A Hero of the Moment: Dissecting the Popularity of Asada Mao


Headlines across Japan blared the news of Asada Mao’s retirement following the figure skater’s announcement in an April 10 blog post that she was hanging up her skates after more than a decade on the ice. At a press conference two days later, the 26-year-old Asada made her decision official amid blinding flashes and a cacophony of camera shutters.

Born in 1990, Asada skated onto the scene as a young girl during the 2004–05 season. She quickly earned a reputation as a prodigy with her seemingly effortless skill in landing difficult jumps, a talent that propelled her to victory in her debut outing at the 2005 World Junior Figure Skating Championships. As a senior skater she would go on to claim the world title three more times and rack up a long list of other accomplishments, including a silver medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

As only one of a few female skaters able to complete the formidable triple axel in competition, Asada lived and died by what became her trademark jump. At the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics she came crashing to the ice in the short program but bounced back in the free program, sticking her landing in a nearly flawless performance that smashed her personal best and earned her broad praise in the media.

Unfazed by missing out on the podium at Sochi, Asada went on to claim her third victory at the World Championships the following month. After choosing to sit out the 2014–15 season, though, she was unable to reignite the spark that had once lifted her to the top of the standings. In April of this year she drew the curtain on her career.

Making a National Hero

Asada’s retirement was met with an emotional outpouring from all quarters of society. But while people were in consensus about her many accomplishments, opinions split as to whether they were sufficient for her to be considered for the People’s Honor Award, one of Japan’s top public distinctions and tantamount to being declared a national hero.

Created in 1977, the award is presented by the prime minister to individuals who are widely respected and have made outstanding contributions to society. Baseball legend Oh Sadaharu became the first recipient after he smashed the career homerun record of American slugger Hank Aaron. Subsequent honorees have hailed largely from the worlds of sport, entertainment, and culture.

To date there have been 24 recipients of the award, including six women individually—singer Misora Hibari, actress Mori Mitsuko, mangaka Hasegawa Machiko, marathoner Takahashi Naoko, and wrestlers Yoshida Saori and Ichō Kaoru—and the 2011 World Cup champion women’s national soccer team. While Asada enjoyed a distinguished career, many point to her failure to claim an Olympic championship—Ichō, Takahashi, and Yoshida are all gold medalists—as putting her out of the running for the award.

The End of an Era

Television has from early on played a major role in creating Japan’s modern heroes. When Oh smacked his record-breaking homer, the nation boasted on average five television programs a day with ratings of 30% or more. These included public broadcaster NHK’s morning drama and baseball games featuring Oh’s Yomiuri Giants.

Today, though, hit programs as they were once defined are nearly extinct, and the only show that remains capable of clearing the 30% mark with any reliability is NHK’s year-end song festival. The startling transformation of the television market over the last 40 years can be attributed to such factors as the rise of satellite and cable channels along with changing viewing habits. Audiences no longer tune in to programs en masse but pick and choose from a wide variety of shows, consuming these at their leisure through such means as recording them for later viewing or watching online.

With the attention of the Japanese viewing public spread across so many mediums, figures such as Asada are unable to capture the heart of the nation as Oh, Misora, and others once did. Amid such a smorgasbord of sports, variety programs, and other entertainment, the achievements of one person are soon lost in the jumble.

A Time for Heroes

During the rapid economic growth of the 1960s, the Yomiuri Giants led by superstars Oh and teammate Nagashima Shigeo along with the indomitable sumō skills of yokozuna Taihō came to epitomize the burgeoning power of the nation. The popularity of Nagashima and Oh was such that their batting order—third and fourth, respectively—was a matter of common knowledge. Ask who bats cleanup for the Giants nowadays, though, and most people are likely to shrug their shoulders. In 2013, Oh was joined by Nagashima and Taihō as recipients of the People’s Honor Award, the latter posthumously.

Similarly, up to the mid-1990s the Japanese music industry could be counted on to annually provide 10 or more million-seller singles. Nowadays, though, the heavily produced idol group AKB48 is the only act capable of racking up such figures.

I feel these two examples represent a fundamental shift in Japan away from the mass culture of the early postwar period toward greater individualism and personal expression. Having reached the long-sought economic success that fueled the dreams of Japanese in the long decades after World War II, people are now driven by diverse values expressed in a range of lifestyles.

Understanding Asada Mao

To get back to Asada, the stir surrounding her retirement announcement came at a time when society is awash in popular figures. But while the public took fervent interest in the skater, I do not believe she can be considered a true hero.

This of course is not to criticize her skills on the ice or her personal demeanor, both of which are exemplary. Instead, I argue that society no longer perceives star athletes in the same way as the larger-than-life icons of yesteryear. People switch on their televisions to fervently cheer on Japan during such international competitions as the Olympics, FIFA World Cup, World Baseball Classic, and figure skating championships. But once the curtain comes down, the public quickly diverts its attention from the momentary heroes of those events to more pressing affairs.

This is the case with Takahashi, Yoshida, and Ichō, all of whom inspired the nation with gold-medal performances worthy of the People’s Honor Award. But compared to era-defining heroes of the past, their accomplishments are confined to the Olympic Games.

In this age of self, quickly evolving, large-scale social trends have become a dominant, galvanizing force in society. Events such as international sporting competitions or relief efforts in the wake of devastating earthquakes and other natural disasters draw the nation together by creating a sense of solidarity and affording people an opportunity to feel, for a while, part of something greater than themselves. The commotion surrounding Asada’s retirement is one such example of this phenomenon.

Asada won the public’s heart with her powerful skating, cute looks, and earnest, unassuming personality. For better or worse, though, the excitement surrounding her will fade as attention turns to the next hero of the moment.

(Originally published in Japanese on June 8, 2017. Banner photo: Asada Mao poses at the end of her free routine at the Japan Figure Skating Championships on December 25, 2016, her final performance before retiring. © Jiji.)

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