With less than one week to go before the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, it feels appropriate to celebrate Japan’s participation in the Games by looking back at some of the country’s most memorable moments over the years, including some surprise team victories and heroic individual performances.
It all began for Japan back in Stockholm in 1912. The country has been a part of all but two of the events since — missing out in 1948 (along with Germany) due to its role in World War II, and boycotting Moscow 1980 in protest against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
Japan has won 439 medals at the Summer Games in total, the first of which came in 1920. Eleven years earlier, judo founder Jigoro Kano began his role on the International Olympic Committee.
Kano set up athletics trials for the Stockholm Games and, in 1912, Japan became the first Asian country to appear at the Olympics. Just two athletes, Yahiko Mishima and Shizo Kanakuri, were selected to represent their nation at the Games.
Both athletes were already exhausted when they arrived in Sweden’s capital following a grueling 18-day journey by boat and the Trans-Siberian Railway. The two men failed to silence doubters who felt the gap between the West and East was too wide. Mishima finished last in his qualifying heats for the 100-meter and 200-meter races before pulling out of the 400-meter final due to injury.
Kanakuri, meanwhile, failed to finish the marathon in one of the most remarkable stories in Olympic history. Running through the neighborhood of Tureberg, he was reportedly fading in and out of consciousness. After noticing people drinking orange juice in a garden, he decided to join them to slake his thirst and, as a result, forfeited the race.
Without informing officials, Kanakuri left for Japan the following day. He was subsequently reported in Sweden as a missing person. Despite appearing in later Olympics, word never got back to Sweden and, 54 years later, officials tracked him down and invited the then-75-year-old geography teacher to complete the marathon. Accepting the offer, he went over the finish line 54 years, eight months, six days, five hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds after beginning the race.
His story was told in the 2019 NHK drama “Idaten: Tokyo Orimupikku-banashi” (“The Epic Marathon to Tokyo”). A year earlier, Yoshihide Fujiwara and Yoshio Nabeta released “The Tale of Shizo Kanakuri: Japan’s First Olympic Runner” in manga form.
“I wrote about him because he was a pioneer for future Japanese Olympians and he helped to create the (multi-stage relay) ekiden race,” Nabeta says. “In Stockholm, he was exhausted from the journey and lacked experience running on roads. There was also the heat that killed Portuguese runner Francisco Lazaro. Coming home, Kanakuri felt motivated rather than disappointed.”
Kanakuri also competed at the 1920 Paris Games when Japan secured its first medals. Tennis player Ichiya Kumagae won a silver in the men’s singles competition and also in the doubles with partner Seiichiro Kashio.
The country’s first gold arrived eight years later in Amsterdam thanks to Mikio Oda’s leap of 15.21 meters in the triple jump. Returning to Japan, the only welcoming party he received was at a restaurant in his hometown in Hiroshima.
“Japanese people weren’t overly interested in the Olympics at the time,” Oda told Asahi Shimbun journalist Kazuo Chujo shortly before Oda’s passing in 1998. “When I won, I didn’t become a star. Only some people acknowledged it as a wonderful achievement.”
Oda wasn’t the only Japanese track and field athlete to make the podium that day. The country’s first female Olympian, Kinue Hitomi, captured a silver medal in the 800-meter race. Although praised for her achievement back home, she still had to deal with inappropriate questions about her weight as well as whether she was really a woman.
“The reaction Kinue got in Japan was very sexist by today’s standards and no doubt embarrassing,” says sports journalist Roy Tomizawa. “Women still face sexism today, but there’s a greater level of understanding about diversity and the ways in which we need to be more inclusive.”
Japan’s other gold in Amsterdam in 1928 came in the pool with Yoshiyuki Tsuruta winning the 200-meter breaststroke. He then defended his crown in Los Angeles four years later. Aside from Takeichi Nishi (equestrian) and Chuhei Nambu (triple jump), all of Japan’s winners in 1932 were victorious in the pool.
