FAMOUS JAPANESE OLYMPIC ATHLETES
Japanese athletes at 1912 games
Japan's first Olympics Japan used to be a powerhouse in the men’s triple jump of all things. It won three straight gold in the event from 1928 to 1936. Mikio Oda was the first Japanese to win an Olympic gold medal. He won the triple jump at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam. Kazuya Kumagi was the first Japanese to win a medal. He won silvers at Antwerp in 1920 in the men’s singles and doubles tennis.
A leg injury kept Chuhei Nambu from wining a medal in his specialty, the long jump, in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles but he came back two days later to win a gold medal and set a world record in the triple jump. Tajiama’s gold was Japan’s last in track and field until Naoko Takahashi won the women’s marathon in Sydney on 2000.
Even though Japanese athletes Shunhei Nishida and Sueo Oe tied for second place in the pole vault in the 1936 Olympics, the silver medal was inexplicably given to Nishida and the bronze to Oe. After returning home to Japan, Nishida later recalled, "we joined half of the silver medal with half the bronze medal, which we would both keep. This made us very famous, for these medal were called the Medals of Eternal Friendship."
A Japanese Imperial Army officer Takeichi Nishi won a gold medal in the equestrian show jumping event at the 1932 Olympics. A danshaku (“hereditary noble”), Nishi was known as Baron Nishi while in Los Angeles, where became part of the social circle led by the actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. In 1936 while trying to defend his gold medal he fell of his horse---an act some said was done to foster better relations with Germany. Nishi was killed in the battle at Iwo Jima in World War II and was a character in the film Letters from Iwo Jima.
In 1956, Turuji Kogake set a world record in the triple jump (16.48 meters) just before the Melbourne Olympics but suffered an ankle injury and could only manage 8th place in Melbourne.
Other famous Japanese Olympics athletes include Yukio Kagaya, the leader of the "Hinomauro Hikotai” Squadron that swept the gold, silver and bronze medals in the 70-meter jump In 1972 Winter Games in Sapporo; and male archer Hiroshi Yamamoto who won a bronze medal in Los Angeles in 1984 and appeared in five Olympics, the last in Athens in 2004.
Links in this Website: SPORTS IN JAPAN (Click Sports, Recreation, Pets ) Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; OLYMPICS AND JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE OLYMPIC ATHLETES Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE MARATHON RUNNERS AND TRACK ATHLETES Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE OLYMPIC SWIMMERS Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE OLYMPIC GYMNASTS AND WRESTLERS Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JUDO, JAPAN AND THE OLYMPICS Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; WINTER OLYMPICS AND JAPANESE ATHLETES Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE FIGURE SKATERS Factsanddetails.com/Japan
Good Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article on Japan at the Olympics Wikipedia ; Medal Winners in Olympics.org olympic.org/en ; Japanese Olympic Committee joc.or.jp/english ; Essay on Japan’s Rebirth at the 1964 Olympics aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Database on Olympic Athletes databaseolympics.com ;
Son Ki-jung, Korean Marathon Runner
In the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Korean athletes were forced to compete under the Japanese flag. One of Korea's most celebrated nationalist heros, Son Ki-jung won the gold medal and set an Olympics record of 2 hours, 29 minutes 19.2 seconds, in the marathon running under a Japanese name, Ketei Son.
Son was born in the North Pyongan Province in Korea but was educated at Meiji University in Japan. He was already the world record holder before the Olympics began. During his stay in Berlin he tried to let the world know he was Korean. In registers and documents he listed his nationality as Korean and even made a little picture of Korea next to his signature. After the race, one Korean newspaper outwitted Japanese authorities by running a photograph of Son with the Rising Sun airbrushed from the victory photograph.
Koreans gathered around the radio to listen to reports of the marathon. When the winner was announced as Kietei Son of Japan, Koreans were very upset. After South Korea won independence. Son was treated like a national hero. He received a number of national medals and was selected tp carry the Korean flag in the Opening Ceremonies when Korea appeared in its first Olympics as an independent nation in 1948. Son’s pictures have been placed on posters to arouse patriotism. He was the featured torch bearer at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. He died in 2002 at the age of 90.
Hwang Young-cho won the gold medal in the Olympic marathon in Barcelona in 1992, 56 years to the day after Son won his, and the 80-year-old Son was in the stands at Barcelona to witness it. According to the Complete Book of the Olympics by David Wallechinsky, Hwang returned to Seoul and gave his medal to Son, who then said, “Now I can die without any regrets.”
Famous Japanese Gymnasts
Among the greatest individual Olympic gymnasts of all time are Sawao Kato and Akinori Nakayama. Kato won three gold medals in 1968, three in 1972 and two in 1976. Nakayama won four gold medals in 1968 and two in 1972. Kato won 12 Olympic medals---8 gold, 3 silver and 1 bronze---placing him at No. 12 on the all time medals list and 8th on the all time gold medal list
One of the most famous gymnastics stunt, the "moon," was invented by Mitsuo Tsukahara who used it to win a gold medal on the horizontal bar in the 1972 Olympics in Munich with a 9.9 score. The Tsukahara, also invented by Tsukahara, is a vaulting jump that is still done today that involves doing a cartwheel on the horse, followed by a turn and a backward somersault. This move revolutionized gymnastics. Tsukahara won a total of five gold medals and was regarded as the engine of the great Japanese gymnastics teams in the 1960s and 70s.
Kenji Gushiken won a gold medal in the individual all-around in men’s gymnastics at the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984. He was the coach of the 2008 gymnastic team in 2008.
Japanese Gymnast With a Broken Leg
At the Olympics in Montreal in 1972, Shun Fujimoto severally broke his knee during the floor exercise during the men’s team gymnastics competition. Even though the pain was excruciating he didn't want to let his team mates down so he continued competing.
Fujimoto had two events left. In the pommel horses he amazingly was able to swing his injured leg around and scored a 9.5 out of 10. Next was the rings, which finished with a dismount from eight feet of the floor. Fujimoto nailed his routine and finished with a flawlessly executed triple-somersault dismount.
When Fujimoto's feet hit the ground the pain sliced through him like a knife. He raised his arms and stood straight in a perfect finished, long enough to satisfy the judges, before collapsing. He was given a 9.7 the highest score ever recorded on the rings. The performances gave the Japanese team the gold medal over Russia by four tenths of a point in one of the closest team competitions ever.
Famous Japanese Female Olympic Athletes
Hideko Machata was the first Japanese woman to win an Olympic gold medal. She won the 200 meter breaststroke at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.
The first Japanese woman to win a medal was Kinue Hitomi. She won a silver medal in the women’s 800 meters in Amsterdam in 1928. It would be 64 years before a Japanese woman would win another track and field medal (a silver in the women’s marathon at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona). Kinue was the only Japanese woman on the team. She entered the 100 meters, 800 meters, discus and long jump. Her participation in the 800 came about only after she failed to make the finals in the 100. In the final of the 800 she tied gold medal winner, German runner Lina Radke, but was given the silver. Afterwards the runner were so exhausted the women’s 800 was not run again until 1960.
One of Japan's most beloved athletes is Midori Ito, a tiny 145-centimeter-tall figure skater who known for her extraordinary jumps. She carried the Japanese flag at the Olympics in Nagano in 1998 and won a silver medal in the 1992 Winter Olympics at Albertville, France, but had been expected to win the gold medal.
Japanese Athletes at Tokyo in 1964
1964 women's volleyball team Japan won 16 gold medal at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo: five gold medals each in wrestling and gymnastics, three in judo and one each in boxing, weightlifting and volleyball.
Marathoner Kokichi Tsuburaya seemed to have a silver medal locked in the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo when he was passed on the homestretch and finished third and got the bronze medal. He was so humiliated by the perceived defeat, which he felt was a let down to his country, he committed suicide four years later at the age of 27. He slashed his throat 10 months before the Olympics in Mexico City and left behind a note that said: "Dear Mother and Father, I am too tired to run any longer. Please forgive me.”
