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Japanese sponsors of tennis star Naomi Osaka not 100% on board with anti-racism actions

Naomi Osaka, of Japan, adjusts her mask after defeating Jennifer Brady, of the United States, during a semifinal match of the US Open tennis championships, Sept. 10, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Naomi Osaka, of Japan, wears a mask in honor of Breonna Taylor before her match against Misaki Doi, of Japan, during the first round of the US Open tennis championships, on Aug. 31, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

TOKYO -- The anti-racism stance taken by tennis player Naomi Osaka on the courts of the U.S. Open has drawn widespread attention from the public and elicited differing responses from her sponsors in Japan and elsewhere.

    Starting with her first match, Osaka entered the court wearing a black mask with the name of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was killed at the hands of police, on it as a call for an end to racial discrimination.

    "I don't think she needed to do that while she's fighting her way to the top. If possible, we'd like her to attract more attention with her tennis skills," said a source linked to a Japanese corporate sponsor of Osaka's. "She's taken on a leadership role as a Black person, and what she's doing is great as a human being, but whether that will help raise the value of a corporate brand is another thing. There hasn't been any impact in particular, but it's not something we're openly happy about."

    Another source linked to a different Japanese corporate sponsor said, "I think it's wrong to bring the issue of racial discrimination and her trade, tennis, together."

    Meanwhile, one of her other sponsors, an American corporation, has reacted very differently. A person involved with the company said that in the U.S., it's riskier not to say you take a stand against racial discrimination, because if you don't say anything, you could be seen as being accepting it. They said that there are a lot of companies that uphold diversity and inclusion and also agree to help stop discrimination as part of their corporate principles.

    After Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot in the back seven times by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in late August, NBA teams boycotted games in protest of the incident, and MLB games were postponed due to players refusing to play. Naomi Osaka announced she was withdrawing from the Western & Southern Open semifinals -- a qualifier for the U.S. Open -- in protest. Soon thereafter, the tournament decided to postpone the match by a day in solidarity with the protesters, and Osaka decided she would play the next day, sending a strong message to the world.

    In the NBA, where the majority of players are Black, actions taken to demand an end to racial discrimination are not uncommon. An official from a management company that has a contract with a Black NBA player explained that the top athletes have the strongest awareness that they must take the initiative to act as a representative of the Black community. And Black children, they said, dream of getting into the NBA, watching those top-tier athletes.

    There are some compromises that Osaka, who was born to a Haitian father and a Japanese mother, and grew up in the U.S. since she was three, is not willing to make.

    "If I can get a conversation started in a majority white sport I consider that a step in the right direction," she wrote in her now-famous tweet.

    Osaka arrived at the U.S. Open with seven masks, one for each round of the tournament, and each emblazoned with the name of a Black person who had been a victim of police violence. She's worn six now.

    What drives Osaka is her hope that people will get to know the victims better, and do what she can to prevent younger people from suffering from racial injustice.

    (Japanese original by Hiroyuki Asatsuma, Sports News Department)

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