Saturday, April 9, 2011

Dennis J. Frost's "Seeing Stars"

Dennis J. Frost is Wen Chao Chen Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies at Kalamazoo College.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Seeing Stars: Sports Celebrity, Identity, and Body Culture in Modern Japan, and reported the following:
When I first glanced at page 99 of Seeing Stars, I initially thought that it couldn’t possibly be representative of the book because a photograph from a 1915 sumo specialty newspaper takes up 1/3 of the page. I realized, however, that the photograph itself highlights several of the book’s larger points.

For one, the very existence of this photograph, one of several published to celebrate the retirement of sumo grand champion Hitachiyama, demonstrates that sports celebrities were generating popular and media interest in Japan far earlier than most people assume. The photo, and especially its subject Hitachiyama—one of Japan’s first modern sports stars—hints at sumo’s important role in the history of sports stardom in Japan. Hitachiyama, in particular, represents a bridging figure connecting a long line of sumo stars (stretching as far back as the 1600s) to the multitude of sports celebrities in Japan who came after him. Finally, this photograph—and the 36 other images in the book—is evidence of the critical relationship between the mass media and sports celebrity. As I argue at several points, many of the developments of Japanese sports coverage paralleled changes in media treatment of sports in other national contexts. Nevertheless, sports reporting in Japan was more than imitation of American or other Western practices, often reflecting the particulars of the socio-historical contexts, the market-driven needs of publishers and writers, and the patterns established in earlier periods.

Picking up on these points, the text on the remaining 2/3 of page 99 concludes a section examining why Hitachiyama’s “character” was a critical element of his celebrity image. This section of the chapter emphasizes the fact that there was much more to Hitachiyama’s fame than success in the sumo ring:
In the end, Hitachiyama’s activities promoting and building the sport outside the sumo ring were just as important to his image as what he did in the ring as a wrestler, helping assure what Gladys Engel Lang and Kurt Lang have called the “durability of reputation.” Like the well-known artists analyzed by Lang and Lang, Hitachiyama had so many powerful friends within and outside the sumo world and had, in their minds, done so much for the sport that his reputation would be—perhaps had to be—protected, projected, and evoked well beyond his lifetime.
One consequence of Hitachiyama’s early celebrity status was the emergence of what I call a sports-star paradigm, which cast Hitachiyama in the role of an athletic self-made man, a narrative pattern that has had a profound impact on how later sports celebrities have been portrayed and understood. The book’s focused examinations of several other stars—a female track star, a wartime baseball player, an Okinawan boxer, and a contemporary Japanese MLB superstar—all demonstrate the continued influence of this paradigm, but also highlight the particular ways in which the celebrity images of these individual sports stars have both reflected and shaped society and body culture in Japan and beyond.
Learn more about Seeing Stars at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue