Media Representations of African American Athletes in Cold War Japan

by Yu Sasaki (Author)
©2021 Monographs X, 154 Pages


Media Representations of African American Athletes in Cold War Japan addresses the cross-cultural dialogue between Black America and Japan that was enabled through sports during the Cold War era. This topic has hitherto received little scholarly attention in both American studies and sports studies. After World War II, Cold War tensions pulled African American athletes to the center stage and initiated their international mobility. They served as both athletic Cold Warriors and embodiments of a colorblind American democracy. This book focuses on sports in the Cold War era as a significant battlefield that operated as an ideologically and racially contested terrain. Yu Sasaki argues that one of the most crucial Cold War racial contacts occurred through sports in Asia, and particularly, in Japan. The mobility of African American athletes captured the attention of the Japanese media, which created unique narratives of sports and race in US-occupied Japan after World War II. Adopting an approach that integrates the archival and interpretive, Sasaki analyzes the ways in which sports, highlighted by the media, became a terrain where discourses of race, gender, and even disability were significantly modified. This book draws on both English and non-English language sources, including Japanese print media archives such as newspapers, magazines, posters, pamphlets, diaries, bulletins, and school textbooks.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: Basketball in Black and White: The Harlem Globetrotters, Japan, and Cold War Politics
  • Chapter Two: The Tigerbelles of Tennessee State University: Race, Gender, and the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games
  • Chapter Three: The African American Race: Japan and the Black Power Salute
  • Chapter Four: Cold War Icons of Black America from a Japanese Lens: Jackie Robinson, Paul Robeson, and Muhammad Ali
  • Epilogue
  • Bibliography


Writing this book was a long journey, and I have accumulated debts of gratitude to countless individuals and institutions. My deepest gratitude goes first to Professor Etsuko Taketani, who has been wonderful, giving me constant support and invaluable advice during my PhD program at the University of Tsukuba, Japan. Without her guidance and help, this book would not have been possible. I would like to thank the three advisors on my dissertation committee, Professors Kiyoko Magome, Andrée Lafontaine, and Kohei Kawashima, for their insightful comments, kind encouragement, and excellent suggestions.

I would like to thank the many colleagues and scholars who have had a lasting impact on me. I appreciate all the support I have received from my editor at Peter Lang, who helped me through the whole process. Thank you for believing in this project and putting in the hard work to bring it to publication. I would like to express my gratitude to my close friends and family, who have all encouraged and believed in me. Without their help and support, I might never have reached the finish line. Finally, I humbly extend my special thanks to all those who contributed to the completion of this book.

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In 1933, James Weldon Johnson—an African American writer, civil rights activist, and lyricist of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” widely known as the “Black national anthem”—received a letter from Yasuichi Hikida, a Japanese man living in New York.1 In his letter, Hikida outlined his plan to translate “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” into Japanese and requested permission from Johnson to do so. As the letter shows, the aim was to welcome African American athletes to the 1940 Tokyo Summer Olympics, which was the first Olympic Games ever held in Asia, by singing the Japanese version of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”2 However, because of the Second Sino-Japanese War, which broke out in 1937, the Japanese government formally decided in 1938 to give up the right to host the 1940 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Hikida’s dream did not materialize. His letter, however, demonstrates a part of the cross-cultural history between Japan and Black America.

In 1964, Japan finally hosted the Olympic Games, and this was one of the significant events that restored the image of Japan as a peace-loving country. On October 10, 1964, during the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics, a large flock of doves flew into the sky in Tokyo. This image of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, however, was disrupted as movements to boycott the Olympics emerged in Communist or pro-Communist Asian countries. For instance, the People’s Republic of China, Indonesia, and North Korea did not participate in the ←1 | 2→Olympics citing political reasons. Some African American athletes such as Mal Whitfield, a gold medalist in the 800-meter dash at the 1948 and 1952 Summer Olympics, advocated a boycott of the Tokyo Olympics by Black athletes. They refused to engage as members of the U.S. Olympic delegation to Japan to express their frustration over the exploitation of Black athletes by American society and the second-class status accorded to them.3 However, some Black athletes decided to join the games, and they captured the attention of the Japanese media by their spectacular performance. One such athlete was Bob Hayes, a gold medalist in the men’s 100-meter dash at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, who went on to become a professional American football player later that year.4 Hayes was spotlighted in the Japanese media because he was expected to break the record of the 10-second barrier held by Jesse Owens, which he did. The media was also fascinated by Hayes’ Blackness. Hayes was seen as a new kurofune (“black ship”) from Black America. This name was initially given to Commodore Perry’s warships that arrived in Japan in 1853 urging the country to open its borders. For the Japanese, these vessels symbolized the overwhelming power of the United States. The new “black ship” image alluded to the Japanese shock at the astounding success of Black American athletes.

