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Heisei Transformations: New definitions of what it means to be 'Japanese'

Monica Okoye, center, celebrates with her teammates after a Women's Japan Basketball League match in Kariya, Aichi Prefecture, on Dec. 16, 2018. (Mainichi/Takehiko Onishi)

The ball drew a beautiful curve in the air before it slipped through the basket. The crowd went wild.

It was Sept. 26, 2018, in Tenerife, Spain, and this was the Women's Basketball World Cup. Japan, playing in the qualification round, was aiming to making it into the quarterfinals for the first time in 39 years, and was facing off against China. When the free throw passed through the basket, a smile spread across the face of the youngest forward to ever represent Japan in the tournament.

"When I was picked for the team, I was so happy and I felt I had to give it my all," said Monica Okoye, 19. While Japan ended up losing the close game to China, Okoye managed to give the team an 8-point boost in the final three minutes.

Okoye's father is Nigerian and her mother is Japanese. Her older brother is also a professional athlete -- 21-year-old Rakuten Eagles outfielder Rui Okoye.

According to a Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare Vital Statistics Survey, international marriages made up less than 1 percent of all of those in Japan in the 1970s. Picking up pace in the 1980s, that percentage now stands at 3.5 percent as of 2017. Children with one non-Japanese parent, so-called "hafu" (half), account for one in every 50 or so new births. Japanese with a variety of mixed backgrounds have been particularly shining in track and field and many other disciplines in the sporting world.

Monica Okoye was born in the suburban Tokyo city of Higashimurayama, and was raised in the capital. She started playing basketball at the age of 11 at her local elementary school. But at the time, she says she did not have much confidence in herself. Her classmates made fun of her curly hair, and she thought, "I want to have the same hair as everyone else. I want to have the same skin color as everyone else." While her brother seemed to enjoy being different from everyone else, "I wasn't as strong as him," she said.

But, when she was in junior high school, she made her first visit to Nigeria with her family, and her outlook was changed forever. There, she saw a girl playing basketball barefoot on a court that shone with shards of broken glass. When the younger Okoye asked her why she was playing barefoot, the girl told her in a lighthearted manner that she did not have the money to buy shoes. Her dream was to play in the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) in the United States.

Okoye began to feel proud of this place where her father grew up, where strong-willed children like that girl lived. She realized that with an amazing father like hers, "It was all right not to be like other Japanese people."

She began to dream of wearing the uniform for Japan's 2020 Tokyo Olympic basketball team, and also has dreams of "going to play abroad, and experiencing the ideology of foreign countries."

Naomi Osaka, 21, who won the women's singles title in the U.S. Open tennis tournament in September 2018, is also a "hafu" with a Haitian-American father. When asked about her identity, Osaka answered that she was just herself -- neither Japanese, nor American, nor Haitian. Just Naomi. Her response became a hot topic of conversation.

During the Heisei era (1989-2019), not only have the faces of Japan's political and economic landscapes undergone change, but the very concept of being "Japanese" has taken on a global aspect. Tracing the path of Japan's mixed-background citizens, the past 30 years of Japan and Japanese society, as well as the future of both, comes into focus.

(Japanese original by Naoko Furuyashiki, Business News Department, and Soji Kawana, City News Department)

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