Language and athletes: Should Naomi Osaka have to respond to questions in Japanese?

One controversy that arose amid the otherwise uplifting news cycle regarding Naomi Osaka’s recent championship run was that the dual-national tennis star was asked to answer a question in Japanese by multiple Japanese reporters during her post-championship press conference. 

During the press conference, held on Jan. 27, Osaka, whose dominant language is English (a well-known fact the reporters were doubtless aware of), somewhat reluctantly complied with said request on the first occasion, then politely declined the second such request before answering the interviewer’s question in English. Many fans questioned the appropriateness of asking Osaka to respond in Japanese, given that she clearly preferred to speak in English and did not feel as comfortable speaking in Japanese. Below is my take on this issue.

The case of Ichiro

With her recent championship and crowning as the top-ranked player in the world, Osaka may well have become the most famous Japanese athlete both in Japan and abroad. In commenting on this topic, however, I want to begin by referring to the man who occupied that throne for much of the beginning of this century: Ichiro.

Ichiro is known to be very fluent in English, a fact his former Major League Baseball teammates (and even his own interpreter) have attested to. During his playing days in MLB, he regularly talked to teammates in English without a hitch. Yet, he always spoke via an interpreter during interviews and other media appearances, reportedly because he wanted to make sure his thoughts were conveyed accurately to fans, lest he unwittingly make even the slightest of mistakes in English and cause a misunderstanding or miscommunication.

Ichiro therefore drew a line between talking with teammates and speaking in public in an official capacitya prudent choice, given the vast difference in the weight his words carry between the two settings. In casual conversations and banter with teammates, whatever Ichiro says is off the record, and will not be heard by anyone other than those around him. Even if he makes a mistake in English, the worst thing that can happen is fleeting embarrassment. On the other hand, what Ichiro says in press conferences and other dealings with the media is printed or broadcast worldwide, and may live on in cyberspace for years. If he accidentally says something that does not match what he intended to say or that comes out wrong in any other way, it could reflect poorly not only on himself, but also the ballclub and sport he represents, and even his country; the ramifications are potentially huge. As fluent as Ichiro is in English, he understandably prefers not to take any chances, and uses an interpreter when talking to the media. If Osaka prefers to speak in English for similar reasons, in other words to avoid possible miscommunication and to protect her image, her concerns and choice are well founded, and her preference should be respected.

Baseball spoken here

The use of interpreters by players is of course not at all uncommon in MLB and other major American sports leagues, where athletes are free to speak in their native tongue when addressing the media. Whether you’re Japanese or Boricua, the freedom to use one’s own language is a right that all athletes are entitled to and exercise. Moreover, no reporter in the U.S. would have the temerity to ask an athlete to speak in English. (And if one did, it would result in an uproar; just ask sports reporter Todd Grisham, who not too long ago was widely criticized for implying that it behooved Ichiro to speak in English.)

“But Osaka is Japanese.”

Now, some may counter, “But Ichiro wasn’t American, so it's okay for him to not use English. Osaka is Japanese, so she should speak in Japanese.” This argument does not hold much water in my view, because the ability to speak Japanese is not a requirement for Japanese citizenship (nor is it stipulated in any tennis rulebook). And if you’re playing the nationality card, I might also point out that the aforementioned Puerto Ricans are technically Americans.

In today’s globalized world, the notion that one must speak in a certain language on the basis of nationality sounds rather outdated. Many Japanese people grow up abroad, and it is perfectly natural for them to become more proficient in the local language, as Osaka (and this writer, too) did. There are many different types of Japanese people—it’s called diversity—and not all speak Japanese as their dominant language. If Japan wishes to be regarded as a tolerant, inclusive society that is in tune with the times, having reporters allow athletes to express themselves freely and be themselves, as their American counterparts do, would be a step in the right direction.

