Ad Showing Naomi Osaka With Light Skin Prompts Backlash and an Apology

Naomi Osaka, the half-Haitian, half-Japanese tennis champion, is the star of a new Japanese anime-style advertisement.

The problem? The cartoon Ms. Osaka bears little resemblance to her real, biracial self.

Her skin was unmistakably lightened, and her hair style changed — a depiction that has prompted criticism in Japan, where she has challenged a longstanding sense of cultural and racial homogeneity.

The ad — unveiled this month by Nissin, one of the world’s largest instant-noodle brands — features Ms. Osaka and Kei Nishikori, Japan’s top-ranked male tennis player, in a cartoon drawn by Takeshi Konomi, a well-known manga artist whose series “The Prince of Tennis” is popular in Japan.

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Mr. Konomi and Ms. Osaka, who faces Elina Svitolina in an Australian Open quarterfinal match on Wednesday, have not publicly commented on the reactions to the ad.

But a Nissin spokesman apologized in an email on Tuesday for “the confusion and discomfort.”

The spokesman, Daisuke Okabayashi, said that the characters had been developed in line with Mr. Konomi’s anime series and that the company had communicated with Ms. Osaka’s representatives.

“There is no intention of whitewashing,” he said. “We accept that we are not sensitive enough and will pay more attention to diversity issue in the future.”

After the ad was first published online, people on social media, including many fans of Ms. Osaka’s, said they were deeply disappointed.

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Naomi Osaka at the Australian Open on Monday. In Japan, she has challenged a longstanding sense of cultural and racial homogeneity.CreditPaul Crock/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Baye McNeil, an author who has lived in Japan for 15 years, said he didn’t understand why the ad would “erase her black features and project this image of pretty much the prototypical anime girl-next-door character.”

Ms. Osaka’s rise into a beloved national figure has been particularly exciting for biracial people in Japan, known as hafus, who have long battled for acceptance, he said.

“Making her look white just tells these people that what they are isn’t good enough,” Mr. McNeil said.

Ms. Osaka was born in Japan to a Haitian-American father and a Japanese mother, and moved to the United States when she was 3. Although she isn’t fluent in Japanese, often responding to questions from Japanese reporters in English, she has tweeted about her love of manga and Japanese movies.

Ranked fourth in the world at just 21, she’s already among Japan’s most accomplished tennis players ever. She became the first Japanese-born tennis player to win a Grand Slam singles championship in September when she defeated Serena Williams in the U.S. Open, a victory that supercharged her celebrity ascent.

That win prompted a cartoon in an Australian newspaper that was criticized for its depiction of Ms. Williams, which many saw as a racist caricature. While most of the condemnation focused on how the Australian cartoonist drew Ms. Williams, critics also noted that Ms. Osaka was depicted with blond hair and light skin.

Black characters aren’t frequently found in anime, but artists in the medium have successfully depicted their skin tones before.

“When there is a black character, it’s clearly a black character,” Mr. McNeil said.

The discussion of biracial identity in Japan got a boost in 2015 when Ariana Miyamoto, who is half-Japanese, half-African-American, won the Miss Universe Japan pageant. She used her fame to discuss the plight of “hafus,” but some in Japan were unwilling to accept her as a model of Japanese beauty.

In interviews, Ms. Osaka has embraced her multicultural background.

“Maybe it’s because they can’t really pinpoint what I am,” she said in 2016, “so it’s like anybody can cheer for me.”

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