Posted on July 27, 2021

Japan’s Diverse Olympic Stars Reflect a Country That’s Changing (Slowly)

Hannah Beech and Hikari Hida, New York Times, July 24, 2021

When the Japanese Olympic team marched at the opening ceremony in Tokyo on Friday, towering over the rest of the delegation was the flag-bearer Rui Hachimura, a rising N.B.A. star who was born and raised in Japan.

His background is evident in his reflexive bow of the head when he greets people, his love of his mother’s beef sukiyaki, even his appearance in an instant-noodle ad featuring a yodeling baby sardine. But he is also helping to redefine what it means to be Japanese.

In an insular nation known for racial homogeneity, Mr. Hachimura, 23, is the son of a Japanese mother and a father from Benin. He is tall, as befits a power forward for the Washington Wizards, and Black, as befits the country’s new generation of mixed-race athletes.

At least 35 members of the 583-strong Japanese Olympic team are multiracial. They are considered medal contenders in tennis and judo and will compete in boxing, sailing, sprinting, rugby and fencing, among other sports.

Their ranks include two of the highest-wattage athletes on Team Japan: Mr. Hachimura and Naomi Osaka, the tennis champion whose father is Haitian American and whose mother is Japanese. {snip}


But even as Japan celebrates the accomplishments of its “hafu” athletes — “half,” as in half-Japanese and half-something else — it must still contend with xenophobia in a society whose ideas of nationhood are tied to race.

“My entire existence has been a challenge to those around me of what it means to be Japanese,” said Sewon Okazawa, an Olympic welterweight boxer who is the son of a Japanese mother and a Ghanaian father.

Japan’s growing roster of multiracial Olympians reflects how the country, with its fast-aging population, has had to crack open its doors to immigration, despite a powerful tradition of isolation. Today, about one in 50 children born in Japan has a foreign-born parent, according to the nation’s health ministry.

“They are a new spectrum of Japanese,” said Edward Y. Sumoto, the Venezuelan-Japanese founder of a Facebook group called Mixed Roots Japan. “There are now Black, brown, blond Japanese.”

For hundreds of years, that was unimaginable. From the 17th century to the 19th, the country kept nearly all foreigners out and nearly all Japanese at home {snip}

An unspoken hierarchy in Japan prizes paler skin over darker shades. Darker-skinned Japanese endure racist barbs. (Japanese with one parent from other East Asian countries can face bullying, too.)

Mr. Okazawa, the boxer, grew up in a snowbound city in northern Japan, reciting Buddhist sutras with his grandmother. He has never been to Ghana and does not speak English. Still, he said, he was recruited to his high school boxing team because a classmate thought he looked the part.

“I forget I’m Black sometimes,” Mr. Okazawa said. But, he added: “When I look at myself in the mirror, I don’t look Japanese.”

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

“If you are hafu, people will always compare high performance with some sort of genetic triumph,” Mr. Sumoto said. In the nation’s popular culture, Black Japanese are often slotted into limited career categories: athlete, rapper, beauty queen.


One motto of the Tokyo Games is “unity in diversity,” a point made with a fleet of drones that hovered over the Olympic Stadium on Friday and formed a giant, shimmering globe {snip}

But Tokyo itself remains remarkably monochromatic. Only about 4 percent of residents were born outside Japan, according to the city government — about twice the national figure. {snip}