Japanese American History
Japanese American Summer Olympians
In a year filled with international conflict and unrest, the 2004 Summer Olympics seem more important than ever as a reminder of the ancient ideals of competition, culture, education, and peace that began the Olympic games as early as 776 BC. The return of the games to Athens, Greece—the original site of the Olympics—and the customary lighting of the torch are reminders of the true spirit of the event where athletes from many countries honor the Olympic Truce and compete, not for personal gain, but to represent the best that their country has to offer.
The Olympics have been of long-standing importance to both the Japanese and Japanese Americans. Early immigrants brought traditional Japanese sports with them. For example, as more Japanese made their way to the U.S., judo classes began appearing in the Northwest. When judo was finally accepted as an Olympic event in 1964, Japanese Americans such as Paul Murayama, Kevin Asano, Patrick Mitsugi Burris, Nicki Yonezuki, Craig Agena and, more recently, Sandra Bacher and Liliko Ogasawara, became notable names in the sports world.
At the 1948 Olympic Games, Harold Sakata became the first Japanese American to win an Olympic medal by capturing a silver medal in weightlifting. Before 1952, no Japanese American had ever won an Olympic gold medal. However, at the 1952 Summer Games in Helsinki, three Japanese Americans won gold medals. Tommy Kono, a Japanese American weightlifter who trained while incarcerated in the Tule Lake Relocation Center, made his mark in Olympic history, winning a gold medal and setting a world record in the Olympic games of 1952 and 1956. Yoshinobu Oyakawa won a gold medal in swimming, establishing a Olympic record in winning the 100-meter backstroke. Ford Konno won two gold medals in swimming, including the 1,500-meter race, in which he shattered the Olympic record. Ironically, the top three finishers in the race were all of Japanese descent—Shiro Hashizume of Japan and and Tetsuo Okamoto of Brazil finished second and third.
Also at the 1952 Olympic Games, Evelyn Kawamoto became the first Japanese American woman to win an Olympic medal. She received two bronze medals in swimming. The next Japanese American woman to win a Summer Olympic medal was Liane Sato—a bronze medal in women’s volleyball at the 1992 Olympic Games. (Kristi Yamaguchi became the first Japanese American woman to win a gold medal earlier in the year at the 1992 Winter Olympic Games). Her brother Eric also competed in the 1988 and 1992 men’s volleyball teams which won gold and bronze medals. Peter Westbrook, whose mother is Japanese American, was awarded a bronze medal in 1984 in the men’s saber competition. It was the first fencing medal won by an American since 1960.
Among this year’s Japanese American Summer Olympic hopefuls are diver Kimiko Hirai Soldati, decathlete Bryan Clay, and wrestler Tela O’Donnell. Allyse Ishino was also selected as an alternate for the women’s gymnastics team. Kimiko Soldati won a spot on the Olympic Diving Team by winning the 3-meter springboard at the U.S. trials in June. She was a top-level gymnast in high school, but injuries led her to switch to diving. At 30, she was the oldest competitor at the trials. Her father, Gary Hirai was born at Minidoka concentration camp during World War II.
Bryan Clay is also at Athens as a gold medal candidate in the decathlon. At the Olympic trials, he registered the fifth-highest total ever by an American. Clay grew up in Hawaii, and is half-Japanese and half-African American.
Tela O’Donnell grew up in Homer, Alaska. She is half-Irish and half-Japanese. Tela will be representing the United States in the 55kg weight division of the first ever Olympic women's wrestling competition. Her mother raised her on her own in a log cabin home she built herself. However, her father’s family lived nearby, and they would visit for holiday meals. Her grandfather, Henry Nakada, served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team while his parents were at Heart Mountain in Wyoming. Nakada was a scout for the rescue of the Lost Battalion.
The 2004 Summer Olympic Games have begun, so it’s time to cheer on our Olympic athletes. Tela O’Donnell competes in Women’s Freestyle Wrestling in the 55kg weight class pool elimination on Sun, August 22. Qualification and medal rounds will be held on Mon, August 23. Bryan Clay will be going for gold in the Men’s Decathlon event on Mon, August 23 and finishing on Tues, August 24. Kimiko Soldati will dive in the Women’s 3m Springboard preliminaries on Wed, August 25. The event concludes on Thurs, August 26.
2004 Olympics update: Congratulations to Bryan Clay who won the silver medal in the Men’s Decathlon Event!
2008 Olympics update: Congratulations to Bryan Clay who won the gold medal in the Men’s Decathlon Event!