Naomi Osaka is doing something that you’d think would be pretty un-extraordinary.
The tennis champion has added her voice to a chorus of Black voices — athletes among them — that have been crying out against police brutality, systemic racism, social injustice and inequality.
After withdrawing from the Western & Southern Open, Osaka came back to the game with a message; one that she has been conveying at the ongoing U.S. Open in the form of the names of Black victims of violence on face masks that she wears to the court — Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and, on Friday, Ahmaud Arbery — with her actions coming in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
While it’s a small gesture, it comes from a woman with a wide reach. At only 22, Osaka is the highest-paid female athlete in the world and sponsored by top-tier corporations. She has a platform that allows for her voice to reach further than your average person’s, and she knows it.
“I’m aware that tennis is watched all over the world, and maybe there is someone that doesn’t know Breonna Taylor’s story,” she told reporters last week. “Maybe they’ll, like, Google it or something. For me, (it’s about) just spreading awareness.”
And that’s what is extraordinary about her current campaign. Thanks to her popularity in Japan, Osaka has dragged this nation deeper into the Black Lives Matter discussion by reaching Japanese people who may not have been aware of the issue or by the emergent BLM-inspired groups in this country.
Inquiring minds from overseas may wonder, however, since Osaka is one of the main representatives of Japanese sport at the moment, does her view match those of her fellow Japanese citizens?
If you’re hopeful on this, don’t wander onto Japanese Twitter — some tweets are better left untranslated. Rather than recognize that Osaka joins a lineage of activist Black athletes such as Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens and Rose Robinson — as well as tennis greats like Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe — Japanese responses are just as likely to condemn Osaka for speaking out as some Americans did when Colin Kaepernick first took the knee in 2016.
Osaka is well aware of how little Black lives matter in Japan. The people that follow her likely don’t. The media in Japan has for years conveyed dubious messages (at best) about Black people from racist images on NHK to white-supremacist pundit Jared Taylor appearing on TBS to speak about racial violence in America.
I get sick of the fact that criticism towards Osaka exists. You can blame it on the extremist nature of Twitter, for sure, but I guarantee I’ll hear something slightly toned down but similar in nature when I head to work on Monday. That’s when I’ll reply by asking my own question: How can a person who has brought glory and prestige to Japan lose support for taking a stand against something as deplorable as genocide?
“Watching the continued genocide of Black people at the hand of the police is honestly making me sick to my stomach,” Osaka tweeted from her platform before her one-day strike. It was a strong message of social justice followed by waves of tiny responses on how she shouldn’t speak out. These small tweets didn’t stop her before, the tennis champ has clearly found her voice and is unafraid to use it.
I’d like to see Japan embrace the fact that one of its most powerful representatives on the world stage, a self-identified Black woman who loves and embraces her entire heritage — Haitian, American and Japanese — with a large and inclusive heart, has decided to add her voice to the millions of voices around the word calling for change.
Sure, she could have waited until she won the U.S. Open and brought Japan some more cred before staging her protest, which would have also had a definite impact. But when you have black friends, family and loved ones in harm’s way, everyday there’s an urgency. For on any given day one of them might have an unfortunately all-too-familiar encounter with a police officer and end up dead. Instead, she has decided not to wait until this violence touches her personally. She’s taking it personally, now, and taking action, now. And is demanding the same of Japan, now.
When you think of it, what she’s doing is not all that extraordinary — speaking out against the genocide of her people. However, her platform amplifies her message, which in turn gets heard by a lot of individuals in Japan and hopefully gets people talking here. That makes her more than just your everyday athlete, it makes her an extraordinary figure.
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