One of tennis star Naomi Osaka's sponsors is in hot water for an ad that appeared to have whitewashed the high-profile player for an Asian market.
Noodle company Nissin has backtracked and apologized for the anime-inspired cartoon ad allegedly intended to depict Osaka, who is of Haitian and Japanese descent. In the two “Hungry to Win” ads, the star, who rose to prominence after beating Serena Williams in the 2018 U.S. Open, is shown having fluffy brown hair and pale white skin.
Critics called out the sponsor for ignoring Osaka's Haitian-American heritage. The skin-lightening makes her digestible to Japanese consumers.
Japanese culture, along with countless other ethnic groups, places higher value on lighter skin. Osaka was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father. The 21-year-old's Black heritage has always been a point of pride for her.
“There is no intention of whitewashing,” Daisuke Okabayashi, a Nissin spokesperson, said. “We accept that we are not sensitive enough and will pay more attention to diversity issues in the future.”
ESPN reports that the animation clips that sparked the controversy were removed from the company's website on Wednesday. They were first released earlier this month to minimal initial backlash.
"We as a company put human rights first, and our stance of valuing diversity is unchanged,'' Okabayashi said in a telephone interview with ESPN.
Although the company apologized, some of the blame was shifted to Osaka's camp. Nissin said an agent representing Osaka approved the ads. Upon growing controversy, the agent reportedly asked the company to take down the ads.
According to The Guardian, the ads were designed/drawn by veteran manga artist Takeshi Konomi. They also showed her competing against Japanese player Kei Nishikori.
Osaka, however, has other things to worry about as she is currently playing in the Australian Open. According to her, the ad was an obvious issue.
“I’ve talked to them," Osaka told media Wednesday. "They’ve apologized. For me, it’s obvious, I’m tan. I don't think they did it on purpose to be whitewashing or anything but the next time they try to portray me or something, I feel like they should talk to me about it."
The next time she is portrayed in ads, the company is advised to speak to her first. Osaka is set to face off in the final against Petra Kvitova.
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