Tsuburaya and Suto 2
Kokichi Tsuburaya and Jozsef Suto

When József Sütő lined up for the marathon at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Hungarian didn’t know any of the other 67 competitors in the race, except for the then-world record holder, American Buddy Edelen, and the reigning Olympic champion from Ethiopia, Abebe Bikila.

When Sütő hit the halfway point in the marathon, Bikila was indeed firmly in the lead. Slightly behind him was Jim Hogan of Ireland. Ron Clarke of Australia was third, but pressing hard on Clarke were Sütő, Kokichi Tsuburaya of Japan, and Demissie Wolde of Ethiopia.

“Mr. Tsuburaya was in this group, but I did not know at the time who he was,” Sütő explained in an interview with me. “I saw of course that he is Japanese but I did not know more.”

József Sütő (77), Kenji Kimihara (73)
József Sütő (77), Kenji Kimihara (73) on the day of the memorial run, photo by Rajzó-Kontor Kornélia

And yet, it was that race that established a life-long tie between those two runners, who never met except in that single competition on October 21, 1964. Fifty years later, Sütő would return to Japan and pay respects to the Japanese marathoner who won the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics, and then subsequently and sadly took his own life four years later.

At this own expense, Sütő flew out to Japan to attend the 32nd Tsuburaya Memorial Meet, an annual series of running events held in the city of Sukagawa, Fukushima, the hometown of Kokichi Tsuburaya. This was October, 2014, which meant that he would be running in the memorial only two days before the 50th anniversary of the marathon of the Tokyo Olympics.

As explained in this article, Sütő ran in the 5k race, and at the age of 78, ran it in a respectable 27 minutes and 8 seconds. More importantly, he ran it in the race with teenage boys, aged 13 to 15. Sütő understands symbolism, the importance of being a role model, which is why he ran with the boys. When Sütő was growing up in Hungary, his hero was Sándor Iharos, one of the best distance runners in the world in the mid-1950s, a world record holder in the 1500-, 2,000- and 5,000-meter distances.

But Sütő also understands how he represents history, and his linkage to Japan and the 1964 Olympics, one of the defining moments of its history in the 20th century, as well as to the marathon itself. He had arrived in Tokyo on October 18th and was immediately whisked north to Sukagawa. He ran the race on October 19th. On October 20th, he attended a tour of the museum dedicated to the memory of Kokichi Tsuburaya, and then returned to Tokyo for a meeting with representatives of Japan’s National Olympic Committee on October 21st.

The meeting began at 3pm, and exactly 17 minutes into the meeting, Sütő interrupted the conversation by saying “Gentlemen, 50 years ago on this date and at this moment I was taking the turn into the Olympic stadium….and I’ll cross the finish line in a moment!”

I’ve only had the opportunity to exchange emails through an intermediary/translator named Rajzó-Kontor Kornélia, who kindly offered to assist me in communicating with Sütő . Through Rajzó-Kontor’s help, as well as the brilliant articles she wrote on Sütő’s visit to Japan in 2014, I can see that Sütő appreciates the enormity of Japan’s moment in 1964, and as he learned after leaving the Tokyo Olympics, the physical and mental trials Tsuburaya endured after the Tokyo Games. Sütő never met Tsuburaya, but he knows him, and likely wishes he could embrace him.

After completing his race at the Tsuburaya Memorial Meet that beautiful October day, he revealed his thoughts to reporters, as explained by Rajzó-Kontor:

Sütő told the local television viewers the same thing he had said in the cemetery the day before; that he had been thinking of Tsuburaya and thanking him as he ran. Sütő said he believed he would have run the distance “hand in hand” with Tsuburaya, were he still alive.

 

NOTE: Many, many thanks to Rajzó-Kontor Kornélia for the time she took to translate my questions from English to Hungarian, personally meet with József Sütő, and then translate his responses from Hungarian back to English.

