Yoshiyuki Tsuruta winning gold in the 200 meter breaststroke at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.

We think of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics as Japan’s debut on the international sports scene, as the time when Japan told the world “We are here!” But the first time the world caught attention of Japan as a sporting power was the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. Mikio Oda won the triple jump competition, becoming the first Japanese to ever win a gold medal. Hitomi Kinue became the first Japanese woman to win a medal, taking second in the 800-meter finals. And Yoshiyuki Tsuruta also won gold, winning the 200-meter breaststroke, starting a long proud Japanese swimming tradition.

At the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics.

Tsuruta was the second of 12 children, born in Kagoshima, Japan. As a member of the Imperial Japanese Navy, he may have had opportunity to train as a swimmer, emerging as the best breaststroker in Japan, consequently being selected for the 1928 Japanese Olympic squad.

According to John P. Lohn, in his book, They Ruled the Pool: The 100 Greatest Swimmers in History, Tsuruta deserves recognition as one of the all-time greats.

Tsuruta captured the most prestigious medal of his career at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. In one of the most anticipated races of the early Olympic movement, Tsuruta battled Germany’s Erich Rademacher, the world-record holder. Ultimately, Tsuruta produced a comfortable victory, defeating his rival by nearly two seconds. Tsuruta and Rademacher were so far ahead of the rest of the world that the bronze medal was won with a time more than five seconds slower than Rademacher.

Like his fellow Olympians from Amsterdam, Tsuruta returned to Japan with little fanfare. He enrolled in Meiji University and went about becoming an even better swimmer, going on to set a world record in a competition in Kyoto in 1929. In 1932, he defeated his fellow countryman, Reizo Koike, in the 200-meter breaststroke at the Los Angeles Olympics to become the first Japanese to win back-to-back gold medals in consecutive Olympics.

As the International Swimming Hall of Fame put it when they inducted Tsuruta into their hall in 1968, “In the history of the modern Olympic Games, since 1896, only one man has repeated as gold medal winner in the 200 meter breaststroke.” Kosuke Kitajima went on to match that feat, not only in the 200-meters, but also in the 100-meter breaststroke in 2004 and 2008.

But Kitajima doesn’t have a bronze statue. In a park in Tsuruta’s hometown stands a symbol of one of Japan’s earliest international sports heroes. And like all heroic symbols, there is a plaque that includes a poem that reflects Tsuruta’s philosophy, a powerful reflection of Japanese values.

It’s not suffering.

It’s evidence you have yet to push yourself.

Doing so, it becomes second nature, an afterthought.

True suffering is just the beginning of knowing who you are.






Yoshiyuki Tsuruta’s statue in Kagoshima
Hitomi Kinue finishing second in 800 meters in Amsterdam in 1928
Kinue Hitomi (2nd L) of Japan competes in the Women’s 800m during the Amsterdam Olympic in August 1928 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. August 01, 1928| Bildnachweis: The Asahi Shimbun

In the 1920s, they were called the Women’s Olympic Games, a sporting event organized because Baron Pierre de Coubertin fiercely resisted the wholesale addition of women in his Olympic Games. The Second Women’s Olympic Games were held in Gotherberg, Sweden in 1926, in which there was one Japanese representative – Kinue Hitomi .

Hitomi was entered in several athletic events: the running long jump, the standing broad jump, the discus throw, the 100-yard dash, as well as the 60- and 250-meter dashes. And not only did Hitomi break the world record in the long jump, as is explained in the book, Japanese Women and Sport: Beyond Baseball and Sumo, by Robin Kietlinski, “she stunned people the entire world over as she was awarded the prize for outstanding overall athlete of the Women’s Olympic Games.”

Overnight (figuratively in that age of snail mail and print journalism), Hitomi became a star in Japan. Japan’s flag flew proudly in Sweden thanks to the athletic prowess of the 19-year-old from Okayama Prefecture in Western Japan.

Hitomi Kinue stampAt the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, Japan had high hopes for Hitomi . Unfortunately, the organizers did not include the 200 meter race in its schedule, a sprint that Hitomi believed she had the best chance to win. But due to schedules and other factors, she entered herself in the 100-meter race. And in the semi-finals, Hitomi was eliminated. She missed entering the finals by a fraction of a second and was in serious trouble of returning to Japan with nothing to show for it. As Kietlinski explained, the discus throw had already ended, the high jump was simply too competitive, and the 4X100 relay required three more teammates.

There was one possibility left – the 800-meter footrace. It was a new distance, so Hitomi and probably everyone else thought anyone had a chance. So Hitomi pleaded with her coach to run in this race. Kietlinski explains that the coach told her not to sprint at the beginning, that she needed to better pace herself in this longer distance. But Hitomi’s instincts took over, and she sprinted to first at the half-way mark. Then she faded as runner after runner passed her, falling to seventh. Kietlinski describes the amazing comeback:

As Hitomi began to feel her dreams of becoming Japan’s first female Olympic medalists slip away, she remembered something her coach had told her again and again – to use her arms when her legs were tired. In the grainy video footage of the race, one can actually see the moment at which Hitomi remembers this advice, as her arms suddenly gain power and she begins pumping them higher than eye level. Through her mental and physical exhaustion, Hitomi managed to regain the ground she had lost after the first lap, and in the final straightaway (the last 50-meters of the race) she pulled ahead of several runners to finish second overall in a time of 2 minutes, 17 seconds. This time broke the standing world record for that distance by nearly five seconds.

With her silver medal in the 800-meters, Hitomi became Japan’s first female Olympic medalist. And she returned to Japan as a hero. But Hitomi could not escape one perception – she was a women who was unlike other women in her home country. She was taller (169 cm) and heavier (54 kilos) than most women in Japan, and despite how proud the average Japanese was about Hitomi’s accomplishments, they also didn’t mind chuckling about whether she was a man or woman.

Hitomi Kinue taller than average
Kinue Hitomi – as you can see, taller than average.

Kietlinski uncovered this interview of Hitomi in a popular women’s magazine, Fujin Sekai. In the excerpt of this July, 1929 article, “Miss Hitomi Kinue and the Question of Womanhood”, Kietlinski highlights what society’s expectations were for women in the 1920s. You must be warned. Even men who give little regard to diversity issues today may find this interview cringe-worthy.

Fujin Sekai (FS): Since women’s sports have become popular I have noticed the average height of women has grown somewhat…And may I ask your weight?

Hitomi Kinue (HK): Fourteen kan, four hundred momme (about 53 or 54 kilograms).

FS: Well, that is a bit surprising! So, since that is about the same weight as most men, haven’t people said that they are doubtful that you are really a woman?

HK: Well, when I was overseas nobody had such suspicions, but I heard this rumor upon my return to Japan.

FS: Ha ha ha! Well wouldn’t that be funny if you were really a man! It has a smack of mystery – this could be the main plot twist if I were to write a mystery novel. It might really baffle people, ha ha ha!

HK: I’m embarrassed.