A Japanese sponsor of Australian Open finalist Naomi Osaka has been forced to apologise and withdraw an advertisement that used a “whitewashed” image of the rising tennis star to sell noodles.
The anime-style ad campaign, for instant noodle brand Nissin, sparked controversy because it appeared to depict Osaka as white.
The 21-year-old will play Czech Petra Kvitova in the women’s final in Melbourne on Saturday night. She grew up in Florida and is of Japanese and Haitian heritage.
“I’m tan, it’s pretty obvious,” she said, according to website LiveTennis.com.
“I’ve talked to them. They’ve apologised.”
In now-deleted images from the ‘Hungry to Win’ campaign, Osaka’s hair looks straighter, her skin has been significantly lightened and her eyes are rounded.
The drawings were done by manga artist Takeshi Konomi, who is best known for the Prince of Tennis series.
The campaign also featured Japan’s male No. 1 player, Kei Nishikori. He is also drawn looking significantly less Japanese, with more Caucasian skin and rounded eyes.
Osaka, the world No.4-ranked women’s player, said she did not think the advertisement intended to “whitewash” her.
“But I definitely think that the next time they try to portray me or something, I feel like they should talk to me about it,” she said.
— Baye McNeil (@Locohama) January 19, 2019
Nissin, which sponsors the Japanese tennis team and has been Osaka’s sponsor since 2016, has apologised for the drawings.
Company spokesman Daisuke Okabayashi said Nissin meant no disrespect for diversity with its two animated clips. They were uploaded to YouTube and the company’s website earlier in January but were deleted on Wednesday.
“We as a company put human rights first, and our stance of valuing diversity is unchanged,” Mr Okabayashi said.
He said Osaka’s agent had approved the campaign.
Osaka’s star has been on the rise in Japan recently, particularly following her victory over Serena Williams in last year’s US Open final.
Her winning performance at the 2019 Australian Open has reportedly topped daily news coverage in Japan.
The “whitewashing” furore follows heated controversy about a Herald Sun cartoon from that US Open final. It showed Osaka as a white woman with blonde hair – and drew international condemnation for its depiction of Williams.
Mr Okabayashi said Nissin would continue to support Osaka, and did not want the controversy to be a distraction.
On that, Osaka agreed, saying she wanted to concentrate on playing tennis.
“I’m just focused on this right now,” she said.
“I’ve gotten to the final of a slam, and that’s sort of my main priority.”