This book explores the 20th-century cross-cultural and cross-national dialogue between Black America and Japan, which had been enabled in the realm of sports—a subject that has hitherto received little scholarly attention. Barbara J. Keys argues that the United States took the lead in internationalizing the realm of sports:

As the world leader in key amateur sports for most of the century, the United States played a central role in the internationalization of modern sport. And when “sport culture” is construed broadly to include training methods, moral and pedagogical issues, attitudes toward competition, the cult of celebrity, connections to advertising and mass consumption, and the commodification of sport as entertainment, then U.S. sport culture appears far more a part of, rather than an exception to, the broader currents of cultural influence exercised by the United States.5

Keys observes that the United States has played a prominent role in building a sports culture and promoting its internationalization. This grew more complex during the Cold War era, when the United States advanced the internationalization (read: Americanization) of sports and people-to-people diplomacy simultaneously, by sending talented athletes overseas as cultural ambassadors. In Richard Espy’s account in The Politics of the Olympic Games, the effectiveness of this cultural diplomacy through athletes “derives from its essential neutrality.” Espy writes, “generically, the competition in sport parallels the competition in political or other arenas, but because of sport’s essential neutrality, the competition does ←2 | 3→not necessarily entail correlative political significance.”6 Yet, I suggest that sports during the Cold War should be considered the most significant battlefield in which America strove for Cold War supremacy; however, American foreign policy through sports was complicated by the prevailing national problem of racism. In July 1964, Robert F. Kennedy, the U.S. attorney general, articulated his vision for a connection between sports and politics in the Cold War era in an article for Sports Illustrated. “During a military or nuclear stalemate such as the world is now experiencing,” Kennedy argues, “athletics can become an increasingly important factor in international relations.”7 To demonstrate national strength and supremacy without a blow in the bloody battleground, as seen from Kennedy’s remark, U.S. politics increasingly began to place much value on sports as a surrogate war during the Cold War. Athletes sent abroad to compete in international sporting events became Cold Warriors, or, as historian Kevin B. Witherspoon called them, “soldiers on the front lines of the Cold War.”8

One of the important missions of the Cold Warriors in the United States was to proclaim, at home and abroad, efforts to improve the domestic racial situation. Cultural diplomacy was deployed as a key weapon to promote a positive image of the United States. Since the discussion around the racial intolerance toward African American people in the United States emerged as a problematic area in the Cold War, the U.S. government came under pressure to confront this dilemma. During the Cold War era, the Eastern bloc, including the former Soviet Union and (the non-white nation of) China, criticized the capitalist system for its exploitative ways. These nations emphasized global solidarity and friendship without a race-based social order. However, the U.S. government reiterated that the “liberal, democratic, capitalist order of the United States represented a more open and humane society than that of Communist states.”9 To avoid being censured for racial oppression and to erase the discrediting image of white supremacy and colonialism created by the American past, the role of African American athletes in the United States became significant. Black athletes had previously been excluded from professional sports, which were dominated by white America. Several African American athletes then began to achieve fame worldwide in international sporting events such as the Olympics, and as sociologist Harry Edwards notes, “only in sports do Negroes appear to be finding the promised land denied them in other professions.”10 Newly mobilized to promote the image of racial progress in American society, African American athletes emerged as the new weapon in the proxy war in the seemingly neutral realm of sports.


X, 154
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. X, 154 pp., 9 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Yu Sasaki (Author)

Yu Sasaki is a lecturer at the Seitoku University in Japan. She received a Ph.D. in literature from University of Tsukuba, Japan. Her research interests include cultural studies, African American studies, and sports.


Title: Media Representations of African American Athletes in Cold War Japan
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166 pages