“That was the Games where Japanese athletes first caused a sensation,” says David Wallechinsky, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians.
“Their swimmers won five of the six men’s events and added six more medals. Kusuo Kitamura, who was just 14, remains the youngest male to win a swimming gold. Behind him is Yasuji Miyazaki, who picked up two golds at the same Olympics.”
As for female swimmers, Hideko Maehata missed out on gold by 0.1 second in the 200-meter breaststroke. Four years later in Berlin, she became the first Japanese woman to win an Olympic gold.
Japan secured 18 medals in Germany in 1936, including another triple jump gold (Naoto Tajima) as well as a silver and a bronze in the pole vault. Friends Shuhei Nishida and Sueo Oe reportedly refused to take their last jumps as they wanted to share the honors.
Nishida was given the silver, but when they returned to Japan, the two men had the medals cut in half and welded together. They became known as the “medals of friendship.”
Japan’s next appearance at the Olympics came in Finland 16 years later as the 1940 Games, originally scheduled for Tokyo and then Helsinki, were canceled due to the outbreak of hostilities in World War II. The 1944 Games were also canceled due to the war and Japan was subsequently banned from the London Games in 1948.
Wrestler Shohachi Ishii became Japan’s first postwar gold medalist in 1952. At the same games in Helsinki, gymnast Takashi Ono made his Olympic debut, finishing third in the men’s vault. He went on to become Japan’s most decorated Olympian, capturing 13 medals, including five golds.
Ono was part of a golden generation of male Japanese gymnasts that flourished between 1956 and 1976, winning 24 gold medals between them. Five came at the 1964 Games in Tokyo.
The first Olympics to be staged in Asia, the Tokyo Games were also the first to include judo. Restricted to men only, there were four weight categories. Japanese judoka won all the lower divisions.
Expected to do the same in the open category, Akio Kaminaga suffered a shock loss to the Netherlands’ Anton Geesink. Stopping his coaches from running on the mats to celebrate, the Dutchman earned the respect of the Japanese people.
Kokichi Tsuburaya became Japan’s first medalist in the marathon (Sohn Kee-chung won a gold for Japan in 1936 but the athlete was Korean and ran under the colonial rule of the Japanese Empire during his career). Overtaken by Britain’s Basil Heatley on the final lap, Tsuburaya said he’d “committed an inexcusable blunder.” Tragically, four years later, he took his own life. He was found dead in his dormitory room holding on to his bronze medal.
The highlight for home fans in 1964 was the final game of the women’s volleyball, a competition also making its Olympic debut. Coached by former platoon commander Hirobumi Daimatsu, Japan took on a physically stronger Soviet Union side.
The “Oriental Witches” overcame the three-time world champions to win in straight sets in front of Princess Michiko. To this day, it remains the most watched sporting event in Japanese television history.
“I remember this huge cheer at the final point,” says “Tokyo Junkie” author Robert Whiting, who has also published a book on the Games titled “The Two Tokyo Olympics: 1964/2020.” “I was in a Ginza hostess bar and it was a full house with everyone watching the television. The coiffed and perfumed ladies at the club — normally the picture of composure — cheered and wept in an abandon I’d never seen in them before.”
Whiting describes the 1964 Olympics as being “like a big festival,” particularly the closing ceremony. One memory that sticks in his mind is when New Zealand long-distance runner Bill Baillie blew a kiss to Emperor Hirohito. The usually shy and introverted emperor surprised everyone by tipping his bowler hat to the athlete.
Tomizawa, author of “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan,” believes the Olympics unified the nation in ways not seen before or since.
“The only times these days that people come together to share a moment on such a scale is when there’s a horrific tragedy such as the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami,” he says. “Just 19 years earlier, the country was physically and economically devastated. It was a spectacular recovery.”
On the mats
Sawao Kato turned 17 during the 1964 Games. Watching from home, he was most impressed by gymnast Yukio Endo. “His legs,” he says, were “so beautiful and sharp, they were like Japanese swords.”
