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Opinion: Japanese sponsors should respect Naomi Osaka's stance as a Black woman

Naomi Osaka, of Japan, pulls off her headphones as she walks on the court before playing against Victoria Azarenka, of Belarus, in the women's singles final of the U.S. Open tennis championships, on Sept. 12, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The anti-racism stance taken by tennis star Naomi Osaka, fresh off her second U.S. Open title, has elicited mixed reactions from her sponsors in Japan, according to a Mainichi Shimbun report, with some firms apparently preferring that she refrain from mixing tennis with her actions to incite debate about or protest racial discrimination.

    In Japan, many people avoid talking about politics, which is seen as too stiff and formal, and discussions tend to be viewed as quarrels. In education, it is rare for students to debate topics in class.

    Especially those with low expectations of politics may not want her to get involved in "such things." However, in the United States, it's entirely natural for junior and senior high school students to discuss political issues. When working as a correspondent in Washington, I was overwhelmed seeing young people taking part in heated discussions about the presidential election.

    In America, where it's assumed that those who have objections will voice them, people rarely try to surmise the hidden intentions of others. When it comes to discrimination, public figures in particular are seen as accepting it if they don't speak out about it. These figures are perceived differently in the U.S. compared to Japan, where many public figures just keep quiet.

    Osaka wrote in a contribution to the American magazine Esquire in July that the coronavirus pandemic has given her a chance to reflect anew on her life.

    "In the past few months, I've re-evaluated what's actually important in my life. It's a reset that perhaps I greatly needed. I asked myself, 'If I couldn't play tennis, what could I be doing to make a difference?' I decided it was time to speak up."

    On Twitter, Osaka also wrote, "Before I am an athlete, I am a Black woman." Tennis plays a big role in her life, but that's just one part of her. As a Black woman who was born to a Haitian father and Japanese mother and grew up in the U.S. from the age of 3, Osaka likely could not ignore incidents of Black men being killed at the hands of white police officers and related issues.

    Telling Osaka to be mindful of her sponsors' corporate images and just focus on tennis is equivalent to saying they only value her for her performance as an athlete, and have zero interest in her identity or her values.

    This kind of thinking, which places value solely on a person's ability and success, is similar to elitism in a sense. However, Osaka seems to be stressing speaking out for individual dignity, and for people to respect the realities of each other's lives, as necessary to better our quality of life.

    I support the decisions she made based on the answers she came up with to her own questions.

    (Japanese original by Tomoko Ohji, Editorial Division)

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