On Saturday, the 22-year old Naomi Osaka took home her second U.S. Open Championship in three years and her third major title, earning her cheers from around the world. Osaka broke barriers when she entered the scene as the half-Japanese, half-Haitian player who bested Serena Williams for a Grand Slam title. Now, she’s making waves as a social justice activist while she’s on the court to mixed reviews from her fans in Japan.
Before each of her tournament matches, Naomi wore a mask — seven in total — with the names of Black American victims of police violence including Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Ahmaud Arbery, and Elijah McClain. After winning, Osaka honored the late “Black Mamba” Kobe Bryant by donning his number 8 Lakers jersey in a celebratory photo she posted on Instagram. She wrote that wearing her mentor’s jersey after her matches “gave her strength.”
As Forbes’ highest earning female athlete of 2019 with $37.4 million in earnings, Osaka had a huge platform to bring awareness to the Black Lives Matter campaign. She is expected to take her message with her to the big stage of the Olympics next year where she will compete for Japan. The International Olympic Committee’s Rule 50 does prohibit some types of displays at the medal podium, so that will be an upcoming point of contention.
Many of her corporate sponsors in Japan, while celebrating her U.S. Open win, are simultaneously distancing themselves from her social justice messaging including Nissin Foods and Citizen Watch Co. Even the Prime Minister’s Office official statement declined to make mention of the masks or racial injustice. Much of the backlash is from her fans in Japan, where there is not widespread knowledge about racial injustice, coupled with low immigration and a culture where conformity is respected and valued.
Naomi Osaka’s comeback win against Victoria Azarenka and her activism has still received widespread praise despite some backlash and misunderstanding. The young player has shown she is an athlete to watch on the field and off for years to come.