The sociological study of culture, including popular culture and celebrity, should always examine relevant structures and processes as part of the broader social order in which they are situated. This comprehensive focus should at the same time also allow for an examination of the relationship between celebrity culture and other social institutions. One immediate observation on the relevance of Naomi Osaka’s criminal justice activism for criminology and the study of criminal justice is that her fame and popularity readily imply that her activism, no matter its validity, is relevant to criminal justice and how it is perceived. The criminal justice activism practiced among celebrities is criminologically relevant inasmuch as it can and does affect criminal justice culture by influencing popular beliefs and attitudes concerning crime and criminal justice. This influence can be analyzed in terms of the interplay between the celebrity’s motives and objectives, on the one hand, and its impact and public reception, on the other.
Motives and Objectives: Osaka as Criminologist
What is readily noticeable about Osaka’s criminal justice activism is that she defines her actions not primarily in terms directly associated with crime or policing, but on the basis of her racial identity as a Black woman. As recent discussions on police violence in the United States have primarily been framed in racial terms, Osaka could successfully rely on her minority status, which she also visibly amplifies by means of dress and style (Midkiff, 2020). Contemporary popular sentiments are generally also respectful of people’s racial identity, so that Osaka’s (subjective) presentation of self has generally also been (inter-subjectively) well received among the public at large (Nayak, 2020). The sincerity of Osaka’s motives and objectives, “to make people start talking” (Osei, 2020), need not be questioned to observe that she has in this respect been successful in fostering awareness by bringing matters of policing and police violence to people’s attention. In an August 2020 interview, Osaka explained that she initially thought her opinion would not matter, but she changed her mind upon visiting Minneapolis after the George Floyd killing. “Just going there and seeing how the whole city was at that moment,” she said, “I just started thinking, ‘Even if one person cares about what I say, then maybe that person will show another person’” (Cheng, 2020).
Osaka also understood that her success as a tennis champion had brought about a measure of celebrity status that gave her a powerful platform from which to voice her opinions. “Today, given the television coverage we receive and our prominence on social media,” she wrote, “athletes have platforms that are larger and more visible than ever before” (Osaka, 2020d). Relying on her acquired status as a successful athlete, Osaka thus realized that she, like many other (minority) athletes before her, was uniquely placed to speak on activist causes. In an age of generally increased concern over discriminatory practices, moreover, Osaka’s explicit presentation as a woman athlete made her advocacy work be as respected as, if not even more so than, that of the successful men in sports among whom activism has historically been more prevalent (Gomez, 2020; The Japan Times, 2020c).
In line with her self-understanding (as a Black woman) and her acquired position (as a star athlete), Osaka has framed her criminal justice activism as part of a broader racial justice activism (Deflem, 2022). In her Esquire op-ed, Osaka especially highlighted and criticized the racial injustices she claimed to exist in the United States as “oppression” against which, she wrote, “Being ‘not racist’ is not enough. We have to be anti-racist” (Osaka, 2020b). Likewise, Osaka critiqued the silence of (non-Black) people who, she said, can be fond of engaging with Black culture while refusing to take a stand against racism (Carayol, 2020). Following the video-taped police shooting of Jacob Blake, Osaka went as far as to speak of “the continued genocide of Black people at the hands of the police” (Osaka, 2020c). In her New York Times op-ed, she similarly framed the matter in terms of the nexus between “systemic racism, inequality and police brutality” (Osaka, 2020d).
Thus, rather than relying on considerations related to crime control and methods of policing, Osaka focuses on the Black victims of police violence and other incidents that have via their media exposure, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, attained great symbolic significance. In this sense, Osaka practices what could be called a ‘Black liberation criminology’ inasmuch as she understands the problems associated with criminal justice in terms of racial identity and racial (in)justice affecting Black life and seeks to contribute to an emancipation from these conditions. To be sure, the tennis star does not construct her ideas systematically as a criminologist would, but justifies her thoughts and actions on the basis of her (minority) standing as a Black woman who takes advantage of the opportunities afforded to her to speak out because of her (elevated) standing as a tennis champion.
Impact and Public Reception
In terms of the consequences of criminal justice activism, it is of course too soon to say if any ongoing or future changes in policing and other aspects of criminal justice might be attributed to, or at least said to have been aided by, the activism of Osaka and other athletes and celebrities. Such instrumental considerations need also not be the sole focus of a scholarly examination. Instead, Osaka’s criminal justice activism can also be examined in terms of the impact it has had on her career and social standing as well as its reception by others. In this respect it can be straightforwardly observed that the tennis star has been able to establish a highly successful career and garner enormous wealth, especially by means of endorsements (Badenhausen, 2021; Natividad, 2022). Endorsements are an important and concrete sign of success and impact as companies interested in profit will choose to work with athletes who have great public appeal.
