Over the past few years, Japan’s Naomi Osaka has made a name for herself as one of tennis’s top contenders. The Women’s Tennis Association currently ranks her as fourth in the world, and in a controversial match last year, Osaka beat her childhood hero Serena Williams at the US Open.
Aside from her accomplishments on the court, Osaka’s multi-cultural background has been a sticking point in her media coverage. Her mother is from Japan, her father is from Haiti, and she has spent time in both Japan and the US. After her US Open win, the New York Times wrote, “Ms. Osaka, 20, is helping to challenge Japan’s longstanding sense of racial purity and cultural identity.” That probably has something to do with her deeper skin tone and dark, curly hair.
Those qualities were suspiciously missing in a depiction of Osaka in a recent ad by Nissin, the instant noodle manufacturer. The ad showed a cartoon version of Osaka training with tennis player Kei Nishikori and characters from the manga series The Prince of Tennis, reported SoraNews24. In the ad, Osaka is drawn with a much paler complexion than in reality. It’s prompted claims of whitewashing, and led Nissin to delete the ad from YouTube.
The whitewashing was unintentional, a Nissin spokesperson told MUNCHIES over email, and the original drawings were shared with Osaka’s management team. “From there, we worked together with relevant members and created our original anime settings. Therefore, we had no intention in relevance with the issues in question,” the statement read.
“The current situation creating social controversy is not what we had intended, and therefore have decided to stop the campaign. Furthermore, we cannot affect Ms. Osaka’s performance as an athlete. Going forward, we will continue to hold respect for diversity, and will carefully consider campaign contents.”
While lightening Osaka’s skin tone might have been an unintentional oversight, the ad points at bigger problems when it comes to representation. For starters, it’s inaccurate: Using a notable figure as a campaign figurehead doesn’t hold much weight if the depiction doesn’t actually look like them.
But, more insidiously, the ad implies that Osaka’s skin tone is worth changing. It’s an act that denies Osaka’s identity, but it also misses what could have been a great opportunity to represent mixed-race people and multiculturalism in Japan.
In a piece for the Japan Times, Japan-based writer Baye McNeil wrote about why the ad’s “de-blackening” was so disappointing. “Everything that distinguishes Osaka from your typical Japanese anime character was gone,” McNeil wrote. “In a world that already informs people of color in so many ways that their lives are of less value because of something as superficial as appearance, I implore Nissin—or, hell, the country—not to continue down that path.”
While examples of whitewashing tend to get more attention in other industries—like Scarlett Johansson in the live-action Ghost in the Shell, or Dove’s body lotion ad—whitewashing does also happen in the food world, it just doesn’t usually tend to be as obvious as literally turning a person of color pale. Chef Tunde Wey has used the phrase to describe the “almost exclusively white” culinary world of Detroit, which is otherwise a “breathtakingly black city.” This NPR story about a
Bon Appetit recipe that stripped Filipino halo-halo of its traditional toppings and replaced them with gummy bears and popcorn describes that action as “modernizing.” And, well, we wouldn’t have things like this Huffington Post list titled “9 Times Non-Asians Completely Screwed Up Asian Food…” if whitewashing didn’t exist.
Osaka, who is currently playing in the Australian Open, was asked in a press conference today about the whitewashing controversy. “I’ve talked to [Nissin] and they’ve apologized. I’m tan, it’s pretty obvious,” she said. “I don’t think they did it on purpose to be whitewashing, but I think the next time they portray me or something, they should talk to me about it.”