Yes, Naomi Osaka Knows Japanese—But Here’s Why You Don’t Hear Her Speak It Often

Naomi Osaka
Photo: Simon Bruty/USTA via AP.

There aren’t a lot of videos of Naomi Osaka speaking Japanese, but trust that she knows and understands the language. Naomi, who was born in Osaka, Japan, is half-Japanese and half-Haitian.

Her mother, Tamaki Osaka, was born in Hokkaido, Japan, while her father, Leonard Francois, is from Jacmel, Haiti. “I grew up surrounded by both Haitian and Japanese culture,” Naomi told The New York Times in 2018. Naomi, who moved to the United States when she was 3 years old, and her older sister, Mari, took their mother’s last name for practical reasons while the family lived in Japan.

When she was a preteen, Naomi’s father also decided that she and Mari would play tennis for Japan after the United States Tennis Association didn’t show much interest in sisters. “My dad thought that since I grew up around my mom and I have a lot of Japanese relatives,” Naomi told The New York Times. She continued, “I don’t necessarily feel like I’m American. I wouldn’t know what that feels like.”

So much Japanese does Naomi speak? According to The New York Times, Naomi’s sister is almost fluent in Japanese, and while Naomi isn’t fluent yet, she understands most Japanese. She told the newspaper that she’s often too shy and too much of a perfectionist to speak Japanese in public, which is why at news conferences, she often responds to Japanese journalists’ questions in English. “I don’t know if you guys know this, but I can understand most Japanese, and I speak when I want to,” Naomi tweeted in 2018. “That applies to my family and friends.”

Though it’s rare for her to speak in Japanese in public, there are some videos of her speaking the language, such as an interview at the 2016 French Open, where she sent a message to her parents and grandparents. In 2019, a Japanese reporter asked Naomi if she could describe her win at the Australian Open at the time in one Japanese word. “Yesterday’s match, against Petra Kvitova, a left-handed player, must’ve been difficult to counter. Could you tell us, in Japanese, how difficult it was to deal with? Just one word about how you felt,” the reporter said in Japanese. Naomi denied the request to speak in Japanese and prefaced her answer by saying, “I’m going to say it in English.”

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal in 2020, Naomi opened up about what it’s like to represent Japan as a tennis player. “I’m just trying to put a platform out for all the Japanese people that look like me and live in Japan and when they go to a restaurant, they get handed an English menu, even though it’s just a little microaggression,” she said.

Though she’s not fully fluent in Japanese, Naomi confirmed that she understands a lot of the language. In her interview with The Wall Street Journal, Naomi recalled overhearing a friend of another Japanese tennis player who assumed that she didn’t know Japanese. “She was talking with another Japanese girl, and they didn’t know that I was listening [or that] I spoke Japanese. Her friend asked her who she was playing, so she said Osaka. And her friend says, ‘Oh, that Black girl. Is she supposed to be Japanese?’ And then the girl that I was playing was like, ‘I don’t think so,’” she said. “I remember that specifically because, yeah, I sometimes feel like a lot of people think that way about me.”

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