Media Mix, June 19, 2021

Yuka Saso

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the local press reaction to Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open tennis tournament. Though Osaka is still well regarded as both an athlete and a celebrity in Japan, the media seems to have given up trying to claim her as its semi-exclusive property owing to her Japanese nationality. Often when a Japanese person gains fame abroad their name is prefaced with the term “sekai no…”, meaning that the person now belongs to the “world” as well. Osaka’s case is slightly different since she mostly grew up in the U.S. and while she is very comfortable with and knowledgeable about Japan and Japanese things, she doesn’t make a big deal out of it. When she was first coming into her own as a world-class athlete, reporters would try to get her to talk about Japan, and she was forthcoming about her relationship to the country where she was born. Things became more difficult when reporters tried to get her to filter her replies about matters in general through a Japanese point-of-view, because she doesn’t seem to think that way, and eventually the press gave up on this gambit. 

That’s why it’s important that she is definitely coming to the Olympics to play for Japan. If she had decided to sit out the Games, it is likely greater attention would have been directed to emerging golf star Yuka Saso, who will also be at the Olympics. However, Saso will be playing for the Philippines. Like Osaka, Saso is of mixed parentage. She was born in Japan but has lived a good part of her life in the Philippines, where her mother is from. Also like Osaka, it was her father who strongly encouraged her to become a professional athlete, and there lies a fundamental difference. Saso’s father is Japanese, and thus much of her training as a golfer included a strong Japanese component. Osaka’s father is Haitian-American, so, at least when it came to tennis she developed less of a Japanese sensibility toward the sport. From what I can gather, Saso, who is a teenager and thus still has double nationality, is playing for the Philippines at the Olympics because she wants to give something back to the country. After all, it was in the Philippines that she learned golf, since, as her father himself admitted, it is much, much cheaper to play golf there than in Japan. However, he has also said that when Yuka turns 22 she will, like Osaka again, choose Japanese nationality. But unlike Osaka, she’s comfortable speaking to the press in Japanese (reportedly, she is fluent or conversant in four other languages) and isn’t shy at all. Had Osaka chosen not to play in the Tokyo Olympics for her “home fans,” the Japanese media could have easily fixed their gaze on Saso as the prime Japanese participant with a world standing, except that she’s representing the Philippines. You can’t have everything.

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