Multicultural Olympic team shows Japan’s diversity growing pains

Japan’s Maki Takada, left, and Evelyn Mawuli, right, embrace as they celebrate the team’s win over Belgium in a women’s basketball quarterfinal game at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Aug. 4, in Saitama. (AP Photo)

The Tokyo Olympics were supposed to showcase Japan’s growing ethnic diversity, but the Games have also dragged into the international spotlight a domestic debate about whether the country can be both multicultural and Japanese.

Japan’s team is its biggest on record and most diverse, including nearly three dozen athletes of mixed parentage and reflecting a gradual but profound change in a still largely homogeneous country.

Among them are judo gold medalist Aaron Wolf, who has an American father; basketballer Rui Hachimura, who carried the national flag in the opening ceremony and has a Beninese father, and tennis superstar Naomi Osaka, who lit the Olympic cauldron and has a Haitian father.

The selection of multicultural athletes to represent Japan at such moments–unthinkable a few decades ago–comes as organizers made “diversity and inclusion” an Olympic theme. But like many countries, Japan still has much to do.

“What has become clear at this Olympics is the government wanted to use mixed-race people to showcase that Japan has become a global country,” said Lawrence Yoshitaka Shimoji of Ritsumeikan University, who wrote a book on mixed-race people.

“On the other hand, the government has not taken any measures to counter discrimination,” he said, adding there was no legal protection for mixed-race people from bullying or hiring discrimination.

Shimoji pointed to negative comments on social media after Osaka lit the cauldron, where some said the honor should have gone to a “pure” Japanese.

There are a record 2.9 million foreigners living in Japan, 2 percent of the population. Roughly 2 percent of babies born annually have one non-Japanese parent, according to official statistics.

 

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