Copyright © 2000 Joseph R. Svinth, all rights reserved. Funding sources for the research involved in the preparation of this paper included the Japanese American National Museum and the King County Office of Cultural Resources and its Hotel/Motel Tax Revenue Program.
For more on the topic of Japanese American athletics, see Brian Niiya,
editor, More Than A Game: Sport in the Japanese American Community
(Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, 2000), ISBN 1-881161-11-0,
which can be ordered through http://www.janm.org.
I. Summary of Findings
Conventional wisdom has it that Japanese American athletes took to judo
and other Japanese sports before World War II because they were too small
to participate in varsity athletics. A by-name listing of Pacific Northwest
athletes suggests that the conventional wisdom is wrong. First, while Nisei
athletes were shorter than their European American counterparts,
they weighed nearly the same. Therefore they were at no significant
disadvantage in strength. Second, at least 5% of the available Nisei male
population earned varsity letters in football or high school wrestling,
which is more than "very few." Finally, a by-name listing shows that Northwest
Nisei were more likely to earn varsity letters than judo black belts, and
more likely to become professional boxers than graded kendoka.
|Judoka in Portland, Oregon, circa 1936.
Front row, seated, left to right: Shigeru Hongo, Victor Davey (?), Bunuyemon Nii Sensei, Mokuo "Frank" Tomori, Toru Kobayashi.
Back row, standing, left to right: Unidentified, Art Sasaki, Chiaki "Jack" Yoshihara, Senta Nii, Unidentified, Unidentified.
In 1926 Bunuyemon Nii began teaching Kito-ryu jujutsu at Portland's Foster Hotel, and in 1927 his student Frank Tomori began teaching Kito-ryu in Hood River. In August 1932, Jigoro Kano visited Portland, and as a result Nii and Tomori converted to Kodokan judo; the still-extant name Obukan ("Oregon Martial Hall") commemorates this conversion. This photograph was taken during late 1935 or early 1936, and commemorated Nii's retirement (he listed his occupation as chiropractor) and return to Japan.
Senta Nii was no relation to Bunuyemon Nii. Jack Yoshihara was the only Nisei to play on the Oregon State varsity football team the year it went to the Rose Bowl (1942). Meanwhile, if the identification is correct, then the individual identified as Victor Davey is the late father of the well-known martial art teacher Hugh Davey. If not, then the judoka is instead Mike Arnold.
Photo courtesy of the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center. Copyright © 2000 All rights reserved.
In 1984 University of Washington sociologist Frank Miyamoto wrote that for pre-World War II Japanese American boys, their "lack of physical size was a serious handicap, and very few were good enough to win high school letters." [FN1] Since the typical 17-year old Nisei (second generation) athlete of the 1930s packed 132.3 pounds on a 5’5½" frame, [FN2] this generalization sounds reasonable – until you try to quantify it.
For example, just how large was the Northwest Nisei’s mostly European American competition? In 1909, the University of Washington’s Dr. David C. Hall found that the average incoming European American freshman stood 5’8" and weighed 134.58 pounds. [FN3] While this was 5 inches and 34 pounds more than the average Issei (first generation Japanese American), it was only 2-1/2 inches and as many pounds more than the average Nisei. [FN4] So while the European American youths may have enjoyed some advantages when playing basketball, their greater height was probably irrelevant in other sports provided that the individual players had comparable strength-to-mass ratios. [FN5]
Of course, it is always possible that the European American students had better strength-to-mass ratios. To see if this is the case, let’s take a look at how many pull-ups European and Japanese Americans could do.
For decades, the US Marine Corps assumed that any healthy male should be able to do between 3 and 20 pull-ups. This seems to be a reasonable assumption, too, as in 1909, Dr. Hall’s average European American freshman did 7.59 pull-ups, while in 1943, Kenji Arima of the all-Japanese Minidoka High School established a school record by doing 22. [FN6] Even so, doing 22 pull-ups is hardly world-class performance. I myself have seen people easily do more than 40, and for what it’s worth, in 1988 a South Korean man, Chin-yong Lee, did 370.
So, while there are clearly enormous strength-to-mass ratios between individuals, I am less sanguine about differences between groups selected solely by ethnicity. Furthermore, if there be differences, then Lee’s record suggests that the difference favors Asian rather than European Americans.
