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Media Representations of African American Athletes in Cold War Japan

Yu Sasaki

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.

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Chapter One: Basketball in Black and White: The Harlem Globetrotters, Japan, and Cold War Politics



Basketball in Black and White

The Harlem Globetrotters, Japan, and Cold War Politics

Perplexingly, for American State Department representatives, the Globetrotters, a team formed because African Americans were excluded from white professional leagues, represented the “American Dream.”

—Damion L. Thomas, Globetrotting (2012)

In October 1952, the Harlem Globetrotters—an African American basketball team—launched its first and major international tour in the history of basketball, visiting four continents, to celebrate their silver anniversary.1 Featuring superstars such as Reece “Goose” Tatum, known as the “clown prince of basketball,” the Globetrotters changed the basketball court from a competition venue to a stage, combining the essence of athleticism with comedy or Black minstrelsy. This trip was more than a typical barnstorming tour of exhibition games, however, because the U.S. State Department sponsored it as a Cold War cultural diplomacy program. Dave Zinkoff, who accompanied the Globetrotters as general manager, documented the trip in a book called Around the World with the Harlem Globetrotters (1953), telling the story of racial progress through the success of a group of talented African Americans—albeit on a racially segregated team. Zinkoff presented the success story of the Globetrotters as a Black version of the American Dream and as an African American way of life, bolstering the nation’s ←17 | 18→image abroad, in which the Globetrotters served as ambassadors of goodwill for the Eisenhower administration’s State Department during the Cold War era.

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