The instant-noodle brand Nissin’s ad featured a cartoon version of biracial tennis star Naomi Osaka that changed her features.
Naomi Osaka, the half-Haitian, half-Japanese tennis champion, is the star of a new Japanese anime-style advertisement.
The problem? The cartoon 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 long-standing sense of cultural and racial homogeneity.
The ad — unveiled this month by Nissin, one of the world’s largest instant-noodle brands — features 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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Konomi and Osaka, who faces Elina Svitolina in an Australian Open quarterfinal match, have not publicly commented on the backlash to the ad.
But a Nissin spokesman apologized in an email Tuesday for “the confusion and discomfort.”
The spokesman, Daisuke Okabayashi, said that the characters had been developed in line with Konomi’s anime series and that the company had communicated with 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, fans of Osaka and others on social media said they were deeply disappointed.
Baye McNeil, an author who has lived in Japan for 15 years, said he did not understand why the ad would “erase her black features and project this image of pretty much the prototypical anime girl-next-door character.”
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,” McNeil said.
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 is not 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 is already among Japan’s most accomplished tennis players ever. She became the first Japanese-born tennis player to win a Grand Slam 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 Williams, which many saw as a racist caricature. While most of the condemnation focused on how the Australian cartoonist drew Williams, critics also noted that Osaka was depicted with blond hair and light skin.
Black characters are not 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,” 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, 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.”