa, a Sengalese Japanese erstwhile model, said she felt similar an “alien” increasing up successful Japan. Even today, she regularly endures catcalls from men who accidental she is simply a ringer for Osaka, whose radical justness advocacy has forced the state to face an contented that galore present deliberation does not use to them.

“I perceive experts accidental each the clip that things person changed since Naomi Osaka, but the bullies are inactive the same,” Nakagawa said. “They person not been reeducated.”

In 2019, arsenic Osaka was winning her 2nd Grand Slam astatine the Australian Open, Nissin depicted her with airy tegument and brownish hairsbreadth successful a selling cartoon, prompting accusations of whitewashing.

“It’s evident I’m tan,” Osaka responded. Nissin apologized.

Takeshi Fujiwara, a sprinter who specializes successful the 400 meters, grew up successful El Salvador, wherever his Japanese sanction raised eyebrows. His parent is from there, and his begetter is Japanese. Even aft Fujiwara competed successful the Athens Olympics for El Salvador, the whispers astir his nationality continued.

In 2013, helium switched his allegiance to Japan and moved to his father’s homeland. The invited was not immediate, helium said, adjacent if radical commented favorably connected his “macho macho” muscles.

“When I came to Japan, I thought, ‘Hey, I’m present successful my country.’ They would say, ‘Hey, wherever are you from?’” Fujiwara said. “It has gotten better, but we’re inactive a agelong mode to getting to a spot wherever multiracial Japanese are seen arsenic normal.”

Last month, aft undergoing 14 days of COVID-19 quarantine, during which helium could not signifier and missed the commencement of his daughter, Fujiwara came up conscionable abbreviated successful the Olympic trials. He volition not beryllium sprinting successful the Games, but helium would similar to deliberation that helium is bringing immoderate payment to the country.

“I recognize Japan was closed for truthful galore years, the accepted mentalities and 1 of the strongest homogeneous cultures successful the world,” helium said. “But what Japanese don’t spot is that alteration is for the amended successful the consciousness that we’re citizens of the world.”

This nonfiction primitively appeared successful The New York Times.

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