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Kokichi Tsuburaya and his bronze medal
Kokichi Tsuburaya and his bronze medal

Kokichi Tsuburaya was a national hero. He raced his heart out in front of an entire nation, which saw an exhausted Tsuburaya get out-sprinted at the  very end of a 42-kilometer marathon, and collectively groaned when their new hero dropped from silver to bronze.

But as related in this post, Tsuburaya was a man of commitment, and he promised he would work hard to ensure he was ready to compete and do better at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Not only did Tsuburaya feel that added weight to make up for the “loss” of silver, so too did his seniors at Tsuburaya’s place of employment, Japan’s Ground Self Defense Forces.

Tsuburaya did indeed train hard. And yet, somehow, he also found time for courtship, as explained in Ichiro Aoyama’s book, The Lone Runner – The Kokichi Tsuburaya Story. He had a met a girl named Eiko before the Tokyo Olympics, and he wanted to marry her after the Tokyo Games. His coach at the Self Defense Forces athletics school, Hiro Hatano, was supportive of the proposed marriage. Tsuburaya’s parents too approved of their son’s plans to marry Eiko.

One would assume that further approval would be unnecessary, but in 1966, coach Hatano’s boss expressed his dissatisfaction with the union. Perhaps Hatano’s boss thought that Tsuburaya needed to keep his focus 100% on his training – I’m not clear yet on the specifics. But in a country where hierarchy determines status and power, and in the context of a military culture where the norms of hierarchy are amplified even more, Hatano’s boss had the power to overrule a personal decision of someone in his organization.

Perhaps, in an exercise of power that feels cruel, Hatano’s boss brought Hatano, Eiko and Eiko’s mother together to inform them that the marriage to Tsuburaya would have to wait until after the Games in Mexico City so that Tsuburaya could focus solely on his training. Tsuburaya was not present in that meeting.

Eiko was devoted to Tsuburaya and wanted to wait until they could get married. But Eiko’s mother was no longer supportive, worried that marriage to a famous man like the marathon bronze medalist who had the weight of a nation’s expectations on his shoulder would only lay unknown burdens on the shoulders of the wife. Perhaps more of a concern, Eiko’s mother was not confident that a marriage to Tsuburaya was a sure thing in two years, and was worried that Eiko, at the age of 22, could lose other opportunities to marry well in that period.

Tsuburaya and Miyake celebrating
Tsuburaya (left) and gold medal weighlifter Yoshinobu Miyake (right) celebrating their Tokyo Olympic medals.

In the end, the proposed marriage of Kokichi and Eiko was broken off. Tsuburaya’s coach and manager, Hatano, was left with the unfortunate task of informing Tsuburaya. Hatano protested these decisions to his own boss to the point where he ended up being demoted and removed as Tsuburaya’s coach. Tsuburaya thus had to train on his own, likely feeling quite alone. Very quickly, injuries began to plague Tsuburaya – first the return of the intense pain of the slipped disc, and then an injury to an achilles tendon, which required surgery in 1967.

At the end of 1967, Tsuburaya returned to his hometown of Sukagawa, Fukushima for the long holiday break that bridges the old year with the new. Tsuburaya’s father was pained with news that he wasn’t sure he should share with his son. But he thought it best to tell his son before he found out on his own – that his former fiancé, Eiko, had gotten married. Kokichi replied “Oh, Eiko-san is married. That’s good for her.” The son pretended that he was OK with the news, but his father could tell that his son was shocked and saddened.

Tsuburaya returned to his Self Defense Forces base after his time with family during the New Year’s break. And on January 8th, 1968, he slit his wrist and died in his dorm room.

 

Note: Special thanks to my researcher, Shiina Ishige, for her in-depth research that contributed heavily to the writing of this post.

Kokichi Tsuburaya afer the marathon
After the grueling marathon

Do your best. Persevere. Never give up.

Ganbatte! Akirameru na!

