When a courtside reporter at the Australian Open last year asked Naomi Osaka how proud she felt representing her American and Japanese cultures, Osaka quickly and politely set the record straight: “Of course, I’m very honored to be playing for Japan. But my Dad’s side is Haitian, so represent.”
She then held up a peace sign, and smiled, a gesture that was felt all the way in her father’s hometown of Jacmel, Haiti, where she spent five unforgettable, life-changing days in November.
Osaka, the world’s top-ranked tennis player, was born in Japan, has a Japanese mother and surname and is a superstar in Japan, where she has lucrative endorsement deals with Nissin noodles, Nissan Motor, Yonex racket company, Citizen watches and Shiseido cosmetics. More than 50 Japanese reporters covered her win at the Australian Open in January, and many of them will be at Hard Rock Stadium over the next two weeks chronicling Osaka’s every move at the Miami Open.
The 21-year-old Boca Raton resident is fiercely proud of her Japanese background, although she was raised in New York and South Florida since age 3 and is more comfortable speaking English than Japanese. What is sometimes overlooked — much to her dismay — is that Osaka is equally appreciative of her Haitian heritage, especially after her recent trip to Haiti, her second visit to the island.
Osaka was treated like a head of state. She was received by President Jovenel Moise and Prime Minister Jean-Henry Ceant. A welcome parade was attended by hundreds of people, many of them playing drums and horns. She was anointed a goodwill ambassador for the Promotion of Haitian Sport and given the key to Jacmel. She was honored with a special musical and dance performance at a local theater.
A ceremony was held at Mupanah National Museum in Port-au-Prince, where she donated the sneakers and tennis racket that she used to defeat her idol Serena Williams in the controversial, drama-filled 2018 U.S. Open final that ended with Osaka in tears, her face buried in a towel, and then apologizing for beating Williams.
Her favorite part of the Haiti trip was a visit to the IOA Center, an elementary school in the outskirts of Jacmel that was built 20 years ago by her parents, Leonard Maxime Francois and Tamaki Osaka, who despite disapproving stares met and fell in love in Sapporo, Japan, in the early 1990s while Francois was a visiting college student from New York University. Continue reading