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The Racialization of Athletic Ability in Japan during the 1930s: Track and Field Community and the Rising Generation of African-American Athletes

Summary of Presentation

Introduction
There is an assumption that has been widely accepted and shared among Japanese people, which is that people called “blacks,” or those whose ancestry can be traced back to so-called “sub-Sahara,” the region south of the Sahara Desert, are born with superior athletic ability. Let me call this assumption the myth of black athleticism.
My historical investigation has revealed that the origin of this myth could be located, for the United States, in the decade of the 1930s. In fact, I have just published a book in Japanese on this interpretation, which has gotten a much more response from the readers than I expected, partly because of the expanding interest in international sports aroused by the coming of the London Olympics.
This presentation is a sort of interim report about my research on Japanese experiences with the myth of black athleticism. Shifting focus from the United States to Japan, it examines the discourse and representation of black athletic ability among the people who belonged to Japan’s Track and Field organizations, such as the Japan Sports Association (JSA) and the Japan Olympic Committee (JOC) during the decade when the myth emerged in the US.
 
I. Japan Encountered Black Athletes
It took a long while for the Japanese general public, after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 that marked the beginning of the nation’s modern era, to develop concrete images of Africa and people of African descent, because of both of the qualitative and quantitative limitations in their contact with the land and people, limitations which were imposed by various geographical, political and economic reasons.
By the decades of the 1920s and 30s, however, Japanese people, or at least those actively observed or participated in top-level sporting competitions, had come to recognize the rise of non-Europeans, which would cultivate the ground for image-making, and quite often, stereotype formation.
But above all, it was the United States, or its black community more precisely, that produced the most remarkable group of athletes during the 1930s. Sprinters such as Eddie Tolan, Ralph Metcalfe, and Jessie Owens won medals at either or both of the 1932 and 1936 Olympics. Many of these athletes came across the Pacific to Japan to participate in sporting events sponsored by Japanese organizations. Japanese track and field athletes welcomed African American runners, and praised them enthusiastically, but in a way that intrigues me as a historian. To this point, I will turn in later sections.
 
II. Some Clues to Possible Partnership between African Americans and Japanese
In those days, American society was strictly divided into whites and blacks under the regime of racial segregation. How much did Japanese athletes know about it? As most of them were college students or graduates, they were at least informed of the discrimination that African Americans were experiencing at home, and although the level of their understanding may have remained superficial, many of them entertained sympathy toward suffering blacks while generally holding a critical stance against the system of white supremacy.
Unfortunately, Japan in that era, as I will discuss on another occasion, was developing its own racist hierarchy, and the nation’s leaders would willingly incorporate Africans and African Americans into them.
Having read testimonies of the athletes, coaches, and upper-level officials at the JSA of the time, however, I cannot but feel as if a different path could have been open to Japan from the one that was actually taken toward the nation’s downfall through World War II. To the extent that could allow me to have such an impression, Japanese sportsmen of the era were both compassionate and friendly to black athletes. What, then, could the alternate path have been? Here are some clues.
First, Japanese athletes held very strong feelings of anti-racism when they actually contacted Europeans and Americans at sporting events. These feelings compelled them to take side with blacks, simply because they also identified themselves as a racial minority. Ethnic Korean Kwon Tae-Ha, ninth-place finisher of 1932 Los Angeles Olympic marathon, was a case in point. After the Olympics, he stayed in Los Angeles to study at the University of Southern California, where he was refused to stay at a hotel because he was “colored.” Kwon must have suffered the indignity and humiliation that was, for African Americans, a daily reality. Even Japan’s national hero, triple-jump gold medalist Mikio Oda could not be immunized from a sense of inferiority, as he feared that children he played with in Amsterdam must have seen him as a “strange black guy.”
Conversely, this sense of inferiority could have fostered a much more positive sense of bonding with black people, as reflected in Amsterdam Olympian Seishichi Inuma’s following statement: “I feel attracted to Mr. Metcalfe. I had a good impression of him, probably because he is a person of color.” Honorary secretary of the All Korean Athletic Association Hajime Takeuchi had an even more affectionate feeling toward Metcalfe, who said, “when I parted from him in Soule, I shook hands with him, promised to meet again in Berlin, and now that Mrs. Eddie Tolan was expelled by racism from the track, wished eagerly that Mr. Metcalfe do his very best to enliven his folks subjugated in the mother country.
Second, perhaps out of comradeship, or for some other reasons that I should investigate in further research, some Japanese took more concrete steps toward cooperation or specific forms of institutional partnership with black people.
Kametaro Mitsukawa at Takushoku University was an advocate who consistently argued for African-Japanese partnership as a strategy for imperial Japan’s diplomacy. He reminded his students and readers how, when World War I ended, blacks welcomed the Racial Equality Proposal of 1919 that the Japanese delegation submitted at the Paris Peace Conference. He argued further that Japan should take action to meet their expectations.
As for more concrete actions, right-wing secret society Black Dragon conducted a campaign in support of Ethiopia, which was facing the imperial aggression of Italy led by Benito Mussolini. There was an attempt, though unfruitful, among pro-Ethiopian leaders to arrange a marriage between Masako Kuroda of an aristocratic family and Alaia Ababa, nephew of Emperor Haile Selassie I. The Imperial Navy’s two battleships Iwate and Yakumo made a friendship call at Baltimore, where Japanese representatives socially mingled with African Americans, and said that “we Japanese sincerely believe that we are equal with all colored people of the world, especially African Americans.”
Third, African Americans, too, expected for stronger ties and relationship with Japan. In the era when Sino-Japanese relations deteriorated, and the American government gradually drifted apart from Japan, as it displayed sympathy to China, many African Americans continually criticized China in support of Japan. One of the foremost leaders of the time, W. E. B. DuBois said, “The Japanese fully understand us. They understand that we twelve million African Americans are of the same colored race as they are. They share our suffering and destiny.”
 