These are values that resonate with the Japanese. You see it in the office worker who stays late to get things done, night after night. You see it in the high school baseball player who dives left and right after dozens if not hundreds of ground balls in the rain. You see it in the artist who tirelessly works the pottery wheel until she gets the exact curvature in the clay she sees in her head.

Kokichi Tsuburaya exemplified those values. And when he drove toward the finish line of a grueling 42-kilometer marathon race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, on the verge of grabbing a silver medal in track and field, where Japan had found no success, 70,000 Japanese shouted and screamed their encouragement, attempting to will Tsuburaya on to a strong finish. And yet the drama laid out before the spectators had the sickly feeling of inevitability. Just as Tsuburaya emerged from the shadows of the tunnel entrance, a few meters behind so too did Basil Heatley, a Brit hot on the Japanese’s heels.

When Heatley accelerated past a depleted Tsuburaya like a biker passing a pedestrian, the growing balloon of hopes an entire nation held for Tsuburaya seemed to deflate in those seconds it took Heatley to get to the finish line. It must have been a tremendous disappointment.

But then again, that’s OK. To the Japanese, Tsuburaya was not a loser. He was one of them, a man who tried so very hard, who did his very best, who never gave up. As he said in interviews after the marathon, “I will practice hard towards Mexico City.”

Of course, Tsuburaya was a product of his national cultural traits. But more impactfully, he was his father’s son, as described in Ichiro Aoyama’s book, The Lone Runner – The Kokichi Tsuburaya Story.

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Kokichi Tsuburaya 7 years old
Little Kokichi at 7 years old, smiling front and center.

The seven children in the Tsuburaya household had to work hard, cleaning the house, preparing the bath, cooking, planting the rice, raising the livestock when they hit the age of 10. These were not easy tasks, and the head of the household, Koshichi Tsuburaya, believed that his children needed to be disciplined to ensure they did their chores. He ordered his children around military style, shouting directions like “Attention!” “Right face!” “Go Forward!” He made them wear shorts in the winter. He made his children repeat chores if they weren’t done properly, and of course he would hit them to make sure they knew they had done something improperly. Training included bayonet skills, just in case.

As a child Kokichi liked to run, and when his dog ran, little Kokichi liked to try to keep up with the dog. But one day, when he was 5, Kokichi felt a sharp pain in his legs and his back. The father (named Koshichi) then noticed that their boy’s left leg was shorter than his right. Knowing how little their little Kokichi would complain about anything, the parents took him to the hospital, where they learned that their boy also had tuberculosis arthritis, which causes pain in the weight-bearing joints of the hips, knees and ankles. So from an early age, Kokichi felt pain whenever he ran.

And yet, Kokichi loved to run. He looked up to his older brother, Kikuzo, who ran competitively. Kokichi often joined his older brother, and the elder brother saw the kid brother keep up, despite being 7 years younger. The brothers would often go for runs in the evenings. But their father didn’t approve of running for the sake of running. “You can’t live off of running,” he would say as a warning to his sons.

One time the brothers came home a little later than usual, and the entire family was seated at the dinner table quietly, waiting to start eating until the two boys sat down. The father kept quiet until the boys returned late again from running, and again told his boys angrily, “You can’t live off of running.” In order to avoid the glare of their father, the boys would sneak out for a run while their father was taking a bath.

Finally, one night, Koshichi the father confronted Kokichi the son and asked him, “If you run, will you stick to it?” The son said yes, to which Koshichi said, in the approving way of gruff dads, “Once you decide to do this, don’t quit halfway through.”

Kokichi never quit. In fact, he took his commitment to running very seriously. In high school, he trained very hard for a national 5,000 meter competition. He did not win, and without anyone’s urging, shaved his head to account publicly for his loss.

