One biracial athlete carried Japan’s flag at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics, another lit the cauldron and both global sports stars put a spotlight on what has been dubbed the “Unity in Diversity” games.
Flag-bearer and NBA player Rui Hachimura and four-time Grand Slam tennis champion Naomi Osaka were front and center at the start of the games as the faces of a new Japan. But they also served as a reminder of how far one of the world’s most racially homogeneous countries has to go in embracing change.
While the population of foreign-born residents and biracial Japanese nationals have slowly inched up over the years, the Olympics have served as checkpoints on what is Japanese identity and how it has been evolving. The games serve as a reminder for the public that biracial and multiracial athletes are representing Japan on the track, the courts and the judo mats — sometimes winning medals.
“I think they’ve done well in pushing diversity forward,” Olympic tennis player Taro Daniel said in an interview Saturday. Still, the games has also brought to light some of the failings of the Japanese government in this area over the past year, he said.
Daniel, who has a Japanese mother and an American father, is among the many biracial athletes who have faced intolerance for his background and remembers being teased as a child for being part American.
“Living in Japan and being asked about having a gun and getting made fun of like that was shocking,” he said. Daniel admits it’s been easier to alter his behavior to fit in, but said he knows that’s not the answer for future generations who may have a mixed background similar to his own. With a declining and aging population, Japan is seeking foreign-born labour to keep powering its economic engine, setting up legislation to bring more people from overseas in to fill vacant posts in factories and the service sector. As of the end of last year, around 2% of Japan’s population was non-Japanese.
One the surface, anti-immigrant and anti-minority sentiment in Japan may not be apparent for some. But it is there, sometimes coming up in more open ways. After Osaka crashed out of women’s tennis with a third-round loss, critics in Japan brought out their verbal barbs and attacked her on social media over her identity, with many saying she had no right to represent the country.