The Japanese women's volleyball team won the gold medal in 1964 and received worldwide attention for their training methods, which included repeatedly diving on hard wooden floors for hours, digging out spikes. The gold medal match with the Soviet Union was the second highest rated television show ever, at 66.8 percent, and the No. 1 rated sports show of all time in Japan. Volleyball is the only team sport in which Japan has won gold medal. The women won again in 1976 in Montreal. The men won in 1972 in Munich.
Japanese Ping Pong Players
Japanese women won a bronze medals for the fifth straight time in the world team table tennis championships at a tournaments in Moscow. Japanese men won bronze medals at the 2008 and 2010 world team table tennis championships. In many of these events but the men and women get as far as the semifinals, where they are beaten by Chinese teams.
He Zhili was one of the top women's table tennis players in China in the 1980s. After marrying a Japanese player she began playing for Japan under the name Chire Koyma. "The Chinese feel bitter toward me," she told Time on the eve of her appearance at the Olympics in Sydney in 2000.
One of the best known athletes in Japan is Ai Fukuhara, better known as Ai-chan, a ping pong player who became a national champion when she was barely into her teens and was the youngest female to compete in a ping pong competitions at the Olympics (she was 15 when she appeared at the Olympics in Athens in 2004). . She has received media attention since she was around three and is known for the high pitched cries she makes every time she hits the ball.
Fukuhara was ranked in the top 10 in the world in 2007 in women’s table tennis. She lost to world No 1 player Zhang Yining of China in the forth round at the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, failing to get a medal. In January 2010, Ai-chan defeated World No. 1 player Liu Shiwen. Ai-chan was ranked 21st in the world at the time.
Fukuhara plays in China, speaks fluent Chinese and is very popular there. Know by the Chinese name of Fuyian Ai, she was the flagbearer for Japan in the Opening Ceremonies. When she arrived at Beijing airport she was mobbed by Chinese fans. One fan told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “I like her because she’s so cute and modest.” When Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Japan in 2008 he played a few points with Fukuhara.
Ai Fukuhara was ranked 8th in the world in 2011. In 1999 she set a record at the time of being the youngest player to win a singles match in the national table tennis championships. She won two matches at the event. In 2011, she won a bronze mdeal in the mixed doubles at the world championships, qualifying her for her third Olympics, in London, the first Japanese female player to do so.
In January 2011 two ten-year-olds---Miu Hirano and Mima Ito---broke Ai Fukuhara’s record of being the youngest player to win a singles match in the national table tennis championships.
Japan’s Satoko Suetsuna and Miyuki Maeda won a medal in women’s doubles at the world badminton championship in London in August 2011.
Ai Fukuhara and Japan’s Silver Medal at the 2012 London Olympics
Japan won its first-ever medal in table tennis Tuesday, but failed to snare the gold after being beaten by China 3-0 in the women's team final. The women's table tennis team of Ai Fukuhara, Kasumi Ishikawa and Sayaka Hirano made history by beating Singapore the Sunday's semifinal, but China was too strong in the final. With Fukuhara and Ishikawa losing their singles matches 3-1 and 3-0, respectively, the Japanese team's path to the gold became more difficult. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, August 9, 2012]
For Fukuhara, the medal fulfilled a promise. In May 2011, she visited Sendai--where she was born and raised--with the bronze medal that she won in the mixed doubles at the World Table Tennis Championships. There she declared, "I'll definitely bring back a medal from the Olympics." As a player who has greatly contributed to promoting Japan's table tennis as well as one of the foremost figures in the Japanese sporting world, Fukuhara will certainly continue to be involved in a wide range of activities. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, August 9, 2012]
AP reported: “Ai Fukuhara says winning her country's first Olympic medal in table tennis was a huge boost but Japan still has a long way to go to catch up with China. Fukuhara spent years honing her skills in China and knows better than anyone what it will take to close the gap with the table tennis superpower. "I don't think of China as a rival but more of an ideal or goal to strive for," Fukuhara said Tuesday. "To get close to China first we have to improve against rivals like Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore." [Source: Associated Press, August 15, 2012]
