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  • Seeing Stars: Sport Celebrity, Identity, and Body Culture in Modern Japan
  • Sandra Collins (bio)
Seeing Stars: Sport Celebrity, Identity, and Body Culture in Modern Japan. By Dennis J. Frost. Harvard University Asia Center, 2010. xii, 337 pages. $39.95.

Given Japan’s large role in both the global economy and the sporting world, it comes as a welcome surprise that Dennis Frost offers the first, thorough analysis of sport celebrity in Japan. Seeing Stars: Sport Celebrity, Identity, and Body Culture in Modern Japan maps out the history and sociological [End Page 450] meanings of sport celebrity in Japan. Although the twin dominant themes for understanding modern sports in Japan have been the importation of foreign (Western) sports and the modernization of indigenous sport (sumo and martial arts), Frost complicates these received themes.1 Rather than delineating the Möbius strip of tradition and modernity, Frost takes Japanese sport celebrities as key locales to interrogate cultural and historical change in Japan.2 His careful analysis of the various ephemera associated with the mediated realm of sport stars—such as newspapers, biographies, memoirs, photographs, films, journals, and official documents—reveals complex historical portraits of some of the most iconic sport stars of modern Japan.

Frost uses four frameworks to analyze the sport celebrities of sumo grand champion Hitachiyama, track and field Olympic medalist Hitomi Kinue, baseball pitching legend Sawamura Eiji, and lightweight boxing world champion Gushiken Yōkō. They are (1) the malleability of sport celebrity images, (2) the sport star system of comparative competition, (3) the sport star paradigm of the production and consumption of celebrity, and (4) the politics of body culture in Japan (pp. 6–12). In the transnational sports industry, sports emerge as a form of cultural imperialism for modern Japan. Frost argues that Japan defined itself and was defined in a “co-constitutional process” that was inherently asymmetrical and biased against non-Westerners as innately unequal (p. 5). Despite numerous successes in the early history of international sports, modernizing Japan was always seen as inadequate in comparison to athletes from the United States and Europe.

To provide a baseline of how celebrity culture in Japan operated before the onslaught of imported sports from the West, Frost details the iconic status of sumo grand champion Hitachiyama in Tokugawa Japan through the use of banzuke (printed rankings). Hitachiyama commanded celebrity status not only in Japan but also abroad, notably in the United States, because he embodied certain values that were privileged by the dominant cultures of Japan and the United States. The printed sumo rankings have to be interpreted through narrative evaluations (gaihyō) which were a critical form [End Page 451] of mediated news that differed from the practice in the West but became central to subsequent sport star biographies (p. 59).

For Japan and the United States, natural talent in the sporting arena had to be matched by behavior outside: discipline, hard work, and filial piety were values privileged by the Japanese media in representing the celebrity status of Hitachiyama as athlete and role model. The tendency to map physical, athletic talent with behavioral discipline was not unique to Japan but became central to the emergence of sport star paradigms globally. Frost provocatively argues that during the nineteenth century Japan did not solely adopt the U.S. narrative of the self-made and disciplined athletecum-celebrity. Celebrity status was then and continues to be inextricably linked to dominant political and nationalistic values in Japan. Thus, athletes need natural talent in order to differentiate themselves physically, but they also need to maintain their celebrity status. Heejoon Chung has analyzed modern sport stars and their need to maintain celebrity status by exhibiting behavior on and off the field that corresponds to “the social values favored by the dominant culture.”3

Both the United States and Japan, as industrializing nations, promoted discipline and hard work for famous athletes as they aligned well with the discourses of self-made success (in Japan known as risshin shusse) and the commodification of mediated sport celebrities (p. 11). Traditional sumo became a modern sport through the use of statistics and the quantification of rationalized rankings, championship awards, and photographic images of modern sumo...


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pp. 450-455
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