It be your own people; that’s what Haitian-Japanese-American tennis champion Naomi Osaka—who proudly plays for Japan, her country of birth—found out yet again while winning her first Pan Pacific Open title on Sunday in her hometown, the aptly named Osaka.
According to BBC Sport, Japanese female comedy team A Masso ignored the two-time Grand Slam winner’s incredible athleticism during the open, instead opting to mock her skin color, which they reportedly said “needed some bleach” during a live event. The duo also reportedly said Osaka is “too sunburned.”
Though their management company, Watanabe Entertainment, claims the duo was “severely warned” as a result of the remarks, when an apology was issued, Osaka was not even acknowledged by name, reports BBC.
“We sincerely apologize for making the specific person feel uncomfortable, as well as for everyone else connected to the event,” comedian Ai Murakami said. “We also sincerely apologize for causing trouble. Though we should have thought about it, we made remarks that hurt many people, something we will never do again.”
Aside from being incredibly insulting, the duo’s comments magnify a pervasive issue in Asia and throughout the world, as colorism compels many—predominantly women—to bleach their skin in pursuit of social acceptance. In fact, a World Health Organization report warning of the dangers of mercury in bleaching products found that as of 2004, nearly 40 percent of women surveyed in China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Korea reported using skin lighteners (pdf).
Japan has its own issues with skin color, particularly when it comes to mixed-race people, or “hafu,” as they are called. This was evident In a 2015 Newsweek article which made mention of that year’s Miss Universe Japan, Ariana Miyamoto, who was born to a Japanese mother and African-American father.
As Newsweek reported at the time:
Growing up in Japan, Miyamoto found her skin tone and curly hair caused others to shun her; classmates and their parents referred to her as kurombo, the Japanese equivalent of the N-word. Rather than identifying solely as black or Japanese, Miyamoto instead chooses to present herself as a representative of all ethnically and racially mixed Japanese. Her participation in the Miss Universe pageant opens the door for hafus to be accepted as part of Japanese society, and changes what it means to act and appear “Japanese.”
Reactions from the Japanese public have been less than kind. Posts on social media read, “Is it OK to select a hafu to represent Japan?”; “Miss Universe Japan is…what? What kind of person is she? She’s not Japanese, right?”; and “Even though she’s Miss Universe Japan, her face is foreign no matter how you look at it.”
And the country’s preoccupation with skin lightening purportedly dates back to the early 1900s, when skin whitening products emerged along with the term “Bihaku,” which means “beautifully white.”
As a blog on Guidable explains:
In Japan, beautiful skin is defined as white and smooth, especially for young girls and wom[e]n. They care about skin every day, and they are desperate [to make] their face ‘brighter’ and ‘whiter.’ In Japan, there are a lot of goods and services to protect and whiten their skin. Bihaku products are highly popular among [women]...If you are walking in Japan, you might always see people with sunscreen, umbrella, gloves, sunglasses, big hats, spray, and powder...
[A]lthough people are born to have different skin color, depending on their racial background, Japanese people tend to think that they have a distinct skin tone, and they see people with darker skin color as different and unusual. For example, people from Okinawa [are] distinguished from other people as diverse because their skin color is darker than that of other Japanese...a ‘darker’ skin represents ‘otherness’ in Japanese society.
The blog also claims that a fixation with lighter skin led to a $370 million lawsuit by several women whose skin was damaged by skin lightening products.
With this in mind, while A Masso acknowledged that their comments were “inappropriate, hurtful remarks” (h/t BBC Sport), the two comics—women, no less—also promoted a longstanding tradition of racism and a dangerous beauty standard affecting the lives, self-esteem, and health of women worldwide. From the looks of her Instagram feed, the 21-year-old Osaka appears to be to flying high above the haters and living her best life as one of the world’s best athletes—but if a Grand Slam winner is subject to this level of derision, what of the millions of non-famous, brown-skinned women and girls watching?