Endo was the first man from Japan to win gold in the individual all-around event. Four years later in Mexico, Kato became the second. He went on to capture eight gold medals, more than any other Japanese Olympian.
“Each medal has its own story and memory,” Kato says. “It’s difficult to choose a favorite but, if I had to, it would be the first one in the all-around competition.”
Kato’s final Olympics was in Montreal in 1976 where he won two more titles, including a team gold. It was Japan’s fifth successive triumph.
Neck and neck with the Soviet Union, Shun Fujimoto faced an eight-foot dismount on the rings. Unbeknown to those watching, he’d broken a kneecap during the floor routine. Remarkably he scored a personal best of 9.7, though the fall dislocated his already broken knee.
“There was no time to feel pity for him,” Kato recalls. “The competition was going on and we were walking a tightrope. Nobody mentioned the injury or uttered the word ‘heroic.’ Everyone just got on with their jobs.”
Another gallant figure for Japan was judoka Yasuhiro Yamashita. Between 1977 and his retirement in 1985, he went on an unprecedented run of 204 matches without defeat. At the peak of his powers, though, he was unable to compete at the Olympics as Japan boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games.
Four years later, he tore a calf muscle in a preliminary bout. Incredibly, he managed to limp through to the final. Egypt’s Mohamed Ali Rashwan chose not to aim for his right leg and won an award from the International Fair Play Committee. Yamashita took home the gold.
Between 1968 and 1988, Japan won 47 gold medals. Most came in gymnastics, judo, wrestling and swimming, though there were also triumphs for the men’s and women’s volleyball teams, shooter Takeo Kamachi and a second gold for weightlifter Yoshinobu Miyake, who in 1968 stood on the podium alongside bronze medal-winning brother Yoshiyuki (Yoshiyuki’s daughter, Hiromi, won two medals in the 2010s).
In the first three games of the Heisei Era Japan captured just 11 gold medals, nine of which came in judo. One of the exceptions was Kyoko Iwasaki, who, at 14 years and six days, became the youngest Olympic swimming champion in history.
The other was Naoko Takahashi, the first Japanese marathon runner to top the podium at the Games. Four years later, Mizuki Noguchi became the second.
At the Athens Games in 2004, Japan won 16 gold medals, more than the previous four Olympics put together. This included two in women’s wrestling, which was making its debut.
Winners Kaori Icho and Saori Yoshida went on to capture a combined total of seven golds, with the former becoming the first female in any sport to be crowned Olympic champion in an individual event four games in a row.
Another headline maker in Greece was Tadahiro Nomura who won his third consecutive gold, the only judoka in history to do so.
In swimming, Kosuke Kitajima popularized the phrase “chō-kimochi-ii” (“It feels so good”) after winning the 100-meter breaststroke. He topped the podium four times in Athens and Beijing.
One of the most memorable occasions for Japanese fans at the 2008 Olympics came in the softball final. The American team were strong favorites, having won every gold medal since the sport debuted in 1996. However, Japan upset the odds to win 3-1. Yukiko Ueno, who threw an incredible 413 pitches in two days, was the undoubted star of the show.
Other highlights during the Heisei Era included the men’s football side defeating a Brazilian team featuring the likes of Roberto Carlos, Rivaldo and Ronaldo in Atlanta, surprise silver medals for the men’s 4 x 100-meter relay team in Beijing and Rio, and Ryota Murata becoming Japan’s 100th gold medalist in London. He also became the country’s second boxer to win an Olympic title after Takao Sakurai (1964).
In Rio de Janeiro in 2018, Japan won a record 41 medals. That included another gymnastics team triumph with Kohei Uchimura leading the way. The man widely described as the greatest gymnast of all time is set to feature in his fourth Olympics in Tokyo. He won’t be able to match either Ono or Kato’s medal haul but will be aiming to reach the podium for an eighth time.
“He’s chosen to focus on the horizontal bar exercise,” Kato says. “His body positions are correct and his swing moves are beautiful. I’m looking forward to watching him perform.”
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