Japanese sponsor accused of ‘whitewashing’ tennis star Naomi Osaka

Updated 8:14 AM EST, Wed January 23, 2019
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(CNN) —  

One of Naomi Osaka’s Japanese sponsors has apologized after releasing an advertisement which has been widely accused of “whitewashing” the tennis star’s skin tone.

The 2018 US Open winner is featured in the ad as an anime character for instant noodle giant Nissin, alongside fellow Japanese tennis player Kei Nishikori.

Critics allege the cartoon depicts Osaka, who is half Japanese and half Haitian, as having pale skin, light brown hair and Caucasian features.

A screengrab from a commercial produced by Japanese noodle maker Nissin, featuring tennis stars Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori.
PHOTO: Nissin/YouTube
A screengrab from a commercial produced by Japanese noodle maker Nissin, featuring tennis stars Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori.

“I was truly disappointed to see that there was no woman of color to speak of in the commercial. Instead, I found a white-washed representation of Osaka,” Baye McNeil, an African-American columnist who writes for the English-language Japan Times, said in his “Black Eye” column.

Noodle maker Nissin said that it did not intend to whitewash the 20-year-old tennis star, who holds dual Japanese and American citizenship.

“There is no intention of whitewashing,” Nissin spokesman Daisuke Okabayashi confirmed to CNN. “We accept that we are not sensitive enough and will pay more attention to diversity issues in the future.”

He said that the video had been shown to Osaka before it was released, adding that Nissin would stop using the ad and remove it from YouTube following a request from the player’s management company, IMG.

The Japanese company has apologized for the perceptions formed around the ad, which it said were unintentional.
PHOTO: Nissin/YouTube
The Japanese company has apologized for the perceptions formed around the ad, which it said were unintentional.

The ad was illustrated by anime artist Takeshi Konomi, famous for his “Prince of Tennis” cartoon. The company did not say whether it would be discontinued following the backlash.

Osaka, who is in the semifinals of the Australian Open following her straight-sets victory over Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina Wednesday, is ranked 4th in the world and won her first grand slam title at Flushing Meadows last summer.

It was also the first time a Japanese player had won one of tennis’ four Grand Slams.

The final, in which she beat Serena Williams, was overshadowed by controversy surrounding the 23-time major winner’s outburst at the referee.

That saga also prompted an allegedly racist cartoon, when an Australian cartoonist depicted Williams with large, exaggerated lips and a nose reminiscent of racist depictions of black people in the US during the Jim Crow era. In that image, Osaka was portrayed as a blonde woman with pale skin.

The US-based National Association of Black Journalists said the cartoon was “repugnant on many levels.”

Osaka’s grand slam win captured the attention of Japan, which has not produced a female player in the world top 10 since 2004.

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify the name of the sponsor on first reference.