Hideko Maehata on the Podium with Martha Genenger
Hideko Maehata (center) on the Podium with Martha Genenger (right) and Inge Sorensen of Denmark (left)

Hideko Maehata swam 10,000 meters a day. So taking the two-week boat trip from Japan to the West Coast of the United States was a piece of cake for the native of Wakayama, Japan. It was the last 200 meters, in the pool, that were going to be painful.

After winning her heat in the 200-meter breaststroke by nearly 3 seconds, she lined up for the finals. And in a tough-fought nail biter, a 16-year old Australian named Clare Dennis set an Olympic record and edged out Maehata by a tenth of a second.

According to Robin Japanese Women and Sport, in her book Japanese Women and Sport, Maehata was welcomed back home in Japan as a hero, but the 18-year-old, while proud was disappointed. Was it worth training so hard again, and trying again for gold in 1936, or should she put an end to the long hours in the water and get married as society at the time required. Kietlinski explained that Maehata received letters from her fans making both sides of the argument.

According to this NHK mini-documentary of Maehata’s life, it was the Mayor of Tokyo at that time, Hidejiro Nagata. Nagata, proud of Japan’s incredible accomplishments at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, was putting together his plan for Tokyo to host the 1940 Olympics, met the returning Maehata and insisted that she go for it again in Berlin.

If only you had won that gold medal. It’s so frustrating. Don’t forget the bitter taste of defeat. Let it drive you to do better four years from now at the Berlin Olympics.

And so, Maehata decided to aim for gold and glory at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She doubled her regimen, swimming 20 kilometers a day, the water hiding the tears of pain. She noted that her victory in LA was denied by such a tiny margin that perfecting her start was essential. She worked on her launch from the starting block by practicing 100 starts a day, her toes bleeding from the wear and tear.

The training was so grueling I cried as I swam. But at those times, I reminded myself that if I failed to overcome the pain, and fall short in Berlin, I would be the laughing stock of Japan.

And so, despite being cheered on by thousands as she boarded the ship for Europe and ultimately Berlin in 1936, she did so with considerable anxiety. In fact, as the NHK video explains, based I believe on what she described in her own autobiography, she found herself alone on the deck of the ship, looking over the waves, thinking that if she did not win, she would jump into the ocean on the return trip and kill herself.

This was the first Olympics in Berlin, otherwise known as the Nazi Olympics as it was presided over by der Führer, Adolph Hitler. The home field advantage for the German athletes was significant, and Maehata’s biggest competitor in the 200-meter breast stroke was a 20-year-old from Krefeld, Germany, Martha Genenger.

Genenger sent the first warning shot, winning her first round heat in 3:02.9 seconds, setting an Olympic record. Maehata fired back in her first round heat with a time one second better, re-setting the Olympic record. In the semi-finals, no records were set, but no other competitor came anywhere close to Genenger’s or Maehata’s times. The finals were to be a showdown between the German and the Japanese.

Hideko Maehata in high schoolIt was 4pm on August 11, 1936. Maehata was in lane 6. Genenger was in lane 7. Even in the early part of the race, Maehata pulled ahead. And for the remainder of the 150 meters, Maehata clung to the lead. When her hand touched the wall, she was not sure who had won.

When I reached the finish line I l gasped for breath and looked across at the next lane and saw that Genenger was already there. And I thought I had lost.

In fact, Maehata had persevered by a mere sixth tenths of a second. She had fulfilled the command of the Mayor of Tokyo. She had realized the dreams of an entire nation.

And she could get on with her life. In 1937, Maehata married a doctor, retiring from swimming. She raised two children, and when she greater flexibility after her children grew up, she started a swimming school in 1967. She saw that after the war, the Japanese were weak in swimming. She felt that she could contribute by focusing on mothers, teaching them the joys of swimming. If mothers understand and enjoy swimming, she believed, so will their children.

Maehata suffered a stroke while teaching, at 68. She was told she would never walk again, which was fuel for her competitive fire. So she pushed herself. “I still have the drive inside,” she said in the NHK documentary. “When I have a tough day, I recall my days as a competitive swimmer, and it’s like someone is yelling at me that I have to be stronger. The fact that I am still alive and active today is thanks to that inner strength.” Amazingly, a year later, Maehata returned to the pool and resumed her coaching duties.

In 1995, at the age of 80, Maehata, one of the most famous sports figures of the early 20th century in Japan, passed away.

Hideko Maehata getting married
Hideko Maehata getting married
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Hiromu Hara_Travel in Japan

In 1936, Japan won the right to host the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo. In 1938, Japan forfeited that right. While it would have been an honor being the first nation to host an Olympic Games, the Japanese government came to the conclusion they had other priorities.