It also turns out that more than a "very few" prewar Pacific Northwest Nisei earned school letters. This unexpected conclusion was reached by listing Nisei that the Seattle newspapers described as having won boxing, wrestling, judo, or kendo tournaments, or who were high school or college football stars. Without trying to be comprehensive – I read more newspapers than yearbooks -- I identified 169 Nisei who earned high school or college letters in American football or Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) wrestling. Furthermore, as I was interested primarily in the combative sports, I made no effort to track Nisei who lettered solely in baseball, basketball, tennis, track, or girls’ athletics. [FN8]
For the available population, I used the Sixteenth Census, which reported that there were 3,133 Nisei aged 21 or older living in Washington State and Oregon in 1940. [FN9] While dozens of Pacific Northwest Nisei moved to Chicago or Los Angeles following high school, hundreds of their younger siblings entered local high schools between 1940 and 1942. So 3,133 could be low. On the other hand, about half of those 3,133 Nisei were females ineligible to wrestle or play football. And of course in 1947 the average age of a Seattle Nisei was just 20 years, meaning that in 1941 many would have been too young to play high school sports. [FN10] So it could be that 3,133 is high. No matter, it remains the best figure I have.
Dividing 169 (the number of varsity football players and wrestlers) by 3,133 and multiplying by 100 shows that about 5.4% of the available population earned a varsity letter in either wrestling or football. Were I to have tracked every Nisei who earned a varsity letter regardless of gender or sport, then the percentage would be higher. So more than a few Nisei became star athletes.
Furthermore, as only a handful of Northwest Nisei became Golden Gloves or professional boxers, it surprised me to discover that even fewer became kendo champions. And, while Oregon’s Hal Hoshino was among the best boxers of Japanese descent anywhere, Washington’s best kendoka (the Kibei, or Japanese-educated, Kazuo Shoji and Kiyoshi Yasui) were simply local champions. I do not know whether the explanation involves the essentially non-competitive nature of prewar kendo or that the big strong boys preferred playing competitive American games to non-competitive Japanese games. Personally, I suspect the latter.
Judo, on the other hand, was every bit as popular as legend has it, and by December 1941 there were fourteen Kodokan judo clubs in Washington State and another seven in Oregon. Locations and average membership are shown below.
Washington Judo Clubs
|Seattle Dojo||Ca. 1907||
Oregon Judo Clubs
|Club||Date Established||Estimated Membership||
Dividing average membership into total male Nisei population reveals that around 12-13% of prewar Pacific Northwest Nisei males belonged to a judo club. [FN11]
Structurally, it is interesting to note that boys living in small towns and rural communities were more likely to join judo clubs than were boys living in big cities. Perhaps the rural youths had fewer choices of cultural and sporting activities? It is also noteworthy that clubs averaged about one star per eight members. In this regard, most members were simply boys aged 8-13 years. Stars, on the other hand, were usually excellent all-round athletes aged 14-21 years. Some had taken judo for years; others were walk-on stars. The 19-year old high school football star Hank Ogawa, for example, won a brown belt championship (and his black belt) after just three months of judo training.
Two Washington State clubs (Seattle’s Tentoku Kan and the Fife Judo Dojo) clearly exceeded the usual star ratio. Tentoku Kan’s advantage was probably its unusually high percentage of Japanese-trained instructors, of whom California’s Ken Kuniyuki (currently 8-dan) remains the best known. Fife’s advantage appears to have been the Tamura and Kawasaki families, which between them generated an astonishing seven prewar and two postwar stars. Yakima Valley also exceeded the usual star ratio, but as its members usually fared better in sumo tournaments than in judo tournaments, one suspects that they used more brawn than finesse.
Excepting their instructors (who are counted elsewhere), three Oregon clubs -- Salem, Milwaukie, and Ontario -- had no stars. As these were among the last clubs to be established, probably they hadn’t had enough time to develop the local talent. Of special note is Salem High School, as it had an AAU wrestling program that not only had many Nisei stars, but also had a Nisei coach (Tats Yada) for a season.
Regardless of what parents may have wanted, for the Nisei the desire for a varsity letter was clearly a siren song. For example, several of Portland’s best judoka are remembered as football players or AAU wrestling champions rather than judoka. Likewise, in Tacoma, where there was an excellent high school wrestling program, there were many Nisei AAU wrestling champions but few Nisei judo champions. And even in Fife, where virtually every senior member of the local judo club was all-star material, several first-rate judoka decided to pursue All-Northwest AAU wrestling titles rather than follow Masato Tamura to the 1939 judo all-star tournament in Los Angeles.
