When the 293 Japanese athletes compete in the London Games that start Friday, they will represent a century of the participation in the Summer Olympics, starting with marathoner Shiso Kanakuri and sprinter Yahiko Mishima in Stockholm in 1912.
Here are some questions and answers on Japan’s history in the Summer Games:
Who bagged Japan’s first medal?
The first medals — silvers — went to tennis players Ichiya Kumagai and Seiichiro Kashio in the men’s doubles at the Antwerp Games in 1920. Kumagai also silvered in the men’s singles. Kanakuri failed to complete the marathon and Mishima didn’t make it to the finals.
Kumagai “is left-handed, which made his peculiar shots all the harder to handle,” Bill Tilden, one of the top tennis players of the time, wrote in his book “The Art of Lawn Tennis.”
Who won Japan’s first gold?
That honor went to Mikio Oda, who won the triple jump at the Amsterdam Games in 1928 with a record 15.21 meters. He was also the first Asian to win an individual gold medal.
“Interest (in the Olympic Games) among Japanese was not big,” Oda would say in an interview with the Asahi Shimbun later in life. “However, I knew the Olympics news may be reported in Japan. Yet I never had an idea about my responsibility to Japan.”
Oda died in 1998, but his milestone jump was commemorated with a 15.21-meter flagpole at the Olympic stadium in Tokyo, site of the 1964 Games.
The first Japanese female gold medalist was Hideko Maehata, who won the 200-meter breaststroke in the 1936 Berlin Games. The legendary radio broadcast of the match, in which the announcer yelled “Maehata ganbare!” (Go, Maehata!) more than 20 times, was later made into a record and became a best-seller.
How has Japan fared in the Summer Games since then?
Japanese athletes and teams have won a combined 123 gold medals to date, good for 12th place. According to the Japanese Olympic Committee, 35 were won by judoka, 28 by gymnasts and 24 by wrestlers.
The United States leads all countries with 929 golds.
In the 2004 Athens Games and the 1964 Tokyo Games, Japan bagged its biggest gold haul at 16. In the 2008 Beijing Games, Japan won nine golds, six silvers and 10 bronzes.
How well is Japan expected to do in London?
Japan, which will compete in 24 events, hopes to win 26 medals, including eight golds, according to predictions by trading house Goldman Sachs.
In its report “The Olympics and Economics 2012,” published earlier this month, the megabank made projections based on past records, population, economic growth and other factors.
“Our forecasts reflect two very clear patterns revealed in our analysis. First, countries with superior growth environments and higher incomes are expected to win more medals, and, second, there is also a marked host effect that will likely bump up the number of medals attained by Great Britain,” the report said.
The team predicted that the U.S. will lead all countries again with 37 golds and 110 medals overall.
The JOC hopes Japan will be among the top five countries in gold medals won. Former judo gold medalist Haruki Uemura, who will serve as “chef de mission” for Japan, said the team could win 15 to 18 golds.
Which athletes should we watch out for?
Female wrestler Saori Yoshida is hunting for her third gold and breaststroke swimmer Kosuke Kitajima is looking for his fifth. And fresh after winning the World Cup in 2011, the women’s soccer team now has its eye on the center platform.
Female marathoners Naoko Takahashi and Mizuki Noguchi won consecutive gold medals at Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004, respectively, but the streak ended in Beijing in 2008. Risa Shigetomo, Ryoko Kizaki and Yoshimi Ozaki will try to reclaim the gold for Japanese female marathoners in London.
Javelin thrower Yukifumi Murakami will serve as the captain of Team Japan, while Yoshida will be the flag bearer.
The youngest member of the team is breaststroke swimmer Kanako Watanabe, 15. The oldest is Hiroshi Hoketsu, 71, who will compete in the equestrian team dressage. Hoketsu first appeared in the 1964 Tokyo Games.
Who are some of Japan’s legendary Olympians?
The 1964 women’s volleyball team, known as Toyo no Majo (The Oriental Witches), beat the Soviet Union to win the gold at the Tokyo Games. The team only lost one set in the five games they played. The final game garnered a 66.8 percent TV rating — the highest-ever for a sports broadcast in Japan to this day.
Soccer player Kunishige Kamamoto also gained legendary status after helping Japan’s squad win bronze at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Kamamoto led all players with seven goals in the tournament and became the top scorer. During a time when the country still didn’t have a professional soccer league, Japan beat France 3-1 in the quarterfinals. The team was then crushed by Hungary 5-0 in the semis but won its final match against Mexico 2-0. Kamamoto was later elected to the Upper House after retiring from sports.
Two-time judo gold medalist Ryoko Tani, wrestler Hiroshi Hase, who competed in the 1984 Los Angeles Games, and gymnast Kiyoko Ono, who won the bronze in the 1964 Tokyo Games also went on to become politicians.
Former Prime Minister Taro Aso participated in the 1976 Montreal Games as a member of the clay target shooting team.
Has the JOC faced any criticism?
In a 2010 Asahi Shimbun opinion article, Hiroyasu Shimizu, who won the gold in speed skating at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, criticized the JOC for misusing its budget. Japan is sending 293 athletes to London but 221 executives from the JOC.
“Many JOC executives are traveling to the games” with the athletes, forcing coaches and trainers to be left behind in Japan, he said.
“The budget is being spent the wrong way,” he said.
How might the London Games help the economy?
A report released in March by Dentsu Innovation Institute said any windfall from London would only amount to around 70 percent of the economic benefits reaped from the 2008 Beijing Games.
Still, the report said that about ¥800 billion in spending will be related to the Olympics, including for wide-screen digital TVs and other electronics, Olympics-related goods and travel expenses.
But experts say the replacement phase for TV sets peaked shortly after the national conversion to digital terrestrial broadcasting last year.
Olympics-related spending may also suffer from the hefty eight-hour time zone differential with the U.K., which will prevent many events from being televised during normal viewing hours in Japan.
The elimination of some events that are popular in Japan, including baseball and softball, may also sour public interest in the games.
When will Japan next host the Summer Olympics?
Japan was chosen to host the 1940 Games but the event was canceled due to the war. Tokyo was later chosen to be the first Olympic host in Asia, staging the games in 1964. The event is seen as a turning point in Japanese history because it promoted the development of new highways and upgraded infrastructure in the capital.
Since then, Japanese host-city candidates have failed in their bids. Nagoya lost the 1988 games to Seoul and Osaka lost the 2008 games to Beijing. Tokyo bid to host the 2016 Olympics but was trumped by Rio de Janeiro.
But Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara refuses to give up. Tokyo is bidding to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, competing against Madrid and Istanbul.
The winning city will be revealed in September 2013.
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