III. Japanese Interpreted Black Athletic Ability
In these historical contexts, how did the Japanese interpret and evaluate the amazing and “unparalleled” performance of black athletes? Did their interpretation and evaluation have anything to do with the order and structure, especially by race and ethnicity, which its leaders aspired to construct in preparation for the coming era of global confrontation?
Let us have a look at some exemplary comments left by the people at different level or rank. First, at the level of top athletes, generally, and as is logically presumed, they had a faith in training and discipline as the key to their physical development, and hence better records. If they had not have a faith in these, believing in black athletes’ natural superiority, they would have been likely to lost their will to continue the hard training that they imposed on themselves, such as every-day 20 kilometer running by Kohei Murakoso, Berlin 10000 meter’s fourth-place finisher.
Aforementioned Amsterdam Olympian Inuma said, referring to Metacalfe’s sprinting, that “he must be the fastest in the world indeed, but for him to achieve that incredible record at the Japan-America Meet, he had gone through rounds of serious training, without which he could have never done so. I came to respect him all the more as I found in him a human being who had to work hard to do a good job.” Takayoshi Yoshioka, Japan’s fastest sprinter who finished sixth at Los Angeles, could retain a hope for the next Olympic because Eddie Tolan, a small runner like himself, beat Metcalfe, a large one. He said: “we should trust our own special talent given from nature but keep on exercising to the best of our Japanese spirit, with which we could climb to world No.1.
Second, at other levels, especially that of higher-ranking office, there must have been some skeptics. Aforementioned Takeuchi was one such person, who argued: “Perhaps, we are allowed to take a shortcut: namely, to be world No.1, how about naturalizing Mr. Tolan or Mr. Metcalfe as Japanese, and send them to Berlin?” He seemed to prefer to bet on an easy way, which was to import talent from outside.
Third, presumably, the view that “blacks are natural athletes” found the most receptive audience at the level of people interested in athletics with a journalistic bent, or non-top-level athletes with the same bent—those not good enough to represent the nation but still committed to the track and field, who desired their own stage for conspicuity and prestige. Such people loved and wished to get involved in the scene, but not by performance but by verbosity. To this group belonged Shuji Kawasaki, graduate of prestigious Waseda University, member of both Track & Field and Public Speaking Clubs, who would lead a successful career as a member of the Diet after World War II. Here are excerpts from what he wrote for the Track and Field Journal. He had a strong inclination to racialize the spectacular scenes that excited and fascinated Japan’s track and field aficionados:
“On the starting line at the final round of men’s 100-meter sprinting stood three runners from the white race and three runners from the colored race.” On a later date, “finally, the day of black supremacy has come to the Track and Field. With Johnson, Owens and other young guys under twenty, black runners completed their hard struggle to achieve hegemony. They are now dominating the US track and field. None in the white race could beat them.” In this way, he loved to essentialize by race the power and strength of athletes.
Kawasaki began to submit his writing to the media in the mid-1930s exactly when the journals chose to publish views of American journalists and track and field coaches on the issue. One example is the following story by Maxwell Stiles, a well-known American journalist. “Why are our “black children” of African origin so strong in sprinting and jumping? None dares to explain this phenomenon. But we know that their ancestors had looked for food, running through wild jungles, or fought life and death against fierce beasts. Perhaps, this heritage still runs in their blood, even in our time of modern civilization, galvanizing them into beating competitors of other races in sprinting and jumping.” This view seems to have been shared by many Americans of the time, including influential University of Southern California Head Coach Dean Cromwell.
 
Conclusion
Given these views at three different levels of the Japanese athletic community, then, how did these views, while reinforcing or conflicting among one another, interact with the vision and ideology that the national government had constructed by the time the nation entered the world war? More specifically, how did these views of black athletic ability interact with, militate against, or incorporate with the grand scheme of ethno-racial hierarchy that served as the pillar of this hegemonic ideology?
These are the questions that I have to answer in my ongoing project. For now, and to conclude this presentation, let me make the following two points: First, in designing and materializing the ethno-racial hierarchy, intellectual leaders in sociology, history, and anthropology of the government-funded project team gradually and deliberately shifted the basis of this hierarchy from race, an allegedly biological category, to ethnicity, a cultural one. Second, as criteria for superiority and inferiority in the hierarchy, they emphasized mental strength and cultural refinement as the result of elevation by mental strength, hence opening a way for everlasting upward mobility of the Japanese free from the confinement and limitation imposed by physicality.
In such a scheme of ideological construction, black athletes and their ability were destined to be evaluated, compared, and assigned their place along with other peoples of the world. 

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