A Japanese noodle producer has admitted to “whitewashing” tennis star Naomi Osaka in its online ads.
The winner of last year’s U.S. Open and current world number four was born in Japan but has a darker skin tone than her fellow countrymen and women due to Haitian heritage from her father.
That did not prevent Nissin, who signed Osaka up in 2016, from depicting her with a lighter skin and narrower nose in its anime-style ads designed by manga artist Takeshi Konomi.
The 40-year-old is the man behind The Prince of Tennis, a series which ran from 1999 to 2008 and became one of the most popular sports manga in Japan.
However, the “Hungry to Win” ad campaign sparked uproar on social media because of the way it depicted Osaka, who has dual citizenship with the U.S. and Japan after growing up in New York.
As a result, the noodle company opted to pull the ads, which appeared on YouTube.
“We never had the intention to do what is known as ‘whitewashing,’ but with this becoming an issue, we will pay more attention to respect for diversity in our PR activities,” Nissin spokesman Daisuke Okabayashi was quoted as saying by the Japan Times.
The company added that it consulted the player’s agency before producing the ads, but admitted the message was not adequately relayed to its parent company in the U.S.
Okabayashi said Nissin never intended for the campaign—which also features fellow tennis star Key Nishikori, currently ranked as the world number nine in the men’s circuit—to purposefully blacken or whiten its characters. “We were trying to create them to match the world of Japanese animation,” he explained.
Osaka had already found herself at the center of racial controversy after winning the U.S. Open last year, when she beat Serena Williams 6-2, 6-4 in the final.
Mark Smith, the editorial cartoonist of Australian newspaper Herald Sun courted controversy by depicting Williams as a crying toddler with an oversized nose and lips, while Osaka was portrayed as a white, blonde-haired girl.
The Japanese player is yet to publicly respond to Nissin’s decision to pull its cup noodle ads and has done her talking on the court instead.
On Thursday, Osaka reached the final of the Australian Open with a 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 win over Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, who beat Serena Williams in the quarter finals, and will play Petra Kvitova in the final on Saturday.
Kvitova, from the Czech Republic and the current number eight in the world, beat Danielle Collins of the U.S. 7-6, 6-0 to reach her first Grand Slam final she suffered horrific hand injuries when she was victim of a knife attack in 2016.