The bilingual mind

From the perspective of a Japanese-English bilingual, I would also like to note that just because someone can speak two languages, it does not necessarily mean that he or she can easily switch between them during a conversation (“code-switching” in linguistics jargon) upon request, let alone speak both with equal ease. In fact, many bilinguals report having different personalities in different languages; the bilingual mind is such that the same person can feel or behave very differently in different languages. Bilinguals often feel more confident in one language than the other, and may even find it stressful to speak in their “B” (less dominant) language. If this is something Osaka experiences as well, to demand that she speak in Japanese (in front of a global audience no less) would be to deprive her of her sense of comfort and confidence, which would not be fair journalistic practice. Because language is linked to personality, this issue is also a matter of personal comfort and identity, not just language.

The realm of sports

I do recognize that in other lines of work, one should use, and be proficient in, the common language. If you are an air traffic controller stationed in Narita Airport for example, it is imperative that you communicate with others in Japanese.

Sports, however, are an entirely different realm. The very essence of sports is that the best athletes in the world are able to gather to compete and entertain. Those who reach the highest echelons of sports make it on athletic merit, not linguistic prowess or other background factors. Indeed, one of the things that make sports so great is that people of all backgrounds have a chance to participate and succeed. In that sense, diversity, whether racial or linguistic, is something that should be welcomed in sports, not shunned. Athletes should be allowed to express themselves in whatever language they feel most comfortable in. And if that language is one that any given fan does not understand, interpreters and translators are on hand (such as they are, in the case of Osaka’s recent press conferences) to ensure his or her experience is not diminished by the language barrier.

Therefore, as long as language proficiency is not part of the job description for tennis players, Osaka’s only obligation at press conferences should be to show up and field questions, as she dutifully and respectfully (even in response to the “in-Japanese-please” curveballs) did during the presser in question.

Final thoughts

Personally, it’s hard for me to even comprehend why the reporters asked Osaka to respond in Japanese in the first place; it appeared completely unnecessary and unwarranted. But, whatever their rationale, I believe it is well within Osaka’s rights to speak in her language of choice. I also believe the media should respect her language preference, which is deeply rooted in her personal history, and that any attempt to alter the language chosen is lacking in respect and consideration.

Watching the actual video of the press conference, I was more than a little bothered by what transpired, but was encouraged by the fact that Osaka chose to speak in English when she was requested to speak in Japanese a second time. I hope, for all the reasons explained above, that she won’t have to worry about dealing with such a request again.






■ 1月24日の記者会見動画


“Er… well I mean, there’s a lot of Japanese reporters in here, so if you want to ask them about, you know, the drawing thing… um… but, I think for me… I don’t… like, I get why people would be upset about it 【誤訳①】… um… but then, because the person that, like, drew that is, I’m not really sure but I think he was the creator of [the manga series] Prince of Tennis, but, er… I feel like you would have to do research on it, like to see if he’s ever like done things like this before, but… I mean, to be honest I haven’t really paid too much attention to this 【誤訳②】, it’s… this is sort of the first time that anyone’s asked me questions [about this controversy], so I don’t really want to say anything wrong 【誤訳③】 at this point, and I feel like I should do my research before I answer [your question], if that’s OK.”

  • 誤訳①:「なぜ多くの人が騒いでいるのか分からない」



  • 誤訳②:「この件についてはあまり関心が無い」


  •  誤訳③:「悪く言いたくない」



■ 1月27日の記者会見動画


“… It was very difficult for me because I haven’t played a lefty in months 【誤訳④】, too, and um, she definitely came out and we both wanted to win really bad, so it was probably one of the hardest matches of my life【誤訳⑤】.”

