Japanese food brand pulls ads after 'whitewashing' controversy over tennis star

Japanese food brand pulls ads after 'whitewashing' controversy over tennis star

Although she's just won her second Grand Slam at the age of 21 to become the world number one in the women's tennis rankings, Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka's fledging career has already been overshadowed with controversy that's altogether not her fault.

Back in September, when she won the US Open to claim her first Grand Slam of her career, the spotlight was denied the youngster by the woman she defeated in the final - Serena Williams, viewed by many as the best female tennis player of all time, who launched an astonishing rant at the officials, in a move that was widely criticised across the sporting world.

Now, three months later, Osaka defeated Petra Kvitová to win the Australian Open, becoming the first Asian tennis player to reach world number one in the process. But back in her native Japan, a food company using her image has been heavily criticised after being accused of 'whitewashing' her photo in a recent advert.

Osaka - who is of Haitian as well as Japanese heritage - recently allowed her likeness to be used in a series of adverts from Japanese food brand Nissin Foods, and a drawing of herself was used in the "Hungry to Win" campaign. The drawing, made by manga artist Takeshi Konomi, has caused widespread outrage online.

The pictures in question show Osaka alongside male tennis star Kei Nishikori as both swing their racquets, but Osaka's skin tone appears to be a lot lighter than in real life. As a result, Nissin Foods has been accused of 'whitewashing' their biracial star.

Speaking to Sports Illustrated, Baye McNeil - an American who's lived in Japan for over a decade - says that there's no doubt that the pictures were intentionally lightened, explaining that Japan was a little bit behind the times, and explained that they needed to get with the times in order to appeal to a global market.

"She looks totally like a white woman in the ad. It was very whitewashed. They are not thinking on that level,'' McNeil said. ''It may be painful, but Japan is going through growing pains right now.''

Speaking to reporters in Melbourne ahead of the Australian Open final, Osaka said she'd already talked to the company about her depiction, saying that her complexion is "pretty obvious", but disagreed with the idea that the company intended to whitewash her.

''I've talked to them. They've apologized. I'm tan. It's pretty obvious. 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. I'm just focused on this right now. I've gotten to the final of a slam, and that's sort of my main priority."

Since the backlash, Nissin Foods have pulled the ad, and in a statement made by spokesperson Daisuke Okabayashi, the company said that they hadn't run the images by their US representatives, but meant no offence by the images, intending to "replicate the world of the anime series as much as possible".

"Nissin Foods Group operates under the respect of fundamental human rights, ensuring that gender, race, age, nationality, or any other values are taken into consideration in accordance with all our business practices, including our advertisement activities... The current situation creating social controversy is not what we had intended, and therefore have decided to stop the campaign."

Naomi Osaka Credit: Getty

Okabayashi says the images had been approved by Osaka's agent, but took them down once prompted. He added that the company continues to support Osaka, and didn't want the incident to be a distraction.