During the 2020 U.S. Open, champion Naomi Osaka raised awareness about social and racial injustice in both the U.S. and Japan by wearing seven different face masks for her seven matches.
While many of the professional tennis player’s fans supported her intentions, others blamed her for bringing politics into sports in both countries.
Two years ago, Osaka became the first Haitian-Japanese victor when she won the 2018 U.S. Women’s Open against Serena Williams. This year, Osaka wore seven masks to the annual tournament which displayed the names of seven Black men and women who have been repeatedly cited as victims of police brutality: Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin, Elijah McClain, and Ahmaud Arbery.
“I feel like the point is to make people start talking,” Osaka explained in the on-court interview by ESPN. “For me, I’ve been inside of the bubble, so I’m not really sure what’s really going on in the outside world,” she said. “All I can tell is what’s going on on social media. For me, I feel like the more retweets it gets — that’s so lame — but the more people talk about it.”
Osaka also joined in other athletes’ protests against racial injustice by boycotting her semifinal match in the U.S. Open. Osaka followed in the footsteps of professional athletes in basketball, baseball, and football who boycotted games to demand social change after Jacob Blake, another victim of racial injustice, was shot by police. The Milwaukee Bucks also joined in similar protests by boycotting Game 5 of the First Round series in the NBA championship, forcing the NBA to reschedule the playoff games. The Milwaukee team reported the “ongoing racial injustices facing our African American communities” as the reason behind the boycott.
This was also Osaka’s reasoning behind her own boycott. “Before I am an athlete, I am a black woman,” she posted on Twitter and Instagram. “I don’t expect anything drastic to happen with me not playing, but if I can get a conversation started in a majority white sport I consider that a step in the right direction,” she wrote.
The tournament later responded to her social media announcement by suspending the entire day and rescheduling all of its matches. This attracted lots of media attention, so her efforts to spark conversation around the Black Lives Matter movement were successful.
Osaka isn’t the only athlete calling for racial justice. After winning the Tuscan Grand Prix in Italy, British Formula 1 racing driver Lewis Hamilton wore a T-shirt calling for the arrest of the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor.
Osaka has continued to be active on social media to raise further awareness about racial injustice against African Americans. After winning the 2020 U.S. Open, she also spoke out against people who criticize athletes for advocating for social issues.
“I hate when random people say athletes shouldn’t get involved with politics and just entertain. Firstly, this is a human rights issue. Secondly, what gives you more right to speak than me? By that logic if you work at IKEA you are only allowed to talk about the ‘GRÖNLID’?” she posted on Twitter in June.
As Osaka often posts statements in both English and Japanese on social media, Japanese media outlets have also covered her reaction to the BLM movement. Many news outlets, including the prominent Japanese news company Mainichi Shimbun, have alluded to the controversy surrounding Osaka’s racial advocacy.
“Different views from inside and outside the country—Sensitive subject to Japanese sponsors,” a Mainichi Shimbun headline read in September. Add citation link The article included quotes from anonymous Japanese companies expressing reluctance to fully support Osaka’s intention to wear seven different masks.
Five days after the article was published, Osaka tweeted, “All the people that were telling me to “keep politics out of sports”, (which it wasn’t political at all), really inspired me to win. You better believe I’m gonna try to be on your tv for as long as possible.”
Much like in the U.S., some Japanese fans applauded her decision to call for racial justice, while others criticized her for bringing politics into sports. The key difference is that those who are opposing her ideas are not white supremacists, as is often the case in the U.S. Japan also does not have a history of slavery nor excessive police brutality that repeatedly leads to Black civilian deaths.
Japanese media may have failed to report the full context of the Black Lives Matter movement, systemic racism, and social injustice in America. Without understanding our country’s culture and history, some may struggle to understand the social importance behind Osaka’s and others’ protests demanding racial justice for Black people in America.
Anju Miura is a recent graduate of Boston University, where she studied journalism and psychology. Her passion lies in covering both international relations and local politics, focusing on racial justice, immigration issues, and elderly affairs.