By now, Naomi Osaka has been thrust into the media spotlight not so much for her historic victory at the U.S. Open on Saturday — during which she became Japan’s first Grand Slam champion — but for all the controversy surrounding her match against Serena Williams.
But at 20, Osaka has an unusual life story of her own. She is ranked seventh in the world, and her victory Saturday wasn’t only record-making for Japan; she’s also believed to be the first Grand Slam winner of Haitian descent.
“I never know what to do when someone asks me where I’m from,” Osaka tweeted in May 2017. “I just say FL, because saying Japan starts an unnecessary conversation.”
She may be tired of the questions about her identity, but given her growing celebrity, they’re unlikely to go away anytime soon. Her father, Leonard Francois, is Haitian; her mother, Tamaki Osaka, is Japanese. The two met in Hokkaido when Francois, then a college student in New York, was visiting the island. According to a recent profile in the New York Times Magazine, Tamaki Osaka’s father accused her of bringing disgrace on the family when he learned that she was dating a black foreigner, and the two moved to Osaka, Japan’s second largest city. It was while they were living there that the future tennis star was born — with, yes, the same last name as the city where she was born.
“I was 3 when I started playing tennis,” she told Bleacher Report last month.
By then, her parents had left Japan and moved to Long Island to be closer to Francois’s family. Several years later, they would move to South Florida, where many of the country’s best young tennis players are trained. Broward County, where they settled, also has a sizable Haitian population — Creole is the third-most common language after English and Spanish in the county, appearing on ads on buses and official government notices. Osaka’s upbringing, she’s said in interviews, was influenced by both Japanese and Haitian culture. When she talks, she sounds like any other 20-year-old from Florida. Asked about her career goals in 2016, she replied, “To be the very best, like no one ever was. That’s a Pokemon quote, I’m sorry. That’s the Pokemon theme song.”
When Osaka turned pro in 2013, her dual citizenship meant that she had a choice between playing for Japan or the United States. Her father chose Japan, thinking it would open up more opportunities for her.
The country is fairly homogeneous and Osaka, as a half-black woman, stood out. “I could see the shock on people’s faces,” she told Racquet magazine in March, remembering her first tournaments.
After the 2016 Australian Open, Osaka commented that it was “touching” that there were Japanese flags in the stand, and Japanese fans cheering for her. “I always think that they’re surprised that I’m Japanese,” she explained.
But Osaka is not entirely comfortable speaking in Japanese, which is understandable, considering that she left the country as a toddler. At news conferences last week, she took questions in Japanese but replied to most of them in English. Yet, her posts on Twitter and Instagram alternate between the two languages.
Those fans were referencing the way Osaka handled the post-game ceremony, which followed a raging controversy after umpire Carlos Ramos made a widely criticized call that penalized Williams during the game.
Yet for all the outpouring of anger that followed, virtually none of it was directed at Osaka, who instead was praised for her humility. At the trophy presentation, she cried, telling the crowd, “I’m sorry it had to end like this.”
Osaka has frequently described Williams, the winner of 23 Grand Slams, as her idol and inspiration. And like Williams, she was trained primarily by her father, along with her older sister Mari, who is also a professional tennis player.
Still, the spate of headlines referring to her as the first Japanese woman to win the championship has also made some fans feel like her black identity is being erased.
Osaka, for her part, has repeatedly reminded reporters that she is Japanese and Haitian. But she doesn’t seem to get asked about her Haitian side as often.
“Talk about your relationship with Japanese culture and U.S. culture,” one reporter asked her on Wednesday, following Osaka’s quarterfinal victory.
“My dad’s Haitian, so I grew up in a Haitian household in New York,” Osaka reminded her. “I lived with my grandma. And my mom’s Japanese and I grew up with the Japanese culture too, and if you’re saying American, I guess because I lived in America, I also have that too . . . I hope I answered your question. I don’t know.”
It might not be her favorite subject, or one that she’s completely comfortable discussing, but Osaka is aware that her multicultural background means that she’s well positioned to become an international celebrity. At the 2016 Australian Open, she was asked why she had so many fans.