As protests sparked by police slayings of Black men in Minneapolis and Atlanta spread across the United States and to other countries, famous Japanese athletes have also begun to take part in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
Among these are tennis star Naomi Osaka, who has been calling on others to back the protests, Washington Wizards basketball player Rui Hachimura, who marched to protest racial injustice and police brutality, and Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles pro baseball player Louis Okoye, who took to Twitter describing his experiences of growing up in Japan while facing discrimination due to his skin color.
Individuals born to a foreign parent are increasing in Japan, and more people are finding issues surrounding ethnicity and race a familiar problem.
As the world of sports is becoming more globalized, issues such as racial discrimination and xenophobia are rising to the surface during competition. It is inevitable for athletes and others involved to have growing awareness of the problems dividing society. In addition, the emergence of social media has played a significant role in providing these individuals with tools to voice their opinions.
Up until now, it has long been considered a taboo to bring politics into sports. Especially in Japan, there was an ongoing trend to regard it as a virtue for athletes to devote themselves solely to competition and not interfere in political issues.
That is why some people criticized athletes who have raised their voices in protest in the current movement. But to those critics, Naomi Osaka argued athletes also have the right to speak out about politics as individuals. "I hate when random people say athletes shouldn't get involved in 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 'GRONLID (sofa),'" she tweeted.
The Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games are set to take place in Tokyo next year. Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter states that "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas." Some athletes concerned about the issue have started to call for its abolition. The International Olympic Committee says it is mulling to what extent such actions can be allowed.
Athletes taking part in the Olympics and Paralympics, which draw attention from around the world, are at risk of being politically abused by nations trying to enhance their influence. But it is essential to make efforts to guarantee an individual's right to voice their opinions, while ensuring no turmoil takes place at the venues.
Like the Japanese national squad in the 2019 Rugby World Cup, sports can be a guiding model for a diverse society in which people of various nationalities, races and ethnicities live in harmony.
We live in an age where people need to understand each other beyond national borders. We should listen to the voices of athletes and make it an opportunity to reconsider divides in society.