In terms of its impact on Osaka’s standing as a celebrated athlete and cultural icon, the tennis player’s activism on criminal justice (and other matters, especially mental health) has generally been very well received in the news media and by the public (Black Voice News, 2020; Lawrence, 2020). Osaka’s activist efforts directly contributed to her receiving numerous awards and positively influenced her financial standing by means of endorsements. Her success as a tennis player has gone hand in hand with, and has at times even been superseded by, her success as an activist and a brand, to wit her continued high earnings and positive standing as an activist throughout 2021 despite a decline in success on the tennis court (Mitchell, 2021). When Osaka plays (or refuses to play) tennis and when she wins (or loses) tournaments, she always makes sure to place a spotlight on advocacy issues. When she is given awards, both her activism and her athletics are explicitly noted. And whenever Osaka is discussed in the media, she is routinely placed at the center of sports activism. Strikingly, even when the primary topic of a news story is Osaka’s tennis, her activism and ideas about policing, race, and criminal justice are often also discussed (Maine, 2020; Osei, 2020).
In today’s lucrative world of professional sports, it is useful to examine the financial and other effects of activism on athletes who express opinions in matters that resonate strongly with public sentiments, such as crime and policing. Most (in)famous in this respect is the career of former NFL football player Colin Kaepernick (Nugent, 2020). During the 2016 NFL season, Kaepernick sought to draw attention to alleged racist police violence by taking a knee while the national anthem was being played before games. The following year, he was released from his contract, presumably for athletic reasons, although he and others have claimed he was let go (and remained unsigned) because of his actions against police violence. Regardless of differing opinions about his conduct, Kaepernick has become an important test case to measure the impact of sports activism (Allen & Williams, 2021). Some observers have argued that athletes who engage in advocacy have typically been in danger of losing money and other rewards as a result of their actions (Bryant, 2020). However, following several much publicized high-profile incidents of police violence (most notably, the video-taped police killing of George Floyd), indications are that the situation today has reversed as justice advocacy goals and company profit objectives now tend to go hand in hand.
Among the beneficiaries of changing attitudes concerning criminal justice in the post-Floyd era has been Colin Kaepernick himself, whose actions have most recently become more readily accepted, especially in the media and in the corporate world (Boykoff & Carrington, 2020). Although the former NFL quarterback has not been re-instated as a professional athlete, he has in the meantime acquired the status of a civil-rights advocate, contributed to making protest against police violence almost routine, and been able to profit from various lucrative sponsorship deals (Marston, 2021). In March 2022, Kaepernick teamed up with Naomi Osaka by joining the board of directors for the tennis star’s skincare brand Kinló (Trinh, 2022). In the post-Floyd era, the changed atmosphere of collective sentiments in criminal justice culture, readily expressing concerns about racial injustice and other assumed inequities in criminal justice, also contributed positively to the reception of Osaka’s activism. “Now, everybody talks about brands taking a stand,” as a sports marketing expert explains, so that Osaka’s activist efforts are more readily perceived as reasonable and her speaking out publicly “comes across as very real” (Badenhausen, 2021). With additional credence given because of her identity as a young biracial Black Japanese woman, Osaka has thus benefited from the post-Kaepernick climate of public opinion that implied a sharp reversal of the skepticism traditionally voiced against athlete activism towards a ready embrace thereof.
In terms of the impact of Osaka’s criminal justice activism, Osaka herself has expressed that, while she realizes that drastic changes are needed to “take on systemic racism head-on, that the police protect us and don’t kill us,” to bring about such change, she said, “I am proud, too, of the small part I have played in changing perceptions and opinions” (Osaka, 2020a). While Osaka understands that organizational changes are needed for her activism to be truly consequential, she thus conceives of her impact on public opinion as a first step in that direction. “Watching the police injustices like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake (to name just a few),” Osaka stated in an interview, “broke my heart. I am proud of my U.S. Open victory, but more so that I got people talking about the real issues” (Fendrich, 2020).
Given the nature of contemporary celebrity being constituted primarily through social network sites and news outlets, any impact of celebrity activism on a societal level must take place via the media. Shaping public opinion about Osaka, the role of professional news media cannot be overstated as they function as a powerful vehicle through which both her career and her criminal justice activism are known to the public. In that respect, a first observation is that the news media have not only spent a lot of attention to Osaka’s activism, on criminal justice as well as other issues, but also that they have generally treated it very positively (e.g., Lawrence, 2020; Maine, 2020; Mitchell, 2021; Reyes, 2020; Warner, 2021). Osaka is now routinely referred to, not as just a tennis player, but as an ‘activist-athlete,’ right alongside of other influential athletes who took many years to acquire that status (Fendrich, 2020). Remarkable indeed has been the ease and swiftness for Osaka’s activism to be (inter-subjectively) very well received when it (objectively) consisted of relatively few concrete actions, mostly tweets, opinion pieces, and an expression of sentiments in interviews.