When Kokichi graduated from high school, he did something that made his father proud – he joined the Ground Self-Defense Force and became a soldier like his father had been. Japan has a long tradition of long-distance relay races, and Kokichi was slated to join the team representing the Self-Defense Forces in a national long-distance race. At the time of the race, Kokichi was in the hospital with a high fever. On top of that, Kokichi kept the fact that a slipped disk in his back was also causing him tremendous pain. Despite all that, Kokichi Tsuburaya insisted on running the longest leg of the race.

It was this commitment, this perseverance that eventually endeared Tsuburaya to the public. And through it all, even his father, who thought nothing would ever come of his running, was quietly very proud of his son.  His father would often send Kokichi letters of encouragement, saying how worried he was for his son. And when Kokichi returned home from his bronze-medal finish at the Tokyo Olympics, he was surprised to find that his parents kept all sorts of newsclippings, medals and trophies of his accomplishments , or could not sleep on the eve of the Olympics, and worried deeply about his health.

They were deeply proud of their little Kokichi. And likely, so was an entire nation.

 

Note: Special thanks to my researcher, Shiina Ishige, for her in-depth research that contributed heavily to the writing of this post.

Heatley Bikila Tsuburaya on medal stand 1964
Basil Heately, Abebe Bikila and Kokichi Tsuburaya on the medal stand

Abebe Bikila strolled into the National Stadium like he owned it. And he did. The lithe Ethiopian, a member of the Imperial Bodyguard of his nation, was about to meet expectations at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics – to become the first person to win marathons in two consecutive Olympics.

The first time Bikila did so, he was an unknown, and made headlines by running barefoot on the roads of Rome in 1960 to win marathon gold. When he crossed the finish line in Tokyo, amazingly over 4 minutes earlier than the second place finisher, the audience marveled at how fresh Bikila was – so fresh that he did calisthenics and jogged in place as if he were readying for the start of a marathon.

In other words, the actual competition in the marathon was for second. And in the race for second, Japan was ready to explode in celebration.

Like the Brits, with Brian Kilby and Basil Heatley, the Australian Ron Clarke, the other Ethiopian Demissie Wolde, as well as Americans Billy Mills and Buddy Edelen, the Japanese had a trio of strong marathoners in the competition, Toru Terasawa, Kenji Kimihara and Kokichi Tsuburaya.

As explained in this detailed article, at the 10K mark of the 42K race, Clarke was setting a pretty fast pace at 30:14, with Jim Hogan of Ireland and Bikila following. Around the 20k mark, Bikila took the lead and never looked back. The race for 2nd was on, with Clarke and Hogan about 5 seconds behind Bikila, and a second pack including Wolde, Tsuburaya, Jozsef Suto of Hungary and Antonio Ambu of Italy.

Kokichi_Tsuburaya 1964_adoring fans

With about 7 kilometers to go, Bikila, Hogan, Tsuburaya and Suto were in the lead, with Heatley rising to fifth. Amazingly, Hogan dropped out of the marathon despite being in position for a silver medal, leaving the Japanese from the self defense forces, Tsuburaya in second. Heatley and Kilby were coming on, passing Suto with only 2 kilometers to go.

Heatley was advancing and could envision a bronze-medal finish, but didn’t think he could pass Tsuburaya. “I didn’t expect to catch him,” Heatley recalls, “but he was a target.”

Bikila entered the National Stadium triumphantly, winning with an ease that both shocked and surprised the crowd. But the crowd went wild a few minutes later when Tsuburaya entered the stadium. At their home Olympics, Japan had medaled in wrestling, judo, boxing, weightlifting, gymnastics and swimming among others, but not in track and field. Tsuburaya was about to change that, in front of the biggest crowd possible.

And yet, soon after Tusburaya entered the stadium, so too did Heatley, only about 10 meters behind. Just before the final curve of the stadium’s cinder track, Heatley turned on the jets and sprinted by Tsuburaya. For a 2nd place battle that took over 2 hours and 16 minutes, Tsuburaya lost his chance for silver by four seconds.

