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Olympic History and Achievements: Nikkei Athletes from the Americas

In Peru, Nikkei contributions to art and gastronomy are what usually attract the most attention, and for good reason. Just to mention one, Tilsa Tsuchiya, a Nisei, is considered by many the greatest Peruvian artist of all time.

When it comes to gastronomy, the impact of Nikkei cuisine has been so significant that many people who hadn’t even heard the word “Nikkei” know it now, thanks to the cuisine created by Japanese immigrants in Peru.

But Nikkei in the Americas also have an outstanding legacy in other areas, including sports.


Since July, an exhibit highlighting the Nikkei contribution to sports in Peru and the rest of America, with an emphasis on the Olympic Games, has been on view at the Carlos Chiyoteru Hiraoka Museum of Japanese Immigration in Peru. The show originated at the Akane Museum of Japanese Immigration in Mexico and was researched, produced, and curated by Alberto Teramoto.

The Peruvian athletes featured include five of Japanese origin who participated in the Olympic Games.

They include Olga Asato, a member of the women’s volleyball team that competed in Mexico in 1968, winning fourth place. Asato is among the Peruvian athletes who has been awarded Peru’s highest distinction: the Sports Laurels.

Peru’s first Nikkei competitor in the Olympic Games was Tomás Iwasaki, a member of the men’s soccer team who competed in the 1960 games in Rome. A forward, Iwasaki also won four championships in the Peruvian professional soccer league with his team Universitario de Deportes.

Peruvian cyclist Teófilo Toda competed in Tokyo in 1964. (Photo: Superación magazine).

The athletes also include cyclist Teófilo Toda, who competed in the 1964 games in Tokyo thanks to funding from a group of university students from the Nisei University Association of Peru (Asociación Universitaria Nisei del Perú, or AUNP). Toda had earned his place in the Olympic Games but lacked funding to cover his participation. So the AUNP took on the challenge, organizing fundraising activities to support him.

Boxer Luis Minami fought in Mexico in 1968, after placing second in the Pan American Games in Winnipeg the previous year.

Another 16 years passed before another Nikkei from Peru participated in the Olympic Games, when wrestler José Inagaki competed in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. That was the last time, according to Teramoto’s research, that a Nikkei born in Peru participated in the Olympic Games.

But it’s also worth mentioning Japan’s Akira Kato, coach of the Peruvian women’s volleyball team, which came very close to winning the bronze in Mexico in 1968 and came in fourth in the 1973 Volleyball Women’s World Cup.

Kato was the force behind the boom in Peruvian women’s volleyball, which in the 1980s under the direction of Man Bok Park from South Korea (Kato had retired from coaching due to health concerns) touched the sky twice, winning second place at the Volleyball Women’s World Championship in 1982 and the silver medal at Seoul in 1988.


From the 1948 Olympic Games in London to the 2014 Games in Sochi, the country with the largest number of Nikkei athletes was the United States (30), followed by Brazil (17), Peru (5), Mexico (3), according to Alberto Teramoto’s research. The United States is also the country with the highest number of Nikkei medal winners (25), followed by Brazil (3) and Mexico (1).

Four of the medals belong to swimmer Ford Konno: gold medal in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay and the 1,500-meter freestyle, and silver medal in the 400-meter freestyle at the 1952 Helsinki Games, as well as a silver medal in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay in Melbourne in 1956.

In Helsinki, something extraordinary happened: the three medal winners of the 1,500-meter freestyle were all swimmers of Japanese origin. Along with the champion Konna on the podium were Japan’s Shiro Hashizune (silver) and Brazil’s Tetsuo Okamoto (bronze).

The podium of the 1,500 meter freestyle event in Helsinki in 1952: Ford Konno of the U.S. (gold), Shiro Hashizune of Japan (silver), and Tetsuo Okamoto of Brazil (bronze). (Photo: Wikipedia)

Another swimmer from the United States, Yoshinobu Oyakawa, won the gold medal in the men’s 100-meter backstroke competition.

Evelyn Kawamoto, a swimmer from the United States, won two bronze medals in Helsinki in 1952. (Photo: Wikipedia)

In the Games hosted by Finland, there was another outstanding Nikkei participant: U.S. swimmer Evelyn Kawamoto, who won two bronze medals. Adding more interest to this convergence of exceptional events, Kawamoto and Konno were married to each other.