From the United States to Japan (and the World)
The widespread favorable attention that has been given to Osaka’s activism in the media and by the public extends well beyond the borders of the United States to include her native Japan and many other parts of the world. Osaka is among the few biracial Japanese athletes to have publicly addressed issues of racial diversity and social justice, topics that are not as commonly discussed in Japan as they are in the United States, and she has done so with a measure of success that has fostered debate in the country of her birth (Henson, 2021; The Japan Times, 2020c). This transnational reach of Osaka’s activism is not altogether obvious inasmuch as her activism is largely focused on conditions pertaining to the United States. The criminal justice issues addressed by Osaka might even be said to be distinctly American because of their relationship with racial conditions, guns, and the dynamics of U.S. law enforcement. However, apart from the fact that tennis is an essentially global sport with tournaments in many parts of the world, Osaka was able to draw attention to problems of police violence and racial injustice on a geographically larger scale than many other athletes before her because of the manner in which she framed the issues of her advocacy.
Osaka is not only a biracial woman with Japanese and American nationality and self-identity, she also deliberately sought to have an international impact, taking advantage of the growing awareness of the issues she addressed across the world. As Osaka wrote in her Esquire op-ed, she observed that the protest movement against police brutality and racial injustice had “gone global —from Oslo to Osaka, from Tallahassee to Tokyo… There were even Black Lives Matter marches in Japan –something many of us would never have expected or imagined possible” (Osaka, 2020b). Osaka’s agent Stuart Duguid also explained the tennis star’s global aspirations, noting that his client “has appeal in every continent –Asia obviously as her home nation; America as the place she was born and raised and probably most identifies with the culture; Europe where they are tennis-mad; and Australia where she is a recent grand slam champion” (Chammas, 2021).
Osaka herself has commented that her identification as a biracial athlete and her activism have also been favorably received in Japan. Although she noted an “ignorance of a few,” she stated that she and other Black-Japanese athletes “have been embraced by the majority of the public, fans, sponsors, and media” (Osaka, 2020b). When she retweeted a post about a Black Lives Matter demonstration in the city of Osaka, the tennis star commented, “that was cool, because I’ve never seen a Black Lives Matter protest anywhere in Japan” (Cheng, 2020). Osaka also argued such protest efforts to be necessary in Japan, because the country would have its own problems with racism, which she claimed to have experienced herself in the form of alleged racist attitudes from the Japanese media (Nugent, 2020). Although she understood that the ethnic homogeneity of Japanese society makes the country different from the United States, she also found that the vast majority of Japanese people have embraced her along with other biracial Japanese athletes (Osaka, 2020b).
While more in-depth research would be needed to examine the public response to Osaka’s activism in different nations, there are reasons to understand her claim about its positive reception in Japan (and possibly elsewhere) as more aspirational than realized. Celebrity activism is in Japanese society not nearly as developed as it is in the United States. It is also not as acceptable nor accepted for celebrities and athletes to speak out on public matters. Osaka realized that in Japan there “were some people really upset with me” (Cheng, 2020). Looking at the reception of Osaka’s criminal justice activism in Japan, some reactions have indeed been very negative. Especially some of the Japanese-language comments in response to the (otherwise favorably received) tweets by the tennis player in May 2020 harshly condemned her activism. Among the negative posts were claims that Osaka “isn’t really Japanese,” that “Boycotting the matches doesn’t do anything,” and even that “The guy who got shot by police deserved it” (Thompson, 2020). Offsetting the occasionally harsh negativity, other people in Japan have shown their support for Osaka, including several notable positive comments from Japanese politicians who have said to stand “in solidarity with the protest against all structural racism” (Thompson, 2020). Compared to the United States, the reaction to Osaka’s activism in Japan can be said to be more ambivalent. As a Black Japanese woman, Osaka is in Japanese public opinion caught between a measure of pride over her tennis success (as the first grand slam-winning Japanese) and a reluctance to accept her racially motivated criminal justice advocacy (or, at best, to understand it as an issue that pertains to the United States).
