vol.043 - The ups and downs of Japanese athletics history

The ups and downs of Japanese athletics history


What with Japan’s hosting of Rugby World Cup 2019, the simultaneous IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha, and the upcoming Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020, autumn 2019 offers plenty of topics for sports talk. In observance of this “season of sport,” we spoke to Professor Kei Ushimura of the International Research Center for Japanese Studies about the origin and development of track and field sports in Japan. Professor Ushimura, who was a triple jumper during his student years, has long been familiar with track and field.



Q: Could you tell us how track and field sports got started in Japan?

There were two sources, I think. First, they were a part of athletic events held by residents of Japan’s foreign enclaves during the last years of the Shogunate and the early Meiji era (1868-1912), and spread from there. A second source was the athletic events held at the dormitory of the Japanese Naval Academy. The latter, too, had a foreign origin, of course—in this case the British officers who taught at the academy. I believe those were the two points of origin of track and field sports in Japan.



Q: How did these sports spread after that?

A major event was the athletic meet held at the Imperial University (now The University of Tokyo) in 1883. A government-hired foreign instructor, Frederick W. Strange of England, was concerned about the poor physical condition of the Japanese students, and introduced British sports like boat racing and cricket. The atmosphere created by these activities led to the holding of an athletic meet every year. They were nothing like the festive sports days at Japanese schools, but serious athletic events where results were recorded and preserved to this day.



Q: What were some of the unique aspects of track and field events in those days?

One interesting aspect was that, although the track meets took the form of competitions, the contestants did not engage in any systematic, scheduled training regimen. As the time for a meet approached, students who normally trained at judo or baseball, for example, would start running to prepare for the races around three to four weeks beforehand. There was not yet a formal Japanese equivalent to the English “track and field,” so these events were referred to by a number of different terms. Given the fact that this was a type of sport practiced by university or high-school students on their own after class, and that compulsory education went no further than elementary school in those days, it would appear that track and field was meant for only a handful of elite youth.

Moreover, there was no sports science or theory to speak of at the time, so training and working out were generally done by ad-hoc methods. For example, runners would try to expel excess fat from the body by wearing layers of clothing to make themselves sweat and minimizing their water intake. They believed this was the most effective way to get the body in shape for training. Now we know this practice was not only unhealthy but downright dangerous.



Q: How did track and field develop in Japan after that?

Japan sent two track and field contestants to the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, which marked Japan’s Olympic debut—but they lost badly. At the time it was noted that records set 16 years earlier at the 1896 Olympics in Athens—the first of the modern Olympic Games—nearly equaled Japan’s best records in 1912. Those concerned with the development of sports in Japan reasoned that if the country was 16 years behind the rest of the world, the next 16 years would offer an opportunity to catch up. And indeed, the beginning of the Taisho era (1912-26) saw a surge in publication of how-to books about track and field sports.

Sixteen years later, at the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928, Japan’s aspirations in track and field were realized when Mikio Oda won the triple jump, becoming the country’s first gold medalist. Japanese athletes continued to win gold and other medals at the 1932 Los Angeles and 1936 Berlin games.



Q: By contrast, Japan did not make much progress in track and field after World War II, did it?

The two biggest reasons for that were the impermissibility of sports training during the war and lack of adequate nutrition in the years immediately following. Another factor contributing to Japan’s slump was the increase in the number of nations and athletes participating in the postwar Olympics, which raised the level of competition above that of the prewar games. Nearly all the African countries that flourished in track and field after the war were not independent nations before the war, so they had not participated in the Olympics then. In other words, Japan had faced a limited field of competitors in the 1930s.

Today, as we approach the second Tokyo Olympics, it’s been over 70 years since the end of the war and we seem to be reaching a new peak in Japanese competitiveness in track and field. As an enthusiastic fan of track and field events, I’m really looking forward to next summer.



Professor Ushimura finds track and field appealing because, unlike ball sports, the only equipment you use is your own body and you can quantitatively measure the effectiveness of your training method. Athletes, including Professor Ushimura back in his teens and early twenties, identify which parts of the body they must build up for their particular event and train to strengthen those parts and maximize the efficiency of their movements. Every day of practice brings them a little closer to the possibility of setting a new personal record.

Much like an athlete engaging in a rigorous daily regimen, Professor Ushimura tirelessly peruses the extensive documentation on track and field sports.

(Interview: Ayumi Koso)



Photograph from an athletic meet held at the Imperial University
(“Nihon Rikujō Kyōgi Renmei Nanajyunenshi” [Seventy-year History of Japan Association of Athletics Federations], Japan Association of Athletics Federations Seventy-year History Editorial Committee, ed. 1995)




Kei Ushimura is a professor of Japanese intellectual history at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken) in Kyoto. He is known for his research on the Tokyo War Crimes Trials as viewed from the standpoint of “civilization.” At Nichibunken he is currently organizing the Team Research Project “Sports as Civilization, Sports as Culture,” studying the role of sports played in modern Japan from the viewpoint of “civilization.” He graduated from the Faculty of Letters at the University of Tokyo and did his graduate work at the University of Chicago, earning his doctorate from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo. He was a visiting assistant professor at the University of Alberta, Canada, an associate professor at Meisei University, Tokyo, and an associate professor at Nichibunken before becoming a full professor in 2007.

Holding a starting block