  •  誤訳④:「私にとって左利きの選手は難しいんです」


  •  誤訳⑤:「今までで一番大変な試合だった」






Double the fun: 二つの文化を楽しめるということ

英語圏の文化の中でも、英語の知識が特になくても楽しめるものはあります。ディズニーランドや Star Wars が良い例かもしれません。



例えばアメリカで Key & Peele という人気なコメディーシリーズがありますが、彼らのユーモアはアメリカの文化知識がないと恐らく理解できません。仮に誰かが台詞を全て日本語に完璧に翻訳して日本で放映したとしても、あまりウケないでしょう。





また、その土地の雰囲気が伝わって来ることもあります。例えば僕は Maroon 5 の曲を聴くとロサンゼルスを思い出したり懐かしくなったりします(彼らはスタイル的にLA感が醸し出ているので)。

ユーモア: 例えば The Onion という風刺的なサイトがありますが(英語圏ではsatireを使ったユーモアが人気です)、これもアメリカの文化や出来事の知識がないとあまり分からないと思います。

また、アクセントや喋り方の特徴が分かれば、このような物まね (Spoiler alert: 「ショーシャンクの空に」に出てくるキャラクターの物まねです)もウケます。






国際校ライフ③ 「国際校出身者あるある」


22 Signs You Were An International School Kid



  1. International school kids have hearts of stone.

Because they’re used to saying goodbye to their best friends.

(和訳:16. 国際校出身者は親友と別れることに慣れているので、心が冷たいです。)











でも、国際校で楽しい思い出もたくさんありますし、今でも仲良い同級生もいます。全体的に見れば、このリストの22番目の通り、all in all, international school was pretty awesome!

国際校ライフ② 「+/-」




1. 語学力が上達する。バイリンガルになれる可能性もある。

2. 話せる言語が増えれば、交流できる相手の幅も広がる。

3. 言葉の面白さや奥深さを味わうことができる。

4. 他の文化の知識も身に付くので、バイカルチュラルにもなれる。

5. 色んな国や文化の人と接するうちに、異文化理解力も鍛えられる。世界には色んな生き方や、様々な常識があることを実感できる。

6. 寛容さも身に付く。人種だけでなく、色んな面でもっとopen-mindedになれる。

7. 色んな環境に適応できるようになる。

8. 色んな国の人と仲良くできるようになる。世界中に友達や知り合いができる。

9. バイリンガル・バイカルチュラルになると、各言語・文化のものが楽しめるので、「楽しみの引き出し」が増える

10. 語学力が求められる職種(翻訳・通訳など)や、文化の架け橋になるような仕事には有利になる。

11. グローバルに考えるようになるので、国際感覚や広い視野が身に付く。

12. グローバルな視点から文化を比較したり、日本を客観的に見ることができる(良いところも、良くないところも)。

13. 先入観やステレオタイプはあまり意味がないことを学ぶことができる。

14. 人を人種別ではなく、一人ひとりの「個人」として見るようになる。

15. アイデンティティー的にどこにも属さないため、自由に自分を re-inventする (作り直す)ことができる。



1. 日本語のレベルが落ちる。また、英語脳になると、日本語で思うように表現できないこともある(英語で言いたいことが分かっていても、日本語では適切な表現がすぐに見つからない、あるいは存在しない)。帰国すると、英語を使いたいのにあまり使う機会がない。

2. 日本の文化に疎くなったり、考え方や価値観も「日本人らしく」なくなったりするため、日本に帰国するとなかなか生活に馴染めず、逆カルチャーショックを受ける(いわゆる浦島太郎化)。行動が理解できない、波長が合わない、価値観が異なる、笑うツボが違うなど、日常的に戸惑う。文化の違いなどにより、知らずに失礼なことを言ってしまうかもしれない。

3. 逆に日本の人からすれば「この人は日本人なのに~~」と相手も戸惑い、「日本人ではない」と思われ、余所者扱いされる。

4. 自己紹介する度に「うらやましい」「すごい」「別の世界の人みたい」などと言われる。悪意はないと分かっていても、ただ「普通に扱ってほしい」というのが本音なので疲れる。

5. 海外に行けば日本人扱いされるので、どこにいても outsider. そのため、「自分はどこの人なのか?」という identity crisis が生じる。

6. 「ホーム」がない「ホームシック」になる。日本に来た外国人がホームシックになったら母国に帰れば良いことだが、そのように「戻れる場所」がない。

7. 同じ境遇の人は少ないので、あまり理解・共感してもらえない。サポートが得られるグループとかもない。

8. 家族で唯一自分だけが国際化していると、家族とも価値観や文化が異なるのでお互い理解しづらくなる。言語面でも、得意な言語が異なるので十分に意思疎通できない可能性もある。

