The flag of the rising sun
Went up the main mast.
It is no longer a dream.
On the scoreboards for each nation
Japan’s points are rising fast.
Gloriously, truly gloriously
Several Japanese flags are fluttering
Against Los Angeles’ blue sky.
My body shakes with emotion.
Tears of joy well up in my eyes.
Victories extol victories.
Sayoko Ishikawa, “Hirugaeru Nisshoki,” Rafu Shimpo, August 11, 1932 (a newspaper in America for Japanese)
My grandfather was 53 when the Olympic Games came to Los Angeles in 1932. He was an Issei, a Japanese who emigrated to the United States in 1903. After graduating from Miami University of Ohio in 1908, he went on to become the director of the Japanese YMCA in San Francisco.
He was proud of living in America and contributing to his community through his service in the YMCA, but it was not easy for Japanese at that time. The passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 put a ban on immigration to America for essentially one race – the Japanese. This dispelled hope for many Japanese issei, like my grandfather, of ever becoming accepted by the rest of American society, let alone gaining citizenship. But my grandfather never gave up hope, and during the Great Depression, he helped raise funds to establish a building that would become the home of the Japanese YMCA in 1936. (The Buchanan YMCA still stands today.)
During the difficult times in his quest to develop the YMCA building, I am sure he was lifted by the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. After all, the Japanese team exploded for 18 medals, including 7 gold. The Japanese were particularly strong in swimming events, as swimmers took two thirds of all medals for Japan. In one instance, Japan swept the podium, going 1,2,3 in the men’s 100-meter backstroke.
An AP article from August 13, 1932 proclaimed the following: “With the swimming championship beckoning to the sturdy sons of Nippon, Japan stood on the brink of its first Olympic team title today in the finals of the international aquatic carnival.”
No doubt Japanese communities all across America were following the exploits of the Japanese team in Los Angeles with tremendous pride. Julie Checkoway, author of the brilliant book, The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory, stated that the achievements of the Japanese at the 1932 Olympics not only transfixed the Japanese in America, they transformed them.
Both Issei and Nisei in California had spent more than $100,000 on tickets to watch events, and again and again they saw the Japanese flag rise over the stadium, an image filled with symbolism. The Japanese sports commentators had even ventured to say that the sporting world of the West was now firmly at the feet of the Empire. After years of being second-class citizens, experiencing prejudice, alienation and racism, those of Japanese ancestry in California and across the US were buoyed with pride. Suddenly, too, other Americans had a new vision of Japan as both friendly and competent, and it seemed as though the tide might turn on the Mainland and a wave of acceptance might come. Famously, one Nisei in Los Angeles told the story that since the Games, white men no longer literally stoned him in the street, and he could look, he said, into his reflection in a shop window and feel, for the first time, respect even for himself.
Checkoway’s book was a biography of swim coach Soichi Sakamoto, who would go on to become one of America’s most successful and revolutionary swim coaches. Sakamato was an elementary school teacher in Hawaii, who in 1932 did not know how to swim. In his time away from teaching he oversaw the safety of children playing in plantation irrigation ditches. He looked at their joyful faces, many of them of Japanese descent like himself, and began to have a thought. Maybe these kids had the talent too.
Riding the excitement and pride of a new bar set by the Japanese team in LA, Sakamoto allowed a dream to take form in his heart. As Checkoway wrote, “Soichi Sakamoto had no good reason to do it, not right to, no knowledge of how to, but he called out to the children, nonetheless, ‘How ’bout I teach you something about swimming, eh?'”
For Japanese in Japan and in the United States, the 1932 Los Angeles Games were a revelation and inspiration. I’m sure my grandfather took heart. The mayor of Tokyo certainly did. He had an idea – how about bringing the Olympics to Tokyo.