takeichi-nishi-and-uranus

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.

kentaro-kawatsu-toshio-irie-and-masaji-kiyokaw-1932
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:

chuhei-nambu-1932

yoshiyuki-tsuruta-winning-gold-in-1932
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.

yoshiyuki-tsuruta-1928
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

 

statue-yoshiyuki-tsuruta
Yoshiyuki Tsuruta’s statue in Kagoshima