Japan beat Singapore 3-0 in the semifinals. Japanese table tennis darling Ai Fukuhara got the team on a roll by scoring a surprise win over Singapore's top player Feng Tianwei--bronze medalist in the singles competition of these Games--in the first singles match 3-1. Up-and-coming Kasumi Ishikawa followed with a 3-0 win over Wang Yuegu. Ishikawa then teamed up with Sayaka Hirano to defeat the Singaporean pair 3-0 and wrap up the victory. [Ibid]
Ishikawa and Hirano hugged each other and shed tears of delight the moment they clinched their victory. Fukuhara, who had been cheering the pair from the team's bench, covered her face with her hands and did not move for several seconds. She then joined the pair to share the joy of securing a spot in the final. Fukuhara, 23, herself was amazed by her victory. She had only beaten Feng once in nine previous encounters. "I've been defeated [by Feng] a number of times so I can't believe my victory even now," she said. "It's hard to predict what will happen in the Olympic Games." Ishikawa, 19, could not stop tears rolling down her cheeks during an interview with a Japanese TV reporter. "I played my best game of this tournament," she said. [Ibid]
Hugely popular in Japan, the 23-year-old Fukuhara started playing when she was three years old, often appearing on TV shows where she was featured as a child prodigy playing against, and beating, much older opponents. She failed to medal at both the Athens and Beijing Olympics leading some to believe she couldn't compete against the world's top players, especially the Chinese. "China's players are strong both technically and physically," Fukuhara said. "While we may have two different kinds of drive shots in Japan the Chinese have many different variations of drive shots and that shows you how advanced they are."
Archery, Fencing and Sailing and Japanese Athletes
There were a number of surprises for Japanese athletes in the lesser known sports ay the 2004 Olympics. Hiroshi Yamamoto won a silver medal in men’s individual archery. Kazuto Seiki and Kenjiro Todoroki won a bronze medal in the men’s 470 sailing race. It was Japan’s best performance in a sailing event since 1996 when Yumiko Shige and Alicia Kinoshita won a silver in the women’s 470 in Atlanta in 1996.
Yuki Ota took the silver medal at Beijing in 2008 in the men’s individual foil competition, claiming Japan’s first ever fencing medal. In the final he lost to Germany’s Philip Kleibrink 15-9. At the time the 22-year-old Ota was ranked 10th in the world. On the way to the final he claimed four victories including a 15-12 thriller against reigning world champion Peter Joppich of Germany. Ota is a student at Kyoto’s Doshisha University. His father was a fencer. Ota started fencing ay age 7 and was defeated in the second round and finished ninth in Athens in 2004. In November 2010, Yuki Ota won bronze medal in the foil event at the world fencing championships in Paris and the Japanese team won a bronze medal in the team foil event.
Bicycling and Japanese Athletes
Japan won a silver medal ay the 2004 Olympics in Athens in the 3000 meter team sprint competition. Most of the members of the members of the team were professional keirin cyclists. It was the best ever result in Olympics cycling for Japan. They lost the gold medal to German by only.266 seconds.
Keirin is a track cycling event in which races are motorpaced by a motor-bike before engaging in a frantic dash to the finish line. The BBC reported that “organizers of a Japanese cycling event” gave $3 million to the International Cycling Federation (UCI) to get keirin accepted as an Olympic sport in 1996.
Tsutomu won a bronze medal in the men’s sprint at the 1984 Olympics and Takanobu won a bronze medal in the 1,000 meter time trial in 1996. Koichi Nakano had the most world championship wins a particular event: 10 by in the professional sprint in 1977 and 1986.
Kiyofumi Nagai won a bronze medal in the keirin race in 2008.
Japanese rider Yukari Arashiro was Japan’s national road race champion in 2007 and a stage winner at the Tour Limousin in France, finishing third overall. In 2008 he raced tin the Tour de France with the team Bouygues Telecom.
The Japan Cup road race is the biggest bicycle race in Japan. Italian Ivan Basso, winner f the Giro d’Italia placed third in it in 2008 after returning to professional bicycle racing after a two-year doping suspension. The winner in 2008 in Utsunomiya and 2005 was Italian Damiano Cunego.
Image Sources: Japan Olympic Committee, Japan Volleyball Association, Japan Softball Association
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated January 2013