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Haniwa version

Since the “Mukden Incident” (in Japan) or the “Liutiaohu Incident” (in China), relations between Japan and China continued to worsen. In September, 1931, the Japanese military blew up a Japanese railway in South Manchuria. The explosion did very little damage, but provided the pretext for the Imperial Japanese Army to invade China in an attempt to find the “terrorists”. The years of occupation culminated in the Second Sino-Japanese War, a conflict that resulted in millions if not tens of millions of deaths from 1937 to 1945.

But prior to Japan’s invasion of China, the organizing committee for the 1940 Tokyo Olympics began its preparations. And one of the first things they did was to hold a contest for the best poster depicting the pride and excitement of the upcoming Olympic Games in Japan. One could surmise, based on past posters of Olympic Games in Berlin, Los Angeles, and Amsterdam, and Paris, that the imagery would be a celebration of the Classic human body – Greek-like and beautiful.

Japan’s Olympic art for the 1940 Games took more of a historical bent.

There were two second prizes awarded, one to the designer of a poster that used the Haniwa as the main object. (The designer of the poster is either Ayao Yamana or Kiichi Akabane.) The Haniwa are clay figures that were buried with the dead in the 3rd to 6th centuries in Japan – otherwise known as the Kofun Period. As Wikipedia explains, this was an era when “a highly aristocratic society with militaristic rulers” thrived.

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Norio Kuroda version

First prize went to Norio Kuroda, who designed a poster featuring Emperor Jinmu. Jinmu was said to be the first emperor, the one who had created Japan. And since 1940 was reported to be the 2600th anniversary of the founding of Japan by Emperor Jinmu, his image was certainly a fitting symbol for Japanese pride.

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Wada Senzo version

Having said that, the organizing committee for the 1940 Tokyo Olympics decided to take a pass on that according to an article called “Tokyo’s 1964 Olympic Design” by Jilly Traganou. She went on to say that the organizers decided to forgo Kuroda’s work and commission designer, Wada Senzo, “who had studied Western-style painting in Japan and Europe. Wada’s poster superimposed the figure of a heroic, almost militant-looking athlete onto the figure of Nioh, the Benevolent King, familiar to the Japanese as the Buddhist temple gatekeeper, who was known to ward off evil spirits.”

You’ve seen Nioh, if you’ve been to a large Japanese temple. Nioh would be one of two intimidating-looking dudes. He partners with fellow guardian, Kongorikishi, who stand guard over the Buddha.

But alas, for all their power, Nio and Kongorikishi, could not thwart the brewing storm of war in China, and indeed, in the rest of Asia, Africa, the US and Europe, nor the cancellation of the 1940 Olympics.

But at least we have a few cool-looking posters.

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Jigoro Kano

The Mayor of Tokyo, Hidejiro Nagata, had a dream of bringing the Olympics to Tokyo in 1940. And in order to convince the International Olympic Committee (IOC), he could think of only one Japanese who might have a chance to influence the Westerners, who may have looked on Japan with bemusement at best. His name was Jigoro Kano.

Born into a sake-brewing family in 1860, Kano had advantages over the majority of children in Japan. As a teenager, he was able to study English and German in private schools run by Europeans. And since he was physically small and weak and wanted to become stronger, he had access to the very best practitioners of jujitsu. At the age of 19, he performed his art in front of then-former American President Ulysses S. Grant, who was visiting Japan in 1879. Kano became so proficient at jujitsu that he would go on to form his own school – what the world today knows as Judo.

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Jigoro Kano at a demonstration in Vienna

Kano was considered an authority on sports and fitness in the early 20th century when the IOC was looking to include Japan and Korea in their Olympic roll call of participating nations. The Japanese government received the IOC’s invitation to the 1912 Olympics and turned to Kano to represent Japan officially on the IOC. By 1932, when the IOC was kicking about possible host cities for the 1940 Olympics, Kano was already a veteran of the 1912, 1920 and 1928 Olympics

The 1932 Los Angeles Summer Games was an Olympiad where Japanese athletes did remarkably well, not only making Japan proud and adding momentum to Mayor Nagata’s push for the 1940 Olympics, but also convincing the West that Japan was an up-and-coming power. On the last day of the Los Angeles Olympics, the IOC held a grand celebratory party, and the person selected to give the keynote was Jigoro Kano.

Kano was 72, but full of energy and charm. As Julie Checkoway writes in her terrific book, The Three Year Swim Club, the press in America found him “playful” and “charming”. As Checkoway noted, it was not uncommon for him to lift the hem of his Japanese robes to reveal his legs with a sly smile. But more importantly, Kano was an internationalist. And the world was in need of internationalists.

