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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 Four: Cold War Icons of Black America from a Japanese Lens: Jackie Robinson, Paul Robeson, and Muhammad Ali



Cold War Icons of Black America from a Japanese Lens

Jackie Robinson, Paul Robeson, and Muhammad Ali

“How good an athlete was Paul Robeson? Well, at Rutgers University from 1915 to 1919 he won 15 letters in four sports: football, baseball, basketball, and track and field. Almost 30 years later, another young athlete named Jackie Robinson had the college sports world buzzing when he became the first four-sport athlete (the same sports) in the history of UCLA.”

—Lester Rodney, “Robeson the Athlete: A Remembrance,” in Paul Robeson (2002)

“… during most of his boxing career, the man now being hailed as ‘an American hero’ was far more popular abroad than at home.”

—Mike Marqusee, Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties (1999)

Jackie Robinson (1919–1972) made history as the first African American to break the baseball color line in 1947, and he went on to become a hero in modern Major League Baseball (MLB). In 1997, Robinson’s memory was honored by MLB when they retired his uniform, number 42. This act established “Jackie Robinson Day” on April 15th, 2004 as the anniversary of Robinson’s debut in MLB. Why does Robinson, whose accomplishments helped pave the way for the civil rights movement fifty years ago, remain an inspiration to both athletes and people of color today?

For the purpose of this chapter, however, the more pressing question is: In the...

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