There are more surprising facts about swimming. Let’s go back three years, to 1949, when the U.S. National Championships of Aquatics featured the participation of a group of Japanese swimmers including Hironoshin Furuhashi, known as the “flying fish of Fujiyama”, who set several world records.

The Japanese swimmers’ participation was a sports success story, but their visit was marked by the troubled anti-Japanese atmosphere that persisted in the United States, four years after the end of World War II. After local hotels refused them lodging, as Teramoto learned, a Nisei businessman invited them to stay with him.

The show highlights the contribution of the swimmers’ host, Fred Wada, who was a key figure in bringing the Olympic Games to Tokyo in 1964, and later was influential in bringing the games to Mexico City and Los Angeles in 1968 and 1984, respectively.

Returning to Furuhashi, this legendary Japanese athlete played an important role in a significant event for Peru’s Nikkei community in the same era.

Furuhashi and other Japanese swimmers visited Peru to participate in an exhibition at the Olympic-size pool donated to Lima by the Issei community to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Lima. As the swimmers were introduced, the Japanese national anthem was played for the first time in Peru since the end of World War II.

But the visit’s impact on Furuhashi and his fellow swimmers was much more than symbolic. At the time, Peru’s Nikkei population had no representative institutions, since the Japanese Central Society had been closed down during the war. Moreover, Japan did not have a diplomatic mission to the country, due to the breakdown in bilateral relations for the same reason.

Because there was no Nikkei institution to host the Japanese athletes, a group of Issei began organizing early efforts which culminated in the founding of the Pacific Club (Club Pacífico) in 1950. Although the club no longer exists, it played an important role in the post-war Nikkei reconstruction.


Athlete Bryan Clay, who won the gold medal in the decathlon in Beijing in 2008. (Photo: Erik van Leeuwen / Wikipedia)

There are three other medal-winning Nikkei from the United States.

Bryan Tsumoru Clay, whose mother is Japanese, won two medals for the decathlon in Beijing in 2008 (gold) and Athens in 2004 (silver). Even more impressive are his awards at the track and field world championships: three gold medals (decathlon in 2005 and the heptathlon in 2008 and 2010).

For his part, weightlifter Tommy Kono won the gold in the 1952 Games in Helsinki and the 1956 Games in Melbourne, and silver at the Games in Rome in 1960. Like Clay, he had a much more successful career in the world championships, winning six consecutive titles.

Skater Apolo Anton Ohno, the Nikkei athlete who has won the most Olympic medals (photo: Noelle Neu/Wikipedia)

All those mentioned thus far are undoubtedly extraordinary athletes, but none has gotten as far as Apolo Anton Ohno of the United States, the short track speed skater who has won the highest number of Olympic medals: two gold, two silver, and four bronze. No other Nikkei athlete has won as many medals in the history of the Olympic Games, and no other athlete from the United States has participated in as many Winter Games as Ohno.

Other outstanding athletes include Brazil’s Chiaki Ishii, whose bronze medal at the Munich Games in 1972 was the first for Brazilian judo in Olympic history, and Mexican cyclist José Manuel Youshimatz Sotomayor, who won the bronze in Los Angeles in 1984.

In the most recent Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020, two Nikkei judokas competed for Brazil: Eric Takabatake and Gabriela Chibana.

One interesting fact about the Games in Tokyo in 2020 is that one of the members of Japan’s women’s volleyball team, Aki Momii, is the daughter of Peruvian dekasegis.


The show is being exhibited in Peru thanks to an agreement between the Carlos Chiyoteru Hiraoka Museum and the Akane Museum signed in 2021.

The Mexican researcher prepared a list of Nikkei Olympic athletes by examining records from each country and noting the last names of the participants. So it’s possible that there are more Nikkei athletes who have participated, since some may not be easily identifiable by their last names.

In any case, the ambitious efforts made by the show’s organizers are a step forward in constructing the history of the Nikkei population in America and strengthening the ties of the diverse communities of Japanese origin throughout the continent.

After the show opened in Peru, the Museum of Japanese Immigration to Peru signed agreements with its counterparts in Brazil and Paraguay, and hopefully the fruits of Nikkei collaboration will continue to multiply.


© 2022 Enrique Higa Sakuda

exhibitions Mexico Nikkei Athletes Olympics Peru United States