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Nike shrugs off Japan boycott threats after controversial ad

Brand places faith in young fans of tennis star Naomi Osaka

Passers-by watch Nike Japan’s controversial new ad outside its flagship store in the Harajuku area of Tokyo.

TOKYO -- For the past week, Nike Japan has been the subject of a consumer boycott. But you wouldn't know it from the stream of customers going in and out of its flagship store in Tokyo's Harajuku area on Wednesday afternoon -- so many that staffers had to limit entry to help social distancing.

As shoppers waited to enter, they could watch on a big screen the reason for the boycott -- a long advertisement by Nike aimed at the Japanese market. Titled "The Future Isn't Waiting," the two-minute Japanese-language film features three teenage girls -- Japanese, ethnic Korean and half-Black -- who overcome bullying and discrimination through sport. Japanese tennis champion Naomi Osaka, sponsored by Nike, also appears briefly.

The ad is consistent with Nike's reputation for not shying away from social issues. But this sort of marketing campaign is rare in Japan, and Nike has been criticized by some who perceive the ad as a wholesale accusation that Japanese society is discriminatory. Online responses have ranged from those welcoming Nike's focus on bullying in Japan to those decrying a Western company preaching about sensitive issues in a foreign society.

"I got hurt [by watching the video]. I felt these bullying scenes are exaggerated expressions," a 23-year-old man told Nikkei Asia. "It makes all of Japan look like a society where such bullying is happening."

"The Japan-Korea issue can never be understood by foreigners," said one critic on Twitter, referring to tension between the two countries over their history. Another reply on Nike Japan's Twitter account accused the company of profiting from racial division in the U.S. and trying to replicate it in Japan.

Nike told Nikkei: "The video is based on the testimonials of real athletes who, like many young people today, struggle to feel accepted for who they are. Discrimination is a global issue, and it exists around the world."

Although rival Adidas led the sportswear market in 2019, Nike poses a threat to Japanese sportswear brands Asics and Mizuno. In January, more than 84% of participants in the Hakone Ekiden, a widely watched university relay, ran in Nike shoes. Japan's sporting goods market is expected to grow to 1.6 trillion yen ($15.3 billion) this year, even with the postponed Olympics.

"Typically, Japanese consumers are less vocal and will not express it openly unless brands cross a distinct red line. Nike definitely crossed the red line with their advertisement and faced strong consumer anger and backlash," Martin Roll, a business and brand adviser, told Nikkei.

However, he said, "Nike has strong and long-standing goodwill with Japanese consumers, so the brand will take a short-term hit but the damage will be limited and Nike will soon be back on track."

U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka wears a mask bearing the name of George Floyd, whose death at the hands of police sparked protests in June.    © AP

The people calling for a boycott are "not the same group of people who prefer to buy Nike, and some of them may have never bought Nike in the past," said Ikuo Gonoi, a business professor at Takachiho University who studies social movements.

The ad reflects the strength of Nike's relationship with Osaka, who earned $37 million last year as one of the world's most marketable athletes, and her millions of young followers.

Osaka's capsule collection of apparel, shoes and gear with Nike has sold out in Japan and North America less than a month after its release. A second collection is in the works for next year.

A person involved with the ad's production said Nike was following Osaka's lead and emphasizing her advocacy for anti-racism. "She's become an incredible role model for the next generation of female athletes," said a Nike Japan spokesperson. Nike swiped Osaka from Adidas in 2019 after her first U.S. Open win.

Osaka, who plays for Japan, has a Japanese mother and a Haitian American father. The reigning U.S. Open champion used the tournament to raise awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement but attracted critics in Japan who told her to focus on tennis and stay out of politics.

At her seven matches in September, Osaka wore face masks bearing the names of Black Americans killed by police. Osaka also withdrew in protest from another tournament, causing some head-scratching for Japanese sponsors whose logos she wears on court.

"They were supportive," Osaka said of her sponsors in an interview with Nikkei Asia, conducted via email after her U.S. Open win. "But no, I was not concerned. This was not a commercial or financial decision. It goes far deeper than that."

Hanako Maeda, the designer behind high-end Japanese clothing brand Adeam, has seen for herself Osaka's star power. Orders for Osaka's collaboration with Adeam, featuring a $1,100 lace dress named for the athlete, have come from as far as the U.S., Canada, Singapore and Hong Kong.

The Naomi dress from Japanese brand Adeam's capsule collection with Naomi Osaka. (Screenshot from Adeam's website)   © ADEAM

Maeda and Osaka wanted the designs to reflect that "Japan is a multifaceted nation with a culture where both traditional and modern values coincide, resulting in a cultural melting pot."

Maeda told Nikkei Asia: "We wanted to focus on our shared Japanese heritage, and also our affinity for a powerful feminine aesthetic."

Nissin Foods Group, Osaka's first major Japanese sponsor, gave a more conservative response when asked about her advocacy against racism. "The group is committed to fulfilling its responsibility to respect human rights of all people affected by its business activities in order to embody our founder's spirit of 'shoku-i sei-shoku,' or 'food-related jobs are a sacred profession'," said a Nissin spokesperson.

The difference lies in their target markets. "Nike can ignore noisy racists. In Nissin's case, it's slightly different from Nike because cup noodles are a very basic food for Japanese," Gonoi explained.

Taking a public stance on social issues may pay off for Osaka's partner brands in the long run.

"Her power is tremendous, and there's nothing to compare," Gonoi said. "She is the only person [in Japan] who can claim credibility not only on gender equality but also racial equality and the rights of minorities."

While Osaka has not shared Nike Japan's new ad on social media, she previously reflected on the changing face of Japanese society that the video depicts, spearheaded by biracial athletes like herself and basketball pro Rui Hachimura.

"I think that what it means to be and look Japanese has changed even since I was a little girl," she told Nikkei Asia. "My hope is that some biracial children are able to see people like me and Rui and feel like they have role models to look up to."

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