WHEN Yuka Saso formally declared she intended to become a Japanese citizen, sadness descended on our shocked nation. Yuka is a product of mixed parentage. She has a Filipino mother and a Japanese father. Under Japanese law, she can choose to become Japanese by age 22. After that, the door closes. Unlike the Philippines, there is no dual citizenship in Japan.
And just as she turned 20, Yuka chose Japan.
There is sadness around this decision, but little debate and no rancor. Most Filipinos accepted it as a business and professional decision. She is expected to develop as a stronger golfer as a Japanese citizen. Indeed, as Japanese, the world will be at her feet and riches within reach.
After winning the U.S. Women’s Open in June of 2021, Yuka became, in these parts, a national sports hero. A country without golf icons finally found one! And not an ordinary one, too. The U.S. Women’s Open is not your regular LPGA event, it is the golf major considered the toughest in women’s golf.
Of course Japan shares half the glory, but that country could not enjoy her achievement fully. Yuka has always declared herself Filipino in campaigns abroad. Even when she played in Japan as a rookie in 2020, she carried the Philippine flag, her stock rising astronomically with successive wins in the Japan Ladies Tour.
Golf almost a religion in Japan
We can imagine Japan coveting Yuka. Here is a girl who can bring women’s golf in Japan even higher. Besides the proven talent, she has the charisma, the looks, the demeanor, and all the other qualities that would endear her to the Japanese public. And certainly, it helps tremendously that her sport is golf, a game dear to the Japanese. Japan, mind you, has more golf courses than any country in the world after the U.S.
Then imagine for a moment that Yuka Saso is a champion pole vaulter or weightlifter. Or maybe an Olympic gymnast with a gold medal. Or a Boston Marathon winner, or a world champion in any sport other than golf. Will there be this kind of emotional tug-of-war between the Philippines and Japan for her loyalty?
Golf is a different animal in Japan. It is a religion to many. Their champions — especially world champions — are treated like gods. Take Hideke Matsuyama, who became Japan’s first men’s major golf champion after winning the Masters in April this year. Short of a national holiday being declared, his victory was the main story for days, eclipsing the attention on the coronavirus and the Olympics. Hideke was given an audience no less with the country’s prime minister when he came home from Augusta.
But when Yuka won the U.S. Women’s Open early this year, the celebration in Japan was muted. Golf officials and the media there simply noted that Yuka has a Japanese father and that she speaks the language. An all-out celebration could not happen there; it would happen in the Philippines, where media, government, sports fans and plain folk hailed her once-in-a-generation feat.
Many hoped she would embrace Filipino citizenship when the time came for making the decision, but few really bet on this happening.
There is just too much at stake for Yuka. Her entire future and her family’s future rest on this. Her father must have been under tremendous pressure to force the issue of her citizenship, which has to be decided before she turns 22 in 2022. For her part, Yuka’s loyalty must have been tested to the limit.
She was born in the Philippines, grew up here, studied here, loves Filipino food, and has fully absorbed the local culture. Also, I like to think her best friends are Filipinos. Now, she has to create new friends. It helps that she can speak Japanese. Plus there’s the fact that Japan loves a champion. Think Naomi Osaka, a Haitian-Japanese tennis champion and former world number one, who also picked Japanese citizenship.
But what she will probably miss most is the loud and clear love of Filipinos who have embraced her since she carried the national colors in international competitions where, by good fortune, she was always the star.
But Yuka has now entered the high-stakes environment of world-class golf, and even great love thrown her way by Filipinos will no longer suffice. In this environment, each player tries to spot that slight edge that will get her to finish at the top, or closest to it. And her team is convinced that only in Japan can Yuka be able to harness all that she needs to reach her potential.
Whatever happens after 2022, I join our sports officials, fans, and folks everywhere who have enjoyed Yuka’s journey — a journey that has allowed the Philippines a touch of the magical in the sports firmament — and wish her the best and even more success in the future.
She has thanked us first.
“I am grateful to both my Filipino and Japanese supporters,” she said in a statement released to the press. “I would not have achieved anything in my career without your support. I look forward to making you proud as I continue with my professional golfing career.”
As for me, what I shall miss most will be the waking up in the early morning hours to check on the results of tournaments she’s in, particularly the majors. I will stay longer in bed now that Yuka has changed national colors. But like many Filipinos, in our heart of hearts, she will always remain a Filipino, and will be that way long after sashimi takes the place of kare-kare as her favorite food.