The League of Nations was formed in 1920 in the wake of World War I, which turned Europe into a bloody war zone for over 4 years, resulting in the deaths of 9 million military personnel and 7 million civilians. The spirit of the formation of the League of Nations was to promote peace and prevent the ugly history of world war from repeating itself. The Olympic Movement, established by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was a precursor of the League of Nations – a philosophy of peace and friendship through the competition of sport. Kano understood the Olympic Movement and the heart of the IOC, particularly the IOC leader, Henri de Baillet-Latour of Belgium. Here is how Checkoway described Kano’s address to the IOC.

Jigoro Kano’s remarks at the Biltmore were directed as much at the Belgian baron as at anyone; Kano spoke of the fear that it was too easy for the world to have of other countries. ‘People,’ he intoned, ‘are prone to think that what they are accustomed to is good and right,’ and that ‘whatever is foreign to them is mistaken and harmful,’ and he pointed out that the Olympics, if held in Tokyo in 1940, would serve to echo and reinforce the beliefs and values that served as the foundation set down by the movement’s founder. To hold the games in Japan was to extend Coubertin’s vision and to bridge the global gap that existed between West and East and bring together all nations in pursuit, Kano said, of ‘a common purpose.’ And while Kano hadn’t returned home in 1932 with the candidature yet in hand, he had succeeded in appealing to Baillet-Latour and others like him, who were open to a wider vision of the world.

 

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Jigoro Kano at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

And yet, it took another four years before the final decision was made. Kano was now 78 years old. And while he was the face and authority of Japan in the eyes of the IOC, bureaucrats in the Japanese government thought that they could seal the deal by greasing the wheel, which according to Checkoway, created misunderstandings between the IOC and Japan. For example, a Japanese delegate at the 1936 IOC meeting in Berlin apparently tried to convince Mussolini to withdraw Rome’s bid to host in 1940 in exchange for cessation of arms sales to Ethiopia, which Italy was looking to colonize. Baillet-Latour frowned on this blatant attempt to mix backroom political deals with his Olympic Movement.

And yet, Jigoro Kano prevailed. As Checkoway wrote, Kano convinced many in the IOC that “Tokyo was no different from London, Paris, Los Angeles, or any other city, and he had won hearts when he asked that ‘the Olympic torch light the way to the Orient.'”

The great founder of Judo, and the visionary Mayor of Tokyo got their wish – an Olympics in Tokyo!

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Tokyo after the 1923 earthquake
These black and white photos seem eerily similar. They are both of Tokyo, but the first picture is the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in 1923. The second picture is the result of firebombing that took place by the US Air Force on March 9-10, 1945.

In other words, Tokyo climbed out of the fiery ashes of destruction, not once, but twice in the first half of the 20th century. People outside marveled at the patience and resiliency of the Japanese after the triple shock of earthquake, tsunami and radiation terror that stunned Japan on March 11, 2011. But the world has seen these qualities before.

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Tokyo after the firebombing in 1945
And both times, out of the ashes of 1923’s Great Kanto Earthquake and the horrifying and sustained firebombing of Japan’s capitol in 1945, Tokyo rose to the pinnacle of international recognition in sports by being selected as the host country for an Olympiad. Many know of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, how a defeated nation, subservient to foreign governance for 7 years after World War Two, rose to economic prominence to host the first Olympics in Asia, and arguably, at the time, one of the best run Games ever.

But many are unfamiliar with Tokyo’s selection to host the 1940 Olympic Games.

The idea to nominate Tokyo to be a host was the brainchild of Hidejiro Nagata. He was the mayor when the earthquake struck Tokyo on September 1, 1923.

In all, though, 140,000 people died, the first in buildings that pancaked immediately on top of them; the second swept away by a tsunami that had followed hard upon the great tremor, and the third in a pillar of fire that consumed everything it found in its freakish path. Tokyo was gone. A pile of rubbish, ash, the smoke of fires, even after months, still rising from the ruins. Mobs had taken over the city, gangs in the streets torched what little there was left of shops and homes, sowing even more fear among the people, who worried that the government, too, might fall.

The above is how Julie Checkoway, author of the book, The Three-Year Swim Club, described Tokyo after the tragedy. But she continue to write how, a decade later, the city recovered and celebrated its rebirth. Checkoway writes about Mayor Nagata and his pride in Tokyo’s phoenix-like re-emergence. The mayor was proud of the shiny, modern metropolis Tokyo had become, and he wanted the world to know. “He had come to make it a habit to personally greet every delegation of foreigners arriving in his city, and in so doing to show them both the warmth of his and others’ welcome and the grandeur of which the new Tokyo was capable.”

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Checkoway’s book is about the legendary American swim coach, Soichi Sakamoto, who was part of a Boy Scouts delegation visiting Japan. Sakamoto, who was a Nisei American who had never been to Japan, was eager to see the Japan of his past. As Checkoway explains, “what he found and enjoyed most on the trip was not the Japan of the past but a country in the midst of embracing its modernity. Like everyone, he heard about the destruction of Yokohama and Tokyo – the quake had occurred during the year in high school he’d been ill – and so when he found that both cities had risen from the rubble and the conflagration, it was among the sights that stunned him.”

Mayor Nagata knew this was the way to change the world’s neutral to negative perceptions of Japan – get them to visit. And what better way to bring the world to Tokyo was to host the two biggest socio-economic events in the world: The World Exposition and the Olympics.

But Nagata needed supporters in high places. He began to put ideas together and lobbied influential people with a plea to nationalism by citing what he said was historical fact – that 1940 happened to be the 2600th anniversary of the year that Japan’s first emperor founded the country. And what better way to honor the creation of the nation, and to reveal to the world Japan’s inherent greatness than to hold the Olympics.

“[1940] would be an occasion,” wrote Checkaway, “to celebrate the glorious past and speak loudly of the Empire’s strength, but Hidejiro Nagata-san idea was to take the 1940 celebration even further: simultaneous with the anniversary, Tokyo could host the Twelfth Olympiad, and demonstrate not just to itself but to the world the millions of miles it had traveled into modernity.”

But the 1940 Olympics never were. Tokyo did indeed win the bid. But as international conflict deepened in the late 1930s, and with Japan’s increasing pre-occupation with its colonies and conflicts in Asia, the Japanese government decided to decline its hosting responsibilities. The IOC made a quick switch to Helsinki, Finland, but the war came to the world, and the Olympics would be cancelled, not returning until 1948.

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He cut a dashing figure, this officer of the Imperial Japanese Army, who did more for Japanese-American relations in the 1930s than anyone else. Takeichi Nishi, who won gold in equestrian show jumping at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, was a star.

He was the son of baron in the Japanese peerage system of the time. His horse was Italian. He spoke English. And he ran in the circles of Hollywood royalty – Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. He was the most popular Japanese man in the United States already. But on the final day of the 1932 Olympics, Nishi mounted his horse, Uranus, and slayed a difficult course that six of the final eight competitors failed to complete.

“Baron Nishi” as he was called, was not only a champion, he was a shining light of pride for Japan. But he was one of many new heroes in the Japanese sporting pantheon.

Through three Olympiads from 1912 to 1924, Japanese athletes garnered a total of only three medals (in tennis and wrestling). In 1928 in Amsterdam, Japan began to show some life with five medals. Mikio Oda (triple jump) and Yoshiyuki Tsuruta (200-meter breaststroke) became the first Japanese to ever win gold.

It was at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, when Japan sent 142 athletes and amazed the sporting world. Japanese athletes took home a total of 18 medals, placing ahead of European powers Hungary and Great Britain. Their 7 gold medals was better than prominent powers of the time, Hungary, Finland and even Germany that was to be the host of the Berlin Games four years later.

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Kentaro Kawatsu Toshio Irie and Masaji Kiyokawa, 100-meter backstroke swimmers in 1932

In addition to Baron Nishi’s star turn, Japanese swimmers became overnight heroes. In fact, 12 of Japan’s 18 medals won at the 1932 Games were in swimming, including gold medals in the men’s 100 meter backstroke, 100-meter freestyle, 1,500-meter freestyle, 200-meter breaststroke and the 4×200-meter freestyle relay. In fact, in the 100-meter backstroke, Japan swept gold, silver and bronze. With headlines of “Team Swimming Championship Will Go to Sons of Nippon”, this August 13, 1932 Associated Press article explained the triumph this way:

The turn of affairs came suddenly yesterday, as expected, when the Japanese finished one, two, three in the 100-meter backstroke final. Masaji Kiyokawa outclassed his field to win by three yards in 1 minute 8.6 seconds. He was fourteenths of a second short of the only Olympic record of the whole water festival which withstood attack.

Japan did not limit its success to equestrian and swimming events. They took gold in the triple jump, silver in the pole vault and silver in field hockey, and bronze in the long and triple jumps.

Prior to the 1932 Olympics, Japan was somewhat of a mystery to the West, so far away, so different. Increasingly they were a threat as well. The Japanese had defeated the Russians in a great naval battle in 1904-5, re-setting the global balance of power. And when the Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931, they became an instant competitor with Western imperialist powers for colonies and natural resources in Asia.

The Japanese success at the 1932 Olympics put human faces on these so-called inscrutable Asians, and gave momentum to Japan’s bid to hold an Olympic Games in Tokyo. The writer of this August 13, 1932 AP report thought so too.

“Japan’s improved showing all along the Olympic lines has been a conspicuous feature from the start. The Japanese have high hopes of landing the 1940 Olympics for Tokio.”

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