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, and 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 capacity, a 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, I believe 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 or other 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 needs to 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, its reporters respecting athletes for who they are and allowing them to express themselves freely, 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 solely 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 obligations 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 bothered (to put it mildly) by what took place, 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.