Many fans are finding it difficult to consider that salacious reports about the recent conduct of table tennis champion Ai Fukuhara, a beloved national hero, may be true.
Who is she?
32-year-old Ai Fukuhara is an immensely popular public figure in Japan. She is a former table tennis child prodigy from Aomori. Fukuhara started playing at age 3 and went pro as a fifth-grader. At age 10, she became the youngest member ever of the Japanese national table tennis team. Since this point, Fukuhara has been known throughout Japan as “Ai-chan” (愛ちゃん), an affectionate term of endearment based upon her first name, which is the Chinese character for “love.”
Fukuhara has been called “a national daughter” of Japan. Her celebrity status was amplified since winning a silver medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Fukuhara is also popular in many parts of the Chinese-speaking world, having trained in China from childhood. A contributing factor is that Fukuhara also happens to be fluent in Mandarin. Thus, she has a very unusual background for a Japanese celebrity.
Her connections to China stretch beyond the boundaries of a ping pong table. Back in 2005, Fukuhara even helped Japan to avoid a diplomatic incident. On Chinese news media, she had covered writing, “Sino-Japanese Cooperation” (中日友好), in a widely televised publicity stunt that helped to avert a diplomatic crisis at a time when the relations between the two countries were at a historic low.
After the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Fukuhara married Taiwanese table tennis star Chiang Hung-Chieh (江宏傑) in 2016. It was touted as a fairytale-like marriage made in heaven both on and off the ping-pong table.
The newlywed power couple subsequently settled in Taiwan. Their marriage life became the subject of a Chinese reality show called “Happiness Trio” (幸福三重奏). The couple now has a three-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son.
Although Ai-chan announced her retirement from the professional table tennis world in October 2018, she continued to appear regularly on television shows in both Japan and Taiwan.
Everything was, apparently, going well until…
While at this point, reports have yet to be confirmed, earlier this month, Japanese gossip magazine Bunshun Weekly disclosed incidents of verbal harassment by Fukuhara’s husband and his extended family in Taiwan. The expose purports that her husband yells “Bitch!” whenever she attempts to wear fancy clothing that does not adhere to his unrealistic expectations of how a proper mother should dress. His family is also supposed to inflict verbal abuse almost daily.
Bunshun Weekly went on to describe a clandestine rendezvous with an alleged lover during a return trip to Japan. This revelation plunged her character as a mother under suspicion, because Fukuhara supposedly left her two children at home in Taiwan while she flew to Yokohama to meet this “boyfriend.” He has been described as a tall and handsome man. Fukuhara is alleged to have shared a hotel room for one night with the unnamed gentleman in Yokohama.
These allegations are still primarily based upon rumors. Thus, it certainly seems premature to try and convict Fukuhara in the court of public opinion. We have yet to hear her own account of the facts.
The problem is, however, that these allegations of impropriety do not gel with her public image as the proverbial “girl next door.” The disparaging reports of her behavior are certainly not consistent with common expectations in Japan of how a good mother should act. Thus, if the rumors prove true, then many of Fukuhara’s long-time supporters will be shocked and disappointed.
The latest rumor is that Fukuhara and her husband are in the middle of divorce proceedings.
Fans in Japan generally seem supportive of Fukuhara and willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. There are, however, still many unanswered questions.
19 year-old first year university student Tacchun, a fellow table tennis player, still respects Ai-chan. Tacchun tweeted,
I was astonished to see the report about Ai Fukuhara. Her husband used to belong to my local Okinawa team, and I supported him very much. When I saw the news, no words came out. Fukuhara has been a role model for me since I started playing table tennis, and that hasn’t changed. It is why I hope that this single incident will somehow be resolved and fade away.
Marin pointed out how Fukuhara is being treated unfairly simply because of her gender. A few days ago Marin tweeted,
In a commentary about Ai Fukuhara’s secret meeting, there was something like ‘Did you think of your child’s face during the date?’ The implication is that she must be a horrible mother. When they are visiting cabaret clubs, do the fathers of the world think of the faces of their children and their wives?
Many fans are, however, preparing to be shocked, in the event that the allegations of impropriety prove true.
Ever since the bombshell report in Bunshun Weekly was published at the beginning of March both the Japanese and Chinese paparazzi have been relentlessly pursuing Fukuhara. While it may be some time before the facts come to light, it is highly likely that the rumor mill will continue to churn over this issue for a while longer.
Mark Kennedy is a native of Chicago who has spent more than 20 years living, studying, and working in Japan. By day he is Country Head - Business Development, Nexdigm - Japan but becomes a writer after work. Mark is a lifelong student of the Japanese language and culture. He loves to travel throughout the country. Mark also is the author behind the "Real Gaijin" Substack, countryroadsjapan.com, as well as the Country Roads Japan and Coastal Sailing Japan YouTube channels. Photo supplied courtesy of the author who had stopped to check out the free-roaming horses and cows about half-way up to the summit of Mt. Aso, an active volcano in the center of Kyushu.