Naomi Francois Osaka: An American immigrant success story
Winning the Australian Open, Naomi Francois Osaka, ranked 72 a year ago, has become number one on tour and in the hearts of fans worldwide who love her for sweetness off court and her savagery on it.
She’s a bonafide star now, and perhaps the greatest phenom in women’s tennis since her idol Serena Williams. It’s an amazing rise for a young player who was struggling a year ago, and for all the hype about her becoming “Asia’s first number one”, she also an American immigrant success story.
Long before his daughter Naomi won the US Open, Leonard Francois had a dream. He was born in Haiti, studied at New York University and then moved to Japan, joining thousands of other expatriates (including this reporter) working there in the 1990s.
He met a Japanese woman, Tamaki, who then moved away from her disapproving parents in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. According to press reports, Tamaki gave birth to two daughters in the western Japan city of Osaka. The family moved to Long Island, New York when Naomi was three.
In New York, they lived with Leonard’s parents — Haitian immigrants who, unable to speak fluent English, spoke Haitian Creole at home.
This is how Naomi tells her life story. “I was born in Osaka. I came to New York when I was 3. I moved to Florida when I was 8 or 9. I’ve been training in Florida since. My Dad’s Haitian. So, I grew up in a Haitian household in New York. I lived with my grandma. My mom’s Japanese. I grew up with Japanese culture too. I lived in America. So I also have that too.”
Naomi told press that her family came to America “for tennis”. Leonard admired how Richard Williams groomed his daughter Venus and Serena in Compton, California and then Florida to become tennis stars away from the normal channels of elite clubs, junior tournaments or college programs.
Leonard Francois tried the same with his daughters Naomi and Mari. Leonard moved the family to Florida, the world’s hotbed of tennis and a breeding ground for other US residents such as Maria Sharapova, who plays for Russia, and Kei Nishikori, whose Japanese parents sent him to America as a teenager.
Young Naomi trained at the Harold Solomon Institute in Fort Lauderdale north of Miami. She says she lost 6-0, 6-0 to her older sister every time until Naomi turned 15. Soon after that, Naomi’s big serve and forehand dazzled observers as she beat Petra Martic and 2011 US Open champion Sam Stosur at the 2014 Bank of the West classic in California.
Since Naomi had dual Japanese and US citizenship, her father registered her with the Japan Tennis Association, hoping a Japanese identity would lead to more financial support and sponsorship deals.
Many reporters were confused about Naomi at first. They mispronounced her name “Nay-oh-me”, instead of the normal Japanese “Now-me”. They associated her with Pokeman and other Japanese cartoon characters. They were surprised that this brawny “Japanese” girl with dark skin could speak English like a shy, bubbly American teenager.
As Virginia-based writer Chris Beck pointed out in 2016, many major media outlets “played along with the charade” and propagated the myth that this “Japanese player” was symbolizing the rise of tennis in Japan and a new age of multi-racial Japanese kids.
As Beck says, Naomi hasn’t been “visiting” the USA for 17 years. She’s as American as any other kid growing up in the US since age 3.
In Australia, she had to correct a reporter during an on-court interview.
“You’re very proudly Japanese obviously,” said the interviewer. “What will this victory mean for the people back home, for both sets of fans?”
“Actually I live in Florida now,” quipped Naomi. “Of course I’m really honored to be playing for Japan. My Dad’s side is Haitian, so represent. I forgot the rest of your question, sorry.”
Naomi has to deal with misunderstandings about her identity almost every day on tour. Many people simply can’t deal with the fact that she’s the latest product from the academies of Florida, not Japan.
Tennis isn’t “on the rise” in Japan. (If it was, then the Nishikori and Francois families would have kept their children there.) It’s still difficult to find or book a court in greater Tokyo or Osaka, and though many kids bat around tennis balls in school gymnasiums, urban Japan simply doesn’t have enough space or coaches with ample time to train thousands of potential stars.
Naomi’s parents moved away from Japan to America in order to give her a chance to develop into a pro, and Naomi has worked hard to seize the opportunity.
It’s another American immigrant success story, similar to Maria Sharapova’s parents moving from Russia to Florida to give their 7-year old daughter a shot at fame and fortune. Kei Nishikori’s parents also sent him to Florida as a teen, and Kei reportedly still spends more time in Florida than in Japan, despite earning more than 20 million dollars annually in endorsements.
It’s not known if Naomi speaks or understands the Creole of her father and grandparents. Haitian media reports this year show her traveling in Haiti for the first time and visiting children in her father’s home city of Jacmel.
“I wanted to visit Haiti, although I have heard negative comments about Haiti. I find it hard to believe. That’s why I had a huge desire to walk on Haitian soil,” Naomi said. “I visited my father’s hometown, Jacmel, and other places in the country. I could see that Haiti is a beautiful little country. The negative comments do not reflect the reality.”
She clearly understands the questions of Japanese reporters on tour. (This reporter, based in Japan more than 10 years, also understands Japanese language press conferences). Yet Naomi is either too shy or perfectionist to answer in Japanese. Instead, she speaks in quips and soundbites in English, and she’s increasingly poised and quotable.
In coming years, Naomi will have to choose whether to keep her Japanese or US citizenship. Japanese law dictates that a person must choose only one nationality before turning age 22. Naomi would most likely keep her US citizenship, since she and her family live in Florida (home to thousands of Haitian-Americans), and she speaks English better than Japanese. But she would still most likely compete at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics as a “Japanese” athlete.
If she continues to rise up the rankings, the young American woman from the Haitian expat communities in New York and Florida might be the most celebrated “Japanese” athlete at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games.
(words and images copyright Christopher Johnson Globalite Media, all rights reserved)