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Tennis star Naomi Osaka finds new voice in anti-racism protests

Rise to stardom propels Japanese-American player to action on social justice

Naomi Osaka will play in the semifinals of the Western & Southern Open on Friday, after reversing her earlier decision to boycott.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- "I never would have imagined writing this two years ago," two-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka wrote in a powerful Esquire essay in July, explaining her decision to speak out against "systemic racism and police brutality."

Describing her involvement in the protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, the essay also reflects on Osaka's own identity as a woman who was born in Japan and raised in the U.S. by a Haitian father and a Japanese mother.

"As long as I can remember, people have struggled to define me," she said.

"I'm Asian, I'm Black, and I'm female. I'm as normal a 22-year-old as anyone, except I happen to be good at tennis," she added. "I've accepted myself as just me: Naomi Osaka."

The pandemic was the catalyst for her to reevaluate what was important in her life and led her to "speak up," she said.

Her status as a top-ranked tennis player meant her words carried special weight. Osaka began using her platform to call for social justice. She flew to Minneapolis with her boyfriend days after Floyd's killing to join protests there, and has been tweeting about the violence and racism suffered by Black Americans.

She also hit back against criticisms that athletes should stick to sports. "This is a human rights issue," she tweeted.

Another police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, on Sunday in Kenosha, Wisconsin prompted Osaka to say she would boycott her semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open. She later reversed her decision after the organizer agreed to postpone all matches until Friday, which Osaka said would "bring more attention to the movement (against policy brutality)." She is slated to return to the court on Friday, according to multiple news outlets.

Naomi Osaka posted on Instagram explaining her decision to pull out of her match. (Photo from Naomi Osaka's Instagram)

The shooting of Blake, who remains partially paralyzed, has triggered a fresh wave of protests. Boycotting athletes include those in the National Basketball Association, Women's NBA, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer.

Osaka's embrace of her platform represents a marked shift from two years ago, when she stumbled through her victory speech after winning the 2018 U.S. Open. The win changed her life overnight, she said, and eventually made her realize the influence she could have.

She has since found mentors like basketball stars LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, both vocal advocates for social justice. Bryant, who died in a helicopter accident in January, had also watched her play in the 2019 U.S. Open from her family box alongside Colin Kaepernick -- a quarterback who has not had a job in the National Football League since 2017 after kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice.

Osaka has won major sponsors like Nike and MasterCard. As she became a household name not just in Japan and the U.S. but around the world, she grappled with what she could do with that prominence.

When asked last November how she was dealing with fame, Osaka said it had become part of her life and she wasn't thinking about coping, adding that her goal was to "have an impact on society" through tennis.

The rapid changes taking place in the world have also heightened her social awareness. The coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of Wimbledon and other tennis tournaments. The social inequality highlighted by the pandemic fueled the Black Lives Matter movement, inspiring demonstrations beyond the U.S., including in Japan and other parts of Asia.

"Japan is a very homogeneous country, so tackling racism has been challenging for me," Osaka wrote in Esquire.

"I have received racist comments online and even on TV. But that's the minority. In reality, biracial people -- especially biracial athletes -- are the future of Japan," she added, mentioning NBA star Rui Hachimura.

"The love I feel from Japanese fans of all ages, especially the younger ones, has always been heartwarming," Osaka said. "I am so proud to represent Japan and always will be."

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