Kerim Yasar Examines Nation, Narration and Immediacy in Early Japanese Sports Broadcasting

February 27, 2019
Narration and Immediacy in Early Japanese Sports Broadcasting Event

Kerim Yasar, assistant professor at the University of Southern California (USC) and the author of Electrified Voices: How the Telephone, Phonograph, and Radio Shaped Modern Japan, 1868–1945, recently spoke at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, presenting excerpts from his book. In his lecture, delivered Feb. 8, 2019, Yasar detailed the origins of sports broadcasting in Japan and its development under the close watch of the Japanese empire and listeners across the nation.

Yasar works in USC’s Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, specializing in modern Japanese literature, cinema, media history and translation studies. Yasar has also translated a variety of media, including over a hundred films. His interest in sound recording and transmission is visible throughout Electrified Voices and in his presentation, as he focused on radio, specifically sports broadcasting, and its effects on Japanese culture.

Sports broadcasting in Japan dates back to around 1927. At the time, the Japanese empire heavily enforced censorship upon radio stations, so there was no room for improvisation for broadcasters. Yet the goal of Tokyo Broadcast Station (NHK), then known as JOAK, was to “convey to listeners a sense of immediacy,” said Yasar. Soon, an emerging broadcaster would change the sports broadcasting scene in Japan dramatically, from reading from set scripts to on-the-fly narration.

Matsuuchi Norizō, a former financial news announcer turned sports broadcaster, brought life to his announcements, conveying the kind of excitement a fan would have, but neglected to report the actual game. Upon realizing that listeners were more fascinated by Matsuuchi’s delivery than the games, JOAK supported the idea to offer a way for listeners to “experience” the game rather hear detailed analyses. Matsuuchi’s reporting style, particularly his use of five or seven syllable patterns, became widely popular, Yasar noted.

The public quickly began demanding recordings of Matsuuchi’s broadcasts, which were difficult to produce, so he instead created reenactments, going so far as to simulate sound effects. While this might seem contradictory to the immediacy of early Japanese sports broadcasting, Yasar said that “the consumers of these broadcasts and recordings were aware that they were not literally ‘live,’ yet their desire for the feeling of liveness was enough for them to play along with the fiction.”

Eventually, Matsuuchi was replaced as the new ‘it’ sports broadcaster by Kasai Sansei, whose style was “brisk and matter-of-fact, free of the literary and dramatic flourishes that distinguished Matsuuchi’s,” said Yasar. Kasai was more knowledgeable about baseball, the most popular sport at the time, and Kasai was able to satisfy both the sense of immediacy and the desire for accuracy.

Years later, Japan’s presence in international athletics became prominent in the Summer Olympics, particularly in swimming. Yasar highlighted the 1936 Olympics in Berlin as a significant year for the Japanese, specifically in the 200-meter women’s breaststroke. According to Yasar, avid spectators considered Japan’s Maehata Hideko and Germany’s Martha Genenger as the top competitors, and while the race was excitingly close, Maehata placed first. This was a major victory for Japan and produced Kasai’s most memorable broadcasts. The phrase ‘Maehata, ganbare,’ meaning ‘keep going’ or ‘hang in there’, which Kasai enthusiastically chanted, “is possibly the most famous phrase in Japanese sports broadcasting history,” said Yasar. The sense of liveness, of immediacy that Kasai created for Japanese listeners garnered a strong sense of nationalism in Japan. As Yasar put it, “the nation seemed to listen as one.”

“Maehata Ganbare!: Nation, Narration and Immediacy in Early Japanese Sports Broadcasting” was sponsored by the Carolina Asia Center.

-Rawan Abbasi ’21