- Seeing Stars: Sports Celebrity, Identity, and Body Culture in Modern Japan
It is no mystery that sports are part of the fabric of contemporary Japanese culture. Whether it be the intense Japanese media coverage of baseball (both domestically and of Japanese playing abroad), or Japan’s seemingly constant presence in the Olympic bidding process, sports are taken very seriously in Japan. It is next to impossible to go anywhere in Japan without seeing the face of a famous athlete trying to sell you a product or service. This elevation of sports and their stars in Japan is not mere coincidence but rather part of a carefully orchestrated and complex series of events carried out by the Japanese government and commercial enterprises over the past century. In his new book, historian Dennis Frost provides a thorough and well-researched account of how the phenomenon of sports celebrity emerged in Japan. While the focus of the work is historical, the implications of his research extend to the present day and will be of interest to any scholar curious about the development and significance of celebrity as a phenomenon in sports in general.
Frost states in his introduction that “sports stars are socially constructed phenomena, the products of both particular historical moments and broader, cumulative discourses of celebrity that became transnational in reach” (p. 3). This thesis underlies the subsequent chapters, in which he shows how national and international events, trends, and changing forms of communication would shape the emergence of sports celebrity in Japan from the late nineteenth century to the post-war era. Frost uses four meticulously researched historical case studies in order to highlight different facets of this emergence. These case studies include sumo wrestler Hitachiyama (turn of the twentieth century), female track and field star Hitomi Kinue (interwar period), baseball star Sawamura Eiji (World War II era), and world champion boxer Gushiken Yôkô (1970s). Although the focus is on these few individuals, their stories provide a helpful framework for better understanding how sports have been affected by events in modern Japanese history and how Japanese history has in turn been impacted by sports. In this sense, although the focus of the book is on how sports celebrities emerged, it also provides a fresh perspective on modern Japanese history.
For example, Frost discusses how the collapse of the Tokugawa regime in the latter part of the nineteenth century had a profound impact on the sport of sumo wrestling. In particular, new, Western-influenced understandings of sports and body culture led to the “sportification” and elevation of sumo. Using specific details from the life of prominent yokozuna Hitachiyama Taniemon, Frost shows how turn-of-the-century sumo both provided the Japanese with a tie to their past (i.e., their warrior heritage, as Hitachiyama in particular was a former samurai) and to their future, with new methods of quantification and record-keeping that helped transform sumo into a modern sport. Frost effectively utilizes this zoom-in, zoom-out approach throughout the book, which enables the reader to concretely understand the ways that individual athletes embodied the changes of their [End Page 503] times, while getting a clear idea of the transformations going on at the time on a more macroscopic level.
Frost’s work also importantly helps to dispel the myth of Western superiority in the twentieth-century global sports landscape. The case of track and field star Hitomi Kinue particularly highlights the degree to which Japanese athletes were able to compete at or above the level of their Western counterparts, as she came onto the scene at the same time as women in Western nations were beginning to take part in competitive, exertive sports (the 1920s). The inclusion of a female sports celebrity in an otherwise heavily androcentric sports landscape (particularly in the academic work on sports in Japan) is also valuable in pointing out the diversity and depth of the phenomenon of sports celebrity in modern Japan.