Writer, Robert Whiting, was watching this match on the television, confident that Tsuburaya would make Japan proud with a silver medal only to see that expectation burst before the eyes of an entire nation, as he explained in this article.

The cheering for Tsuburaya was building to a crescendo when suddenly Great Britain’s Basil Heatley came into view and proceeded to put on one of Olympic track and field’s great all-time spurts. He steadily closed the gap in the last 100 meters, passing Tsuburaya shortly before the wire, turning the wild cheering in the coffee shop, and in the stadium, and no doubt in the rest of Japan, into one huge collective groan.

Bob Schul, who three days earlier, became the first American to win gold in the 5,000 meter race, watched the end of the marathon with some dismay.

Abebe entered the stadium to great applause. He finished and went into the infield and started doing exercises. Finally the second guy, Tsuburaya came, and the crowd roared. But so did Heathley of England. Sharon asked if Tsuburaya could hold on to 2nd place. I said I didn’t think so. Heatley caught him about 150 meters before the finish. And the crowd became very quiet. The Japanese guy was going to get third. And when he did finish, the stadium did erupt. And that was the only medal they won in track and field.

 

Heatley on the heels of Tsuburaya
Heatley hot on the heels of Tsuburaya

 

When Kokichi Tsuburaya was a boy in elementary school, he competed in an event common throughout Japan – a sports day, when children compete against each other in a variety of activities, like foot races. After one such race, Koshichi Tsuburaya, the young runner’s father, chewed him out for looking behind him during the race. “Why are you looking back during the race. Looking back is a bad thing. If you believe in yourself, you don’t need to do so.”

Many years later, with over 70,000 people screaming in the showcase event of the Olympics, people were yelling, “Tsuburaya, a runner is behind you! Look back! Look back! He’s close!” Was Tsuburaya recalling that childhood scolding from his father? Would it have made a difference if he did?

While Tsuburaya’s very public loss of the silver medal must have been the source of pain, not only for Tsuburaya, but also of the nation. But in the end, there were no hard feelings. After all, Tsuburaya won Japan’s only medal in Athletics, a bronze in the marathon, an achievement beyond the nation’s initial expectations. Writer Hitomi Yamaguchi wrote of this pain and pride in a 1964 article.

Tsuburaya tried so very hard. And his efforts resulted in the raising of the Japanese flag in the National Stadium. My chest hurt. I applauded so much I didn’t take any notes. Since the start of the Olympic Games, our national flag had not risen once in the National Stadium. At this last event, we were about to have a record of no medals in track and field. Kon Ishikawa’s film cameras were rolling, and newspaper reporters were watching. People were waiting and hoping. So when Tsubaraya crossed the finish line, we felt so fortunate! When I saw the Japanese flag raised freely into the air, it felt fantastic. Tsuburaya, thank you.

You can watch the dramatic second-place finish to the Tokyo Olympics marathon at the 5:38 mark of this video:

Note: Special thanks to my researcher, Marija Linartaite, for finding and translating the last quote.

Tsuburaya suicide note 2

My dear Father, my dear Mother, I enjoyed the delicious three-day tororo soup, the dried persimmons, and the rice cakes.
My dear Brother Toshio, and my dear Sister, I enjoyed the delicious sushi.
My dear Brother Katsumi, and my dear Sister, I enjoyed the delicious wine and apples.
My dear Brother Iwao, and my dear Sister, I enjoyed the delicious shiso herbal rice, and the nanban zuke pickles.
My dear Brother Kikuzo, and my dear Sister, I enjoyed the delilcious grape juice and Yomeishu wine. I enjoyed them. And thank you, my dear Sister, for the laundry you always did for me.
My dear Brother Kozo and my dear Sister, I thank you for the rides you gave me in your car, to and fro. I enjoyed the delicioius mongo-cuttlefish.
My dear Brother Masao, and my dear sister, I am very sorry for all the worries I caused you.
Sachio-kun, Hideo-kun, Mikio-kun, Toshiko-chan, Hideko-chan, Ryosuke-kun, Takahisa-kun, Miyoko-chan, Yukie-chan, Mitsue-chan, Akira-kun, Yoshiyuki-kun, Keiko-chan, Koei-kun, Yu-chan, Kii-chan, Shoji-kun: May you grow up to be fine people.
My dear Father and my dear Mother, your Kokichi is too tired to run anymore. Please forgive him. He is sorry to have worried you all the time.
My dear Father and Mother, Kokichi would have liked to have lived by your side.