Although not indicated in my tabulations, prewar Pacific Northwest Nisei judo champions were often varsity running backs. Sumotori, on the other hand, were more likely varsity linemen. This suggests that the skills required in sumo and judo are quite different, and that judo coaches interested in turning out Olympic champions might get better results by teaching college running backs to do randori than by teaching schoolchildren to do kata. [FN12]
Be that as it may, the following is a tabular depiction of the data
used to reach these conclusions. The base number was 200 individuals, a
number chosen simply because that was as many names as I could easily find
by reading old newspapers. Totals do not add up to 100% because individual
players often participated in more than one sport. "Varsity" indicates
the award of a varsity letter in either AAU wrestling or football. Other
headings are self-explanatory.
Northwest Athletes by Sport
For comparative purposes, note that the Japanese government published
data in 1929 that showed that the National Higher School and Collegiate
Athletic Union had 24,624 members. Of these, 2,389 did kendo, 2,149 did
judo, 466 did sumo, and 40 boxed. (Olympic-style wrestling was not introduced
until a few years later.) On the other hand, 2,783 Japanese high school
or college athletes played soccer and another 1,755 played rugby. In other
words, despite enormous pressure to the contrary from their government,
most Japanese boys of the same age as the Nisei also preferred playing
football to doing kendo or judo. [FN13]
III. By-Name Lists of Athletes
To allow readers to verify my conclusions, the names of the individual
athletes and their sports appear below.
Individual Oregon Athletes, by Sport
|Takasugi, Iwao ("Terry")||X||X|
|Yasui, Robert Shu||X||X|
Individual Washington Athletes, by Sport
|Amabe, Eugene ("Beefo")||X||X||X|
|Kato, Akira ("Poison")||X|
Footnotes (hit your back button to return to the text)
FN1. S. Frank Miyamoto, Social Solidarity among the Japanese in Seattle (Seattle: University of Washington, 1939; reprint with new introduction, 1984), xviii. In fairness to Professor Miyamoto, he was only repeating conventional wisdom, as an article in the Japanese-American Courier said the same thing in the same words on January 7, 1928.
FN2. Japanese-American Courier, November 27, 1937, 3.
FN3. Pacific Daily Wave, April 21, 1909, 3. Twelve Issei entered the University of Washington in 1909. The averages were age, 24; height, 5’3"; weight, 100.7 pounds. While these differences are pronounced, 108-pound Fred Yamada still earned a University of Washington varsity sweater in 1914. Yamada’s letter, by the way, represented between 5 and 10% of the available male Japanese student population.
FN4. Ibid. Although these figures compare a generation born circa 1885 to a generation born circa 1920, the seven-year age difference should make up for any corresponding increases within the European American population.
FN5. Although conventional wisdom tells us that most Nisei were too small to play basketball, on February 25, 1928 the Japanese-American Courier reported that Franklin High School’s Ogawa, Kent’s Okimoto, Fife’s Higashi and Yoshioka, and Bellevue’s Hirotaka had all received first-team basketball letters, and that several other boys had received second-team letters. This was not a fluke, either, as in the Seattle Public Schools, Cleveland’s Yokichi Ito earned a letter in 1939 as did Lincoln’s Makoto Fukano and Hiro Uchida (1937 and 1940, respectively) and Roosevelt’s Isamu Miyake (1937). Nisei also earned basketball letters in high schools located in Auburn, Bellingham, Eatonville, Tacoma, and Winslow. This is perhaps less surprising once you realize that the Japanese-American Courier (January 1, 1931) had no trouble listing seventeen Northwest Nisei who ranged "in height from five feet eight inches to a double yardstick."
FN6. Pacific Daily Wave, April 21, 1909, 3; Minidoka Irrigator, December 25, 1943, 6.
FN7. The Guinness Book of Records, ed. by Peter Matthews (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), 670.
FN8. The Seattle Public Schools offered high school girls the opportunity to earn varsity letters in intramural basketball, field hockey, table tennis, track, and volleyball. At two North Seattle high schools (Roosevelt and Lincoln) having mostly European American student bodies, Nisei girls typically earned letters at about the same rate as Nisei boys; that is, about one or two per year. At Broadway and Franklin, however, with their much larger Nisei population, girls of course earned far more letters. Fourteