Have you experienced racism in Japan?

Naomi Osaka Lost with Japan

Sometimes you have to be the first to show others that it is possible.

With this sentence begins a 45 second long commercial with a lot of pathos, of the North Carolina Courage, the reigning champion in the women's professional football league in the USA. The video shows sold-out stadiums, goals and cheering scenes. And it puts values ​​in the foreground: In pictures of soccer players kneeling down, the voice says from the off:

"We stand up for what is important. And sometimes kneel down in protest. We are a diverse team from all corners of the world, with a universal message of empowerment."

And at the end the words: "Welcome Naomi Osaka. Courage unites us."

Women's football represents sexual diversity much more clearly

Whereby courage is obviously a play on words: on the one hand it should be about courage, on the other hand it is about the name of the club in which tennis player Naomi Osaka has just joined as an investor.

In terms of sport, it looks like a suitable connection. The 23-year-old Osaka has already won three Grand Slams and is currently number 3 in the world. She was the highest paid female athlete in the world with revenues of $ 37 million in 2020, according to Forbes. The North Carolina Courage, on the other hand, have several world champions in their squad and are record champions in the USA - the strongest league in the world.

But it should be about more than just sport. For several years, women's football has been trying to take socio-political positions internationally. The US national team has clearly opposed the racist statements made by then President Donald Trump. Much more clearly than men's football, women also stand for openness to sexual diversity.

In a statement from the football club, Naomi Osaka was quoted as saying: "My investment in North Carolina Courage means much more than just owning a team. It is an investment in great women who are role models and leaders in their field Inspiration for all young athletes. I also admire the courage for what they do for diversity and equality. "

In Japan, Osaka is offensive

For example, Osaka was one of the first female athletes to have the names of black victims of police violence on her outfits.

It has received a lot of international applause for this. But not everywhere - in her native Japan, of all places, she makes her noses upset with her statements. Hiroki Ogasawara, professor of sociology at Kobe University, explains it this way:

"She wears masks with the names of black victims, so she could also be a driving force for social change in Japan. But many people in Japan did not like that. Athletes do not act as political figures here. They only earn their respect for entertainment and not more than that."

At the US Open 2020 Osaka wore a face mask called "George Floyd". The African American died in May 2020 as a victim of police violence in the United States. (dpa / picture alliance / Frank Franklin)

The relationship between Naomi Osaka and Japan is difficult at all. Osaka is the daughter of a Haitian father and a Japanese mother, was born in Japan, but understands the Japanese language very little. She lived in the United States for most of her life and learned to play tennis there.

At the Olympics - if the Tokyo Games take place - Osaka starts for Japan. And in the Tokyo 2020 advertising campaign, she's even the face of the games. Motto: "United in emotion."

Diversity is hardly valued in Japan

There have always been things that made life difficult for Osaka as a Japanese woman. In Japan, where barely two percent of the population has a foreign passport to date, diversity is still hardly valued. You see yourself as a homogeneous society.

Naomi Osaka experienced this two years ago with her sponsor, the noodle manufacturer Nissin. For an animated commercial, the company's strategists make Osaka's skin look significantly lighter, so supposedly more Japanese than it really is. Osaka was visibly disappointed:

"I talked to them and they apologized. It's obvious that I'm dark. It's pretty obvious. You probably didn't do it on purpose, whitewashing or something. But next time you portray me, you should." ask me beforehand.

Japan's athletes shouldn't open their mouths

Experiences like this may have contributed to Osaka investing its money in the US sports scene rather than Japan. A new professional league is starting there this year - with conditions that Osaka should also support: In the "We League" at least 50 percent of all employees must be female. This is an ambitious figure in Japanese society, which is otherwise heavily discriminating against gender. Well-known investors could certainly use the "We League".

But also those who not only give money, but also take a stance on political issues? Hiroki Ogasawara is skeptical:

"I would be happy if black Japanese were the drivers of social change. But sport in Japan doesn't really work as a whirlwind, but rather as a social sedative. Put simply, you think of athletes like this: 'Shut up and play your game.'"

It is clear to Naomi Osaka that her game consists of more than just a game, a set, and a win.