These were the handwritten words of Kokichi Tsubaraya, one of two notes he left as explanation for why he took his life in his dormitory room of the Ground Self Defense Forces. Tsuburaya was a soldier, but he was also a Japanese icon, winning the bronze medal in the marathon at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. As he wrote, he was simply “too tired to run anymore”. As described in a previous post, injuries and heartbreak may have led to Tsuburaya’s demise.

Kokichi Tsuburaya surrounded by family
Kokichi Tsuburaya, center, surrounded by his family.

Suicide rates, while decreasing in recent years, thankfully, have been traditionally high in Japan compared to other countries. Perhaps there is a romanticism connected with suicide in the deep recesses of Japanese culture. So when some of Japan’s most celebrated writers, Nobel Prize winners Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata, read the suicide note of Kokichi Tsuburaya, they swooned at the simple yet striking words of the athlete. Mishima viewed Tsuburaya’s notes as “beautiful, honest and sad.” And as Makoto Ueda explained in his book, Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature, Kawabata was even jealous of the quality of Tsuburaya’s poetry.

Kawabata was deeply moved upon reading this suicide note. After citing it in its entirety, he offered to explain why: “in the simple, plain style and in the context of the emotion-ridden note, the stereotyped phase “I enjoyed” is breathing with truly pure life. It creates a rhythm pervading the entire suicide note. I tis beautiful, sincere, and sad.” Kawabata then observed that this suicide note was not inferior to similar notes written by reputable writers, despite the fact that Tsuburaya was an athlete who boasted no special talent in composition. Kawabata even felt ashamed of his own writings, he said, when he compared them with this note.

Another giant of Japanese literature, Kenzaburo Oe, was also impressed by the suicide note of Tsuburaya. At a series of talks Oe gave at the University of California, Berkeley in April 1999, he talked about how Tsuburaya’s suicide note was a wonderful cultural marker of the 1960s, a reflection of Japan in a state of transition during a period of intense social, economic and political change. Let me quote Oe at length here:

We know from this note that Kokichi Tsuburaya was from a big family. The many names he mentions probably do not evoke any particular feeling in a non- Japanese, but to a person like myself—especially to one who belongs to an older generation of Japanese—these names reveal a naming ideology of a family in which authority centers around the paternal head-of-household. This family-ism extends to the relatives. There is probably no large family in Japan today where children are named so thoroughly in line with traditional ethical sentiments. Tsuburaya’s suicide note immediately shows the changes in the “feelings” of the families of Japanese these past thirty years.

The many foods and drinks he refers to also tell of the times. Twenty years had passed since Japan’s defeat, and it was not a society of food shortages. But neither was it the age of satiation and Epicurean feasting that began ten years later. The year Tsuburaya died was the year that Nikkeiren, the Japan Federation of Employers’ Association, tried to counter the spring offensives—the annual demand by labor unions for wage hikes and improved working conditions—by arguing that the sharp increase in prawn imports was evidence of a sufficient rise in the standard of living. More consumers were eating imported frozen prawns. Business administrators keep an eye on such trends. And I think that honestly expresses the eating habits of Japanese people at this time.

Domestically, 1968 saw the rage of student rebellions, most noted among which were the struggles at Tokyo University and Nihon University. Outside of Japan, there was the May Revolution in Paris, and the invasion of Soviet troops into Prague. In retrospect, we clearly see that the world was full of premonitions of great change.

