April 16, 2017 7:40 pm JST

Skater Mao Asada's retirement highlights pressure on Japan's sports stars

Winning personality made her Japan's leading sports idol, retirement underscores relentless public expectations

Robert Whiting, Contributing writer

Mao Asada drops her retirement "bombshell" at a press conference on April 12 in Tokyo. (Photo by Tomoki Mera)

There comes a time when every athlete reaches his or her limit, when the body does not do what the mind wants it to and it is time to quit. It is inevitable.

In Japan, it is happening with 43-year-old baseball star Ichiro Suzuki who has been spending more and more time on the bench, although he stubbornly insists he will play until he is 50. It is happening with the Mongolian sumo champion Hakuho, who at 32, with 37 sumo tournaments under his belt, is starting to slow down and has not won a championship in four tournaments.

Asada fights back tears and answers every question made by reporters. (Photo by Koji Uema)

That time has come for international figure skating champion and Japanese sports idol Mao Asada, who recently announced to a shocked nation her retirement at the ripe old age of 26.

Asada dropped her bombshell on April 12 before 400 reporters at a Tokyo hotel, in what must have been one of the largest domestic press conferences to be staged in Japan. Her announcement was front-page news in all major Japanese newspapers and sports tabloids, which published extensive stories and quoted government officials and celebrities on Mao's career, while TV networks dedicated huge blocks of programming.

The only other time I have seen such extensive media coverage was the retirement of beloved Yomiuri Giant star Shigeo Nagashima, who announced the end of his playing career in October 1974 in a ceremony at the old Korkauen Stadium in Tokyo before 48,000 people. That launched a long period of national remembrance, culminating in a feature-length Toho film about his career that was shown in theaters nationwide.

Asada, who has been competing since the age of 12, won three world championships in 2008, 2010 and 2014. She never won an Olympic gold medal, unlike fellow Japanese skater Shizuka Arakawa, who won gold at the 2006 Torino Olympics. But Asada throughout her professional life has received far, far more attention than Arakawa.

Her failure to win gold generated criticism in some quarters as did her sometimes saccharine and "cutesy" routines. While her South Korean arch rival Kim Yuna added maturity, elegance and some sex appeal to her performances, Asada stayed with music and choreography seemingly designed to please fourth-grade girls. "Hello Kitty" on ice, as you might call it. That was why some of her critics said that Kim was able to win an Olympic gold medal at Vancouver in 2010, while Asada did not.

A public darling

But Asada had something that competitors such as Kim and Arakawa lacked: a winning personality to match her skating talent. She was more likable and accessible to the public in contrast to the elegant but aloof Kim and the almost robotic Arakawa. She resembled everybody's clean-cut sister, daughter or best friend without the distraction of having a serious boyfriend.

Under intense media scrutiny for her entire career, she never made a publicity misstep. That quality paid off in many lucrative commercial endorsements. Even the 2015 arrest of her father, who had once worked in a host bar, for hitting a woman did not dent her popularity. When her mother died suddenly at the age of 48 in 2011, the entire nation mourned with her.

Asada has the preternatural ability to almost instantly connect with people. It is an undefinable quality but you know it when you see it. Everyone in Japan saw it at her farewell press conference as she fought back tears and stayed patiently answering every question from reporters until there were no more left.

Jack Gallagher, who covers figure skating for the Japan Times, recalled many acts of kindness by Asada toward both fans and reporters. For example, she knew that Gallagher had a young daughter, so one day she filled up a big box with stuffed animals she had received from fans, went to the post office and mailed it to Gallagher.

Professionally, however, Asada's biggest problem as a skater was inconsistency. She was brilliant one day, mediocre the next. She could match Kim when she was performing well. But her uneven performance was perhaps due to unrealistic expectations placed on her by the Japanese public, as she was one of the country's few internationally famous sports stars.

Midori Masujima, a prominent local journalist, once said that Japan had a complex when it came to sports because it normally failed to prevail in international competitions, except for the rare marathon or judo triumph. Japan could produce world-class products, she said, but not world-class human beings.

A craving for overseas approval that amounted to a vindication of Japan itself was transferred to those athletes who achieved international success. "We've never been a member of the world community, not in the Edo period, not in the Meiji era and not today," she wrote in 2002.

International fame

That all began to change with the great success of baseball players Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui in the U.S. major leagues. These athletes appeared to disprove the notion that Japanese were not "physically or experientially ready for world competition," as Masujima put it. Their exploits overseas dominated Japanese media sports coverage and eclipsed those of the local Nippon Professional Baseball League.

Figure skating followed a similar trajectory, starting with Midori Ito's 1989 world championship and 1992 Olympic silver medal, and continuing with Arakawa's 2004 world title and 2006 Olympic gold medal that turned her into a superstar. When Asada won her first world crown, the sports media referred to her as "sekai no Mao," ("Mao of the World").

The media pressure to maintain victories has been relentless. When male figure skating heartthrob Yuzuru Hanyu, the 2014 Olympic gold medalist, finished second in the 2016 World Championships, he said he felt bad that he could not hear the national anthem of Japan being played at the ceremony to celebrate victory.

In Asada's case, she also knew if she did not continue to win, her sponsors would eventually drop her. This worry may have affected her performance.

But she displayed courage and persistence.

Everyone in Japan remembers how she flopped in the short program at the Sochi Olympics in 2014. However, she came back the next day and staged a near-perfect performance in the free skate event, one that people still talk about. While it was not enough to garner a medal, it was certainly enough to tug at the national heartstrings of Japan. It was a display of konjo, or "spirit," of the Japanese trait of refusing to give up in the face of adversity.

Asada had vowed to compete in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea, but after finishing far back in the competitions this year, she realized that finally she had reached her limit.

There is certainly enough talent coming up behind her. Japan has several strong junior skaters, including the striking 15-year-old Marin Honda, who comes from a show business family and who was junior world champion in 2015-2016 and runner-up this year.

But, there will never be anyone quite like Asada, who is today one of Japan's most recognizable figures. Now that she has retired from competition, she can finally relax and enjoy her life. And maybe even find a life partner.

She certainly deserves it. Gambare, ("go for it"), Mao.

Robert Whiting is a Japan-based author whose books include "Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan" and "You Gotta Have Wa."

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