Book Review: “Yellow & Black Fever” by James McKnight

As a Hanshin Tigers fan, as I have discussed elsewhere, when it came to my most recent birthday and relations were asking what they could get me, I added James McKnight’s books about supporting the Hanshin Tigers to the list. I knew that these would be a very different experience to The Sportsworld of the Hanshin Tigers: Professional Baseball in Modern Japan by William W. Kelly which is an academic text and that I had previously read and reviewed (I’m hoping that the review will be made open-access as it currently costs more to read the review that get a copy of the book itself, unless you are a member of the British Association for Japanese Studies or otherwise have access to Japan Forum where the review is published).

The first thing to mention is that Yellow & Black Fever is not merely about the Hanshin Tigers – indeed, in some ways, the Tigers play a supporting role rather than a central role in the book. The subtitle of the book is ‘Life, Love & Baseball in the Land of the Rising Sun‘, and in many respects it is the first of these two that tend to dominate. The book is largely set while McKnight was on the JET Programme – making another thing that he and I have in common. But, in many ways, our experiences, lives, and outlook on things (especially reasons to go to Japan) are/were very different. Having said that, I did enjoy the discussions on life on JET and it reminded me of my own time on the programme back in 1993-4 when I was living in Seto, Aichi.

By the time that I had read much of the book, I flicked back to the beginning and was somewhat relieved to read the disclaimer that some names had been changed and some other details had been changed to help hide the identity of some people. There are quite a few parts where I couldn’t help but feel that the individuals would probably not appreciate the level of detail that was provided – and I’m not sure how much it added to the book rather than fictionalising elements a bit more rather than having the text, apparently, based so much on personal experience.

I had a similar issue with some of the conversations – which McKnight also notes at the start of the book that he tried to recall from his memories. There were times when, although the conversations help add extra colour and authenticity to the text, it came across as quite simplistic and a bit disjointed from the rest of the text. I wonder whether, like me, McKnight’s English became impacted by those around him on JET – or perhaps these conversations also reflect the low levels of Japanese he had at the time (for an entertaining book that plays games with the English language in relation to a story in Japan, have a look at Big Sound Temple by Ben Stevens). Having said that, it does mean that much of the book would be easy to follow for Japanese wanting to read something in English (similar comments have been made about my novels Hijacking Japan, Tokyo 20/20 Vision, and FOUR).

The fact that the book is based on personal experiences made it a useful read for me given that I am writing a book related to Frankie Goes To Hollywood and their fans which will, in part, be based on my personal experiences. I have also read some other books over the past couple of years which are based on personal experiences and these are all helping me to shape how I put my book, Frankie Fans Say, together.

When it comes to the sections of the book about the Hanshin Tigers – I think all Tigers fans can relate to the times when McKnight has to contend with defeat and disappointment. Tigers often find a way to let us down. We almost don’t know what to do when we win. And, as the book points out, there’s an element among some fans of not liking those who turn up to join in with celebrating the wins if they’ve not been with us through the suffering (albeit there are many, including myself of course, who have to suffer away from Koshien and that can be just as painful, though perhaps less expensive, than seeing them lose in person). Being a Tigers fan is so much more than the baseball itself.

But Hanshin aren’t just about losing. The book notes how the Tigers won the Centre League in 1985 – a topic which regularly comes up in my discussions about the JL123 plane crash since so many on board were Tigers fans, the team President was on board, and that so many around Japan got behind Tigers to win that year in the wake of the crash (and so it, like the crash itself, is one of the things they remember most about 1985). But, McNight was in Japan for 2002 not 1985 (though he was in Gunma where JL123 crashed), when Tigers found a way to grab a disappointing finish from the grasp of what looked like a possible championship season, and then in 2003, when remarkably the Tigers did win the championship again. As I was in the UK at this time, it’s great to read something about what it was like in Japan at the time and learn more about the Japanese fans too – for although it may not be clear from the title, McKnight becomes part of one of the groups of Tigers fans at Koshien, which provides insights that, frankly, even Kelly’s book were missing. I have two main memories from that 2003 season. First, the shock when realising that the Tigers weren’t going to throw away their command at the top of the Central League. Second, at a meeting at Chatham House (where I worked part-time), I was chatting to the Japanese Ambassador on the eve of the day when it was likely the Tigers would clinch the championship. We laughingly discussed about what would be the equivalent in London (where there are many Japanese, and so almost certainly Tigers fans) of Tigers fans jumping into Dotobori. At about the same moment, we both turned serious and said ‘Trafalgar Square’. The Ambassador soon called over one of his staff and steps were taken to ensure that things wouldn’t get out of control there!

Overall, I really enjoyed Yellow & Black Fever and I’m looking forward to reading the other, Bad Foreigner, but before that there are a pile of other books that I received that are waiting to be read. I plan to read the second book when the baseball returns from the break during the Olympics, and as Hanshin chase down another unlikely championship.

Click here to get more information about the book on Amazon.

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