Against this backdrop, a long distance runner of the Self-Defense Forces— itself a typical phenomenon of the state of postwar Japan’s twisted polysemous society—turned his back on the currents of such a society, alone prepared to die, and wrote this suicide note. In the note, the young man refers to specific foods and drinks, he encourages his nephews and nieces to grow up to be fine people; he is overwhelmed by the thought of his parents’ loving concern for him and writes that he knows their hearts must never have rested in their worry and care for him. He apologizes to them because, having kept running even after the Olympics with the aim of shouldering national prestige, he became totally exhausted and could no longer run. He closed his note with the words: “My dear Father and Mother, Kokichi would have liked to live by your side.”

Tsuburaya was a man of his times, celebrated in 1964 for his accomplishments as an athlete. Today he is also remembered for his eloquence in representing the Every Man in Japan, a poet who is said to have captured the essence and the angst of those times.

Eiji Tsbarya and his Ultraman creations
Eiji Tsuburaya and his Ultraman creations
Ultraman is 50 years old! He’s still battling kaiju! And he hasn’t aged a bit.

It was July 17, 1966 when the first episode of Ultraman aired on Japanese televisions. Since then, Ultraman has been re-packaged in close to 40 different television series or movies, and is an internationally recognized phenomenon, on the same level as Pokemon, Hello Kitty and Doraemon.

Ultraman is the brainchild of Eiji Tsuburaya, who at the time was producing a newly launched series called “Ultra-Q“, what might be called a Japanese version of the television series Twilight Zone or Outer Limits, which were popular in the early 1960s.

Ultraman baltan seijin

Ultra-Q was not unpopular, but the broadcaster, Tokyo Broadcasting System did some research and discovered that the kids loved the episodes with all of the giant monsters (known in Japanese as “kaijyu“). This was particularly true thanks to the popularity of the Godzilla movies. As it turned out, Tsuburaya understood that. After all, he was the co-creator of the Godzilla movies. So after the first season of Ultra-Q ended, Tsuburaya decided to devote his series to kaiju, by introducing a character that would forever defend the world from the bad ones.

In one of those quick feats of legerdemain, Tsuburaya changed the name of his series from Ultra-Q to Ultraman. Broadcast in color, Ultraman burst on to the scene, and thus was born a cultural icon that all Japanese in their 40s, 50s and 60s can remember with nostalgic bliss.

But where did Tsuburaya get the term “ultra” from? That takes us back a couple of more years to 1964 and the Tokyo Olympics. Japan had just begun its run of men’s gymnastics dominance, by winning the team gold at the 1960 Rome Summer Games. They were expected to do well on their home turf in 1964, but they knew they would have tough competition, particularly with the Soviet Union. In an interview of the Helsinki Olympics medalist and member of a committee dedicated to strengthening gymnastics in Japan, Tadao Uesako, the Japanese newspaper, Daily Sports, revealed Japan’s gymnastics strategy.

Ohno Hayata Mitsukuri Endo Yamashita
Men’s gold medal gymnastics team from Japan: Takashi Ohno, Takuji Hayata, Haruhiro Yamashita, Takashi Mitsukuri, Yukio Endo, from the book Tokyo Olympiad 1964, Kyodo News Service
In 1964, international scoring for gymnastics worked on a three-level scale of A, B and C, where level C was considered the highest level of difficulty for a particular discipline or routine. It was Uesako’s view that Japan’s gymnasts were aspiring to levels beyond C, or as he called it, “Ultra-C“. And from that article, another foreign word (or in this case, prefix) entered the Japanese lexicon.

So there you have it – Tsuburaya made the leap from “Ultra-C” to “Ultra-Q”, thanks to the Japanese men’s gymnastics squad that took gold, ultimately sticking the landing on Ultraman.

Happy Birthday Ultraman!