Conditions and Implications: Towards a Theory of Celebrity Activism
Over the course of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic since the spring of 2020, celebrity culture has witnessed an increasing intensification and diversification of celebrity activism that had been going on for some years (Deflem, 2019). In this relative short period time, as this paper has shown, Naomi Osaka emerged as a much admired activist addressing problems in criminal justice. Osaka framed her criminal justice activism as part of a broader focus on social justice, especially in matters of racial inequality and oppression. In terms of its impact, Osaka’s activism has received a lot of attention in the form of news coverage and social media engagements. Her statements on criminal justice, police, and race are favorably received and have even been described in terms of a “racial reckoning” to which she is said to have contributed (Gunia et al., 2021). Osaka won numerous prestigious awards explicitly because of her combined efforts in tennis and activism, including her efforts on matters of criminal justice which she has undertaken with a more effective global appeal than any comparative criminologist could hope to achieve.
Irrespective of whether Osaka’s motives are sincere and whether her positions are valid, her criminal justice activism plays a role in shaping public perceptions because, as a celebrity, the tennis star enjoys a high measure of visibility that commands attention. Celebrities represent a category of privileged people who have taken advantage of existing societal institutions, including those which are argued to have contributes to injustice, for which reason the public can turn against them when it is thought that they lack sensitivity or are unaware of their elevated position. Yet, Osaka has managed to avoid such unintended consequences by relating her criminal justice activism to racial justice issues on the basis of her biracial background and identity as a Black Japanese woman. Noteworthy from the viewpoint of celebrity culture, moreover, is that Osaka’s success in tennis and her acquired celebrity not only facilitated her activism, but that it, in turn, has also contributed to her continued standing as a celebrity icon.
Two theoretical arguments emerge from this research. First, although based on a singular case study, this inquiry of the criminal justice activism of Naomi Osaka suggests a model of the conditions for celebrity activism to be successfully embraced. In the case of Osaka’s criminal justice activism, the tennis player could rely on her athletic achievements as a champion, along with the wealth and opportunities it generated, as well as her identity as a young Japanese-American Black woman to authentically express her motives and goals of seeking to bring about racial justice and equity. She was thereby able to communicate her ideas through various media and become widely respected as an activist in a cultural climate that, in the post-Floyd era of Black Lives Matter, has been generally accepting of celebrity (sports) activism, especially when it involves minority athletes discussing racial justice concerns.
In sum, the case of Osaka thus suggests that celebrity activism is more likely to be successful when it is based on: 1) certain objective characteristics of celebrities’ measure of acquired fame and aspects of their personal identity; 2) that can be relied upon, through various media, to subjectively present the motives and objectives of their activism as genuine within a given cultural climate; 3) in order to be inter-subjectively received as intended in the news media and by the public. Conceiving of celebrity in relational terms, this model differentiates objective, subjective, and inter-subjective conditions of celebrity activism. This theory suggests the value of a constructionist perspective while also acknowledging that certain objective conditions of self and society have to be present for any subjectively motivated actions to be intersubjectively well received (Deflem, 2022). Further research is needed to test this model more systematically on a larger number of cases of celebrity activism.
Second, the effectiveness of celebrity activism, as in the case of Osaka’s advocacy on matters of criminal justice, cannot be narrowly understood solely, nor even primarily, in instrumental terms of bringing about changes in the criminal justice system. Instead of simply accepting its stated objectives to bring about certain changes, celebrity activism should always be situated in relation to its role and function vis-à-vis the development of celebrity culture itself. As such, it can be seen that the adoption of matters related to criminal justice as causes worthy of attention among celebrities ironically brings about a celebritization of those issues. Not to be confused with celebrification (as the transformation from obscurity to celebrity), celebritization is the process whereby certain events or issues become ‘celebrated’ in the sense of being subject to presentation and reception in the terms of celebrity culture (Driessens, 2012). Because of their treatment by celebrities, important societal phenomena and social problems, such as police violence and racial justice, then become slogans that are used by celebrities (and accordingly marketed by companies) at their convenience.
Celebritization can have ironic implications that are inherently counterproductive to the goals of activism. Irrespective of the sincerity of the motives with which celebrities present their advocacy and regardless of how celebrity activism is received, the celebritization of activist causes creates its own dynamics in a world of celebrity that is far removed from the reality of the social problems it sought to address. In the case of criminal justice activism practiced by Osaka and other celebrities, statements about police violence and racial inequity in the criminal justice system are then discussed in terms that have little if any resemblances to how these problems are perceived by those who are directly involved, whether it be as alleged victims or accused perpetrators. These unintended implications of celebritization are rooted in the fact that celebrities are by definition privileged, even when, as in the case of minority athletes such as Naomi Osaka, they are intersectionally positioned in complicated ways related to gender, race, class, culture, and nationality. As with the suggested model on the conditions of successful celebrity activism, the celebritization of activist causes needs further examination and elaboration. The findings from the present study should at least have demonstrated that the theoretical arguments on the conditions and implications of celebrity activism are empirically substantiated in the case of Osaka’s criminal justice activism.