A sociological study of a subculture that has evolved into female athletic empowerment


Mark Brooke
Centre for English Language Communication
National University of Singapore

Nicole Willms
When Women Rule the Court: Gender, Race, and Japanese American Basketball
246 pages, paperback.
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press 2017 (Critical Issues in Sport and Society)
ISBN 978-0-8135-8415-7

Magnus Kilger from Stockholm University concludes his review in Gender and Society of Nocile Willm’s book  When Women Rule the Court: Gender, Race, and Japanese American Basketball in this way:

This book will make a strong contribution to multiple fields. It will inspire discussions about the intersection of gender and race, the process of racialization and the production of ethnic identity through sport, and the role of iconic female sporting stars in the empowerment of young girls.[1]

I strongly agree with his view. Willm takes us through how her sociological imagination for the J-Leagues was ignited leading to her becoming enthralled with Japanese American women’s basketball in California. The culture has developed through community investment from the present passing through second (nisei), third (sansei) and fourth (yonsei) generations. It has grown in the wake of a history of socially-constructed othering and discrimination against Japanese American immigrants in the United States.

As a conceptual underpinning of the research, the author proposes an embodied racial triangulation. This triangular structure is one of comparative racialisation.It involves the minority black African American viewed as genetically gifted and able to jump higher and run faster; the white as the norm, both hard-working and intelligent; and the minority Asian American group as the deficient ‘unnatural’ athlete. Those women Japanese American athletes involved in basketball are not only subject to ethnic but also gendered controlling narratives, making this a complex ideological nexus. The presence of this ideology makes the women basketball players’ resistance impressive. The athletes in the study have striven against the stereotypical feminised persona of the unassimilable female Asian American as small and weak. They have emerged from the local community to become national superstars able to impact young Japanese American girls’ instilling positive values such as inclusiveness, gender equality, ability to achieve, pride in their ethnicity, and resilience.

The author tells us that the original inspiration for the study were 2 players from the greater Los Angeles suburbs, the epicentre of the J-Leagues. The book starts with a description of the atmosphere at the Japanese Cultural Institute Carnival in the summer of 2009 where the author was looking for former University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and University of Southern California (USC) basketball players Natalie Nakase and Jamie Hagiya. Nakase became a coach for a men’s professional team in Japan and then part of the staff at the NBA team, the Los Angeles Clipper. Hagiya was a dominant point guard at UCLA who went on to play professional basketball in Europe. These female players have been central elements of the culture of Japanese American women’s basketball helping to build a community with a strong and enduring identity.

The Introduction is key to understanding the book. It sets the socio-historical and cultural contexts as well as the theoretical framework of the study. It gives an overview of important elements of the culture such as how the ethnic community became marginalised as immigrants in the United States. It then goes on to explore the network of organisations involved in the J-Leagues in Southern California and the development of athletes in the sport as cultural icons for this community and how these women’s successes evoke a sense of pride. The introduction also discusses the way that intersectionality is present through the complex interrelationships between race and gender as well as class, sexuality and nationality enlaced. The author cites Glenn’s (2002) model of multilevel analysis as one that has enabled her to explore gender and race simultaneously.

Willm demonstrates awareness of her positionality as a white American and the dominant normalised cultural lens that she may observe through.

The following 5 chapters have citations from the research as their titles. Each chapter goes into detail about an important theme related to the development of the Japanese American women’s basketball community. Chapter 1, “Everybody Plays” describes the gender inclusive sport environment as well as the networks developed through the basketball of the J-Leagues. Chapter 2 entitled “In JA Circles, Girls and Boys are on Equal Footing” explores the post-Title IX era and how co-ed basketball has developed powerful identities for female Japanese American basketball players who compete with and sometimes coach men. Chapter 3, “Women who took Sports beyond Play”: How Japanese American Women’s Basketball Went to College” presents iconic characters from this community who brought their basketball talents into the mainstream developing a Japanese American women’s basketball network and a foundation for further and greater success. Chapter 4, “We’re turning them into Stars!” The Japanese American Female Basketball Player as Icon” looks at college level players from this group who have become stars and how they use their positions to work in the community to give back to it through for example, giving short talks to kids and families at competitions. They are viewed as ‘tremendous role models’ (p. 159). Chapter 5, “You Play Basketball?” Ruling the Court as an Unexpected Athlete”, then analyzes the experiences of Asian American women in professional leagues and how they constantly resist the ideology that their ‘bodies aren’t expected bodies in sport’ (p. 29) demonstrating a great deal of resilience.

The conclusion “It’s a Testament of What the Japanese Leagues Can Do for Young Girls” reiterates the significance of this culture’s historical development and endurance despite constraints from racial and gendered structures. These athletes are counter-hegemonic representations of the identity ‘norms’ of a Japanese American woman. The conclusion provides a section on ‘Implications (pp. 203-205) in which Willms discusses how the J-leagues may offer lessons to the wider sport community on gender inclusive practices. She also argues that the J-League encourages all ages and abilities to play and that the mainstream recreational culture should seek to do this more. Finally, at the end of the book, there is a very interesting section on the methodology of the research. Willm demonstrates awareness of her positionality as a white American and the dominant normalised cultural lens that she may observe through. She argues that her cognisance of this was an essential way to strive for trustworthiness of the data. She also states that as a basketball player, she could take on a participant-observer status making her immersion in the milieu possible and leading to opportunities for in-depth interviews. She also presents the data sources she was privy to though survey, archives, tournaments, and newspapers. This gives the reader useful insight into the research and promotes credibility as well as transferability.

To conclude, I think this is a very good depiction of a subculture and how it has grown and endured. Women’s basketball has become symbolic and is representative of a community’s identity. It is an identity closely linked to sporting success and achievement as with other minority cultures such as the black African American. I would recommend the book to anybody interested in basketball, not only scholars involved in the sociology of sport.

Copyright © Mark Brooke 2019

[1] Kilger, M. (2018). Book Review: When Women Rule the Court: Gender, Race, and Japanese American Basketball by Nicole Willms. Gender and Society, 32(5), 755-757.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.