9. 孤独感、不安感、葛藤など、メンタル面で苦労する。

10. 海外の人種的多様性の高い環境に慣れていると、日本の同質的社会に戻るとそれも結構ショック。

11. 海外に戻りたいと思っても、国籍は日本なので簡単には移住できない。

12. 世間の帰国子女に対するイメージと現実のギャップを感じる。

13. せっかく英語力を鍛えてネイティブレベルになっても、日本では日本人である以上ネイティブレベルと認められないことが多いので、語学力を生かせない。


14. 日本人の友達や知り合いはあまりできない。

15. 日本人のコネや日本人的な感覚に欠けていると、日本での就職活動は厳しい。日本の会社は国際感覚をあまり評価しない。


















例えば僕とほぼ同じ時期に海外移住されたBilingirl Chikaさんは、国際校でなく現地校に入られたと思いますが、明らかに僕よりもバイリンガルでバイカルチュラルだと思います。「日本人らしさ」を失わずに国際感覚を得ることも可能なのかもしれません。


国際校ライフ① 「日本人組と多国籍組」















いわゆる formative years(形成期)の間、ずっと色んな国の人と遊び、グローバルな環境に浸りきって、英語優位で育ちました。


A double-edged sword (諸刃の剣)





HuffPost TCK piece: My thoughts and reflections

Rarely do I come across an article that strikes such a deep chord with me, or a writer whose life story so closely mirrors mine. Ms. Miki Naganuma’s piece on her experiences and identity as a third culture kid evoked many feelings and memories in me, so I thought I’d share some of them here, in quote-and-comment format.



→ I get this too. And I react in the same way (albeit in standard Japanese) in my mind. Like, I’m a bilingual Japanese person, so by definition I can speak Japanese.

I’ve also had people get super impressed or surprised upon seeing me reading a Japanese novel, and when I knew a certain Japanese city or prefecture they had mentioned. I don’t take offense or anything, but evidently there are people who don’t expect me to do or know these things.



→ I get asked this question a lot too. And even when I reply in the affirmative, some people still don’t buy it.


「素敵!格好いいですね!」 (何が?)

→ 何が? is exactly how I feel when I hear this, or any other variation of sugoi. I don’t consider myself sugoi; it’s not like I ran the 100-meter race in 8.2 seconds, or performed brain surgery on a tree shrew with my eyes closed. All I did was grow up in a different environment than most; I’m just different. I have never said or thought that I was better or more special than others because of my background. Better at certain skills, yes, but we all have our strengths and weaknesses, right? Being raised abroad doesn’t make me sugoi as far as I’m concerned.



→ I was kind of in the same boat; after moving abroad to Singapore as a fourth grader, everything was new to me. You’re just a nine-year-old kid, and all of a sudden you find yourself in a completely English-speaking environment at school (which in my case was an international school). You don’t speak a word of English, and you can’t understand what everyone is saying. Looking back, that sounds a little daunting. But I don’t remember ever feeling scared or homesick. I was probably just too young to know any better; the transition likely would have been more challenging had I moved abroad later in life. When you’re nine, you aren’t afraid of anything. At least I wasn’t. Life was different after my move, but I just took it as it came.



→ I can safely say I never felt this way during my childhood. Not one bit. I do remember some of my Japanese classmates at my international school becoming homesick, though, and me being unable to comprehend why they were homesick. I might even have needled them about it (what a jerk!), which I regret.

And years later, I would finally understand that feeling, because I got “homesick” myself—but for the U.S, not Japan. During my first few years back in Japan (after graduating from college in California), which were pretty rough to say the least, I missed my stateside friends and the life I had left behind, and I badly wanted to go back. That’s about the only time in my life that I have felt homesick—though I don’t call it homesickness myself, because the U.S. isn’t home to me. But at the very least, I could understand what it felt like.


小中学生時代は英語が第二言語ばかりの生徒が集まるESL(English as Second Language)という特別なクラスで英語を学んでいた。私はこのクラスが大嫌いだった。

→ I started out in ESL as well. I personally liked it. Being with other kids who were in a similar situation as me helped me fit in and make friends, and I loved the multinational environment. There were kids from literally all over the world—Bulgaria, Brazil, Australia, Norway, Taiwan, you name it. I didn’t feel out of place at all, because we were all different.

I liked the ESL approach as a form of language education too, because it was very hands-on and it enabled me to immerse myself in the language from an early age. The ESL label didn’t hurt my pride, because I knew I wasn’t a native speaker and I was indeed studying English as my second language.



→ I went through this phase too, though it wasn’t so much about trying to be “less Japanese” as trying to be “more global”. As a student at an international school abroad, I was eager to become part of the global, multicultural environment around me. I didn’t want to hang out only with Japanese classmates and talk in Japanese all day and read Japanese comics during recess (which, by the way, is what 99% of Japanese kids at my international school did)—no offense, to each their own, but that MO made no sense to me. I mean, if I’m living abroad, I might as well make the most of my opportunity to experience the world, right? Going to an international school and “being Japanese” the whole time was, to me, the equivalent of visiting Yosemite National Park on a gorgeous summer day and playing video games all day in your cabin. There was no way I was doing that. I wanted to get to know and become friends with classmates from various countries, which entailed speaking in a language we could all understand (English) and holding values we could all share. And doing those things effectively meant becoming “more global” and “less Japanese”. I distinctly remember once being told I wasn’t very Japanese, and taking it as a compliment because that meant I was succeeding in becoming more global. So, it wasn’t that I had anything against Japan; this shift in identity was part of my natural gravitation toward a “world citizen” (国際人) mindset.

Now, wasn’t there a way to be both Japanese and global? Did it really have to be a choice? Those are valid questions, because there are Japanese bilinguals who clearly were able to achieve a better balance of the two than myself. But if there was a way, I didn’t know it or follow it.



→ My university had a Japanese student group too, but I didn’t join it. The thought of mingling with fellow Japanese students felt foreign to me after years of not doing so, and the idea of ethnically themed student organizations in general didn’t fit my worldview. I believed in ignoring borders, not celebrating them. Joining the Japanese club would almost have felt as if I was turning my back on my friends, who were of various races and nationalities. So, I never participated in the Japanese club’s events. But, in hindsight, I think I could have benefited from joining the club, and I think it wouldn’t necessarily have meant a betrayal of my friends or beliefs. If I could go back in time, I would at least give it a try.



→ This sentence hit home the most for me. For much of my adult life so far I’ve felt alone psychologically, because it’s so hard to relate to others or to ever feel at home. I’m not very Japanese, not very Singaporean or American, and not even like most returnees for that matter (because most Japanese returnees are very Japanese). It was my own doing for the most part, but I have a unique, rootless, global identity, and I’ve found it hard to find people who share a similar background and perspectives. I really miss being around people I can relate to (my immediate reaction to this piece was, “If only I could find this kind of group too!”); the feeling described in this sentence is precisely what I want and need in my life right now. So, if there are any “weird people” out there who are reading this and feel the same way, give me a holler! :-)



→ I share the same sentiments, in that I am a Japanese citizen after all and I’m proud of my roots. I was born in Yokohama to a Japanese family, so I consider my Japanese nationality my birthright. No amount of becoming Americanized or globalized is going to change that.



→ So too will I. The TCK identity is deeply ingrained in me, and at this point I am who I am, wherever I may end up.



→ Being a TCK is a double-edged sword. There are challenges unique to TCKs, but there are positives too, as outlined in this essay. Life as a TCK can be hard at times, but at the end of the day all I can do is try to make the most of my positives and deal with the negatives. Don’t we all?