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Naomi Osaka appears whitewashed in ad campaign for sponsor Nissin Foods

‘I’ve talked to them. They’ve apologized,’ says Osaka

MELBOURNE, Australia — Naomi Osaka addressed concerns that one of her sponsors, the Japanese ramen company Nissin Foods, whitewashed her image in a new campaign called Hungry to Win.

The campaign, designed by Takeshi Konomi, creator of the manga series Prince of Tennis, depicted Osaka with light skin and light brown hair, drawn in the same style as his original manga comic.

“I’ve talked to them. They’ve apologized,” she said in a news conference after beating Karolina Pliskova to advance to the final of the Australian Open, where she will face Petra Kvitová of the Czech Republic. “For me, it’s obvious, I’m tan. It’s pretty obvious. I don’t think they did it on purpose to be, like, whitewashing or anything. But I definitely think that the next time they try to portray me or something, I feel like they should talk to me about it.”

Osaka’s mother, Tamaki Osaka, is Japanese. Her father, Leonard François, is Haitian. Osaka, 21, plays under the Japanese flag and lives and trains in Florida. If she competes in the 2020 Olympics, she will do so for Japan. She speaks and understands Japanese but answers questions posed in Japanese in English. After winning the US Open in September, she became the first Japanese person, male or female, to earn a Grand Slam title, and now, as she guns for her second, she’s becoming a truly international star, which brings with it certain complications.

The situation with the Nissin ad is curious, as Westerners tend to voice questions about conventions of imperialism and project them onto Japanese manga and other cultural exports. Just try Googling “Why do Japanese manga characters have big eyes,” which many a Westerner has assumed is an effort to make characters appear white or conform to Western beauty standards. That’s not actually why, but the concern speaks to a certain lens of Westernized wokeness when it comes to how those images are perceived.

So was the Nissin ad an example of whitewashing or was Konomi simply rendering Osaka in a way that’s consistent with his general style? Or maybe both?

Osaka wasn’t sure.

“I get why people would be upset about it,” she said. “The person that, like, drew that, I’m not really sure, but I think he was the creator of Prince of Tennis. I feel like you would have to do research on it, like, to see if he’s ever done things like this before. I mean, to be honest, I haven’t really paid too much attention to this. This is sort of the first time that anyone’s asking me questions. I don’t really want to say anything wrong at this point. I feel like I should do my research before I answer, if that’s OK.”

Prince of Tennis isn’t just a manga series. In 2001, it was adapted as an anime series, directed by Takayuki Hamana and animated by a group called Trans Arts. In the anime series, black people are rendered as unmistakably black, and certainly darker than Osaka was shown in the ad campaign, which Nissin has discontinued.

Thanks to the way the internet has brought the world closer together, there’s really no such thing as a “local” ad campaign anymore. That’s tricky territory to navigate, and if Osaka keeps winning and her profile and WTA ranking keep rising, it’s something that’s bound to come up again.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.