Fuji Film 1_Hoisting of the 97 participating nations' flags

It was minutes before the commencement of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the flags of 93 nations rising into a clear blue sky. The above photo was snapped and compiled into a set of photos by Fuji Film commemorating the XVIII Olympiad’s opening ceremony, which began at 2pm on Saturday, October 10, 1964, 53 years ago today.

Fuji Film 2_Japanese Delegation Entering the Stadium

The athletes would have to deal with cold and wet conditions for much of the Tokyo Olympics, but that day, the 5,500 athletes marched into the National Stadium under perfect conditions. As tradition has it, the host nation’s team marches into the Stadium last. Expectations were high for Team Japan, with a goal set of 15 gold medals. They actually achieved 16, third best after the US and USSR.

Fuji Film 3_IOC President Avery Brundage's Welcome

The President of the Organizing Committee for the Games, Daigoro Yasukawa, can be seen above introducing the International Olympic Committee President, Avery Brundage. In the official report which offered a post mortem of the Games from an operational perspective, Yasukawa expresses gratitude to the people of Japan.

…it was because Japanese in all walks and interests of life worked together in close and harmonious cooperation—all with one basic goal—that these Games might be an unqualified success. This spirit permeated into the Organizing Committee, and was to be found also in the sports associations and the many cooperating organizations involved. This surely is the only factor that enabled success in our organization efforts.

Fuji Film 4_Emperor Hirohito opens the Games

At the end of the Second World War, in the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the Emperor’s voice was heard over the radio for the first time by his Japanese subjects. The Emperor asked his people to surrender, to “bear the unbearable, and endure the unendurable.” Nineteen years later, the Emperor is presiding over the Olympics, an event symbolizing peace and unity, in a city that was unrecognizable from its bombed-out shell in 1945. As noticed in this Japan Times article, the scene depicted in this photo may have been striking to many Japanese as the only person standing in the stadium was the Emperor – a role reversal of sorts in a very different time.

Fuji Film 5_Hoisting of the Olympic Flag

After the Emperor declared the XVIII Olympiad open, the Olympic Flag was brought into the stadium by Japanese self-defense forces, the embroidered satin flag initially brought in by the Mayor of Rome, the site of the XVII Olympiad. The flag was raised exactly 15.21 meters into the air. That was the distance Mikio Oda hopped, skipped and jumped to win the gold medal in the triple jump at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, Japan’s first ever gold medal.

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Naoto Tajima at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

There was a time when the Japanese were seen as great jumpers. In the years between the great world wars of the 20th century, Japanese men in particular were frequent medalists in the triple jump, long jump and pole vault. Shuhei Nishida won silver in the pole vault at the 1932 and 1936 Olympics. Sueo Oe won bronze in the pole vault in 1936 as well.

Naoto Tajima won the gold medal in the triple jump in 1936, making it the third consecutive Olympics that a Japanese won the hop, skip and jump – Mikio Oda won it in 1928 in Amsterdam, while Chuhei Nambu took gold at the 1932 LA Games.

Tajima may have won gold in the triple jump, but he enjoyed his bronze medal in the long jump even more. He is said to have considered the triple jump just a simple matter of technique while the long jump was more of a profession, something requiring a more serious, in-depth approach. Perhaps also significantly, Tajima’s long jump competition at the 1936 Olympics was one of historical significance, not just in sports but also geo-politically.

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Bronze medalist Naoto Tajima, gold medalist Jesse Owens, and silver medalist, Luz Long at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, medal ceremony of the long jump competition.

Tajima took a relatively unnoticed bronze to Jesse Owens‘ gold and Luz Long‘s silver in the long jump. Owens had already won gold in the 100 meters, winning the title “fastest man in the world” in front of Adolph Hitler. A day later, on a day Owens would have to run a heat in the 200-meters race, he took on a strong German team in the long jump. In this oft-told tale, the battle for gold came down to Owens and Long. While Owens led throughout the competition, Long stayed close behind, as you can see in the round-by-round details here.

In the end, Owens won with a stunning 8.06 meter leap which set an Olympic record, and that Long could not match. Long put his arm around Owens after the American’s victory, creating an image worldwide that encouraged those who believed a world of peace and brotherhood was possible. But while we may forget there were other competitors, we should be reminded there was a third person on the medal stand – Naoto Tajima of Iwakuni, Yamaguchi.

His medal in the triple jump and the long jump at the 1936 Berlin Games were the last for a Japanese in Athletics, until Naoko Takahashi won the women’s marathon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

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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.”

Here are links to the entire series on 1940:

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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.

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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.

苦しいうちはダメ

鍛錬不足の証拠

くるしさに慣れ、平気になって

本当の苦しさ探究が始まる

 

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Yoshiyuki Tsuruta’s statue in Kagoshima

Mikio Oda competing at AmsterdamMikio Oda (織田 幹雄) is the first Japanese (in fact, Asian) to win a medal, taking gold in the triple jump in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Oda first competed in the Olympics in Paris in 1924, where he finished sixth in the triple jump. Hopping, skipping and jumping to a personal best of 14.35 meters gave Oda the motivation to try again in 1928.

When he took off for Amsterdam, he joined his fellow members of the Waseda University track team and spent two weeks on the Trans-Siberian railway to make their way through Europe. Oda was disappointed with the food, finding it expensive and not to his taste, and bored with the long trip particularly because he couldn’t train on the train.

Oda portrait Asahi

Oda eventually made it to Amsterdam, and was one of the favorites in a field of 24 competitors. It appears that Oda was a confident person. Part of the reason was because he was the Far East Champion through much of the 1920s. Another reason was that on the day of the competition, the track team supervisor, a man named Takeuchi said out loud, “Today is a lucky day.” As Oda explained in an interview conducted likely in the 1990s, “this utterance was quite suggestive for me and I could be confident that I can win.”

His first jump was strong at 15.13 meters, and Oda was particularly confident since the two people he thought were his major competitors, Ville Tuulos of Finland and Nick Winter of Australia, fouled in their first attempt. Oda said that he believed the soft grounds due to rain had made Tuulos and Winter nervous. Oda eventually achieved a competition best 15.21 meters, doing so three times, while Lee Casey, the silver medalist from the United States could only come as close as 15.17 meters.

While Oda’s achievement was the first time the Olympic Games became known to the Japanese, Oda was not celebrated when he returned from Amsterdam.

“Japanese people at the time were not overly interested in the Olympics,” said Oda. “Therefore I was lucky. I didn’t have to be nervous. Interest to Olympics grew after the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, and to its highest at Berlin in 1936. When I won, I didn’t become a star. Newspaper issued a special edition. There was no TV and instant communication systems of today were not yet developed yet. There was no homecoming party. Waseda University also held no party. I think that was just the natures of sports in the public’s mind at that time. The only welcoming party was at my birthplace Kaitaichi-machi in Hiroshima.”

After Amsterdam, Oda graduated from Waseda and joined the Asahi