TOKYO -- Two-time U.S. Open champion tennis player Naomi Osaka, 22, has triggered a huge response through her words and actions opposing racial discrimination, including her much discussed choice to enter each of her seven matches at this year's U.S. Open while wearing masks emblazoned with the names of those including Black people killed at the hands of police.
How do other young Japanese people of her generation feel about her activism? The Mainichi Shimbun borrowed a phrase from Osaka's victory interview to ask young people around Hachiko Square in Tokyo's Shibuya district, "What was the message that you got?"
"Equality," responded a 19-year-old company employee in the Kanagawa Prefecture city of Sagamihara, south of Tokyo, who was born to a Nigerian father and Japanese mother. Because his skin is brown, said he was made fun of and bullied for his appearance when he was a child. "I think that what Naomi Osaka wanted to communicate was that everyone is the same, and race has nothing to do with it," he said.
Takumi Saga, a 21-year-old third-year university student from the city of Chiba's Hanamigawa Ward, east of Tokyo, said the message he got was "diversity." Saga works part-time in the Shin-Okubo neighborhood of Tokyo, which is known for its Korean community, at a Korean fast food restaurant. Through his job, he comes into contact with colleagues and customers with a variety of nationalities.
He said, "I feel like there is discrimination toward foreign people in Japan too, but when I meet people from other countries, my horizons broaden. What I got from Naomi Osaka was the importance of diversity."
Naomi Osaka has called for support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, which opposes racial discrimination of Black people. She has also taken part in demonstrations. In her remarks, Osaka has described herself as having a role to play in spreading awareness of racism, and it seems that her message has crossed borders and oceans to reach young people in Japan.
There were also many respondents who said that they were also impressed by other facets of Naomi Osaka's stance and way of living.
Yuhi Inoue, a 22-year-old third year student living in Tokyo's Nerima Ward said that Osaka's ability to "speak up without fear of criticism" had struck a chord with him. Third-year university student and Nakano Ward resident Hayata Oiwa, 20, told the Mainichi, "It can't be easy as a top athlete to champion political messages opposing racism, but I think she's really amazing. In the future, if I'm in a position to make a statement, I want to try to do the same thing."
Conversations about Osaka on Twitter and other platforms often include negative comments such as, "Don't bring politics into sports." Even out in the street, one 18-year-old first-year university student told the Mainichi Shimbun, "I want to enjoy sports as sports, so honestly, I can't bring myself to like Naomi Osaka."
In the West, it has become commonplace or even expected for professional athletes to make statements on societal issues. But in Japan, many still feel that this crosses the line.
But there were also hints of change in the comments of the people on the street. Sayuri Kamiwarabi, a 30-year-old psychiatrist based in Tokyo's Ota Ward, said, "The people who abuse her online seem to hold fixed views that 'an athlete must be a certain way,' I think they're stubborn-minded. From the way she presents herself, I feel I understand the importance of having your own views and independence."
Mana Sato, a 20-year-old second-year university student living in the Chiba prefectural city of Nagareyama, said, "Even though she's a top-level athlete she also inspires interest in societal issues. I think she's a real pro."
Naomi Osaka has sent a powerful serve to the world. Young people in Japan, too, are responding to her challenge.
(Japanese original by Keigo Kawasaki and Jun Kaneko, City News Department)