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Naomi Osaka ad removed after being criticized for whitewashing

Naomi Osaka ad removed after being criticized for whitewashing
Naomi Osaka (left) during a tennis match. Nissin's depiction of Osaka (right) in an ad has been taken down. (Associated Press)

One of Naomi Osaka's main sponsors has taken down an online ad campaign that depicts the Japanese tennis player with pale skin after it was criticized as insensitive.

Daisuke Okabayashi, a spokesman for Japanese noodle-maker Nissin Foods Holdings, said Thursday that two animation clips, which went up earlier this month, were deleted from the company's online site Wednesday.

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“We as a company put human rights first, and our stance of valuing diversity is unchanged,” he said in a telephone interview. “Whitewashing has never been our intention.”

The clips showed a light-skinned, doe-eyed woman in the trademark style of Japanese manga, or comics. Critics said the depiction did not fully reflect Osaka's biracial background — Osaka has a Haitian father and Japanese mother.

Okabayashi said the ads had prior approval from Osaka's agent, but the company was later asked to take the ad down. He said the company continues to support Osaka and did not want the flap to be a distraction.

Nissin became Osaka's corporate sponsor in November 2016, joining a list of companies, such as Nissan Motor Co. and the watch brand Citizen, hoping to cash in on a level of stardom that's rare among Japanese athletes.

Osaka's appeal has been growing in Japan since she beat Serena Williams in last year's U.S. Open. She has been topping daily news coverage as she has advanced to the semifinals in the ongoing Australian Open.

This is not the first time Japan has been criticized for insensitivity to diversity issues, including race, nationality, gender and sexual orientation. Osaka's visibility and natural charm are seen as contributions to Japan's acceptance of racial and other differences.

Nissin's ad was based on a manga and animation series called “The Prince of Tennis,” created by artist Takeshi Konomi. The ad showed characters from the work and also characters meant to depict Osaka and male Japanese tennis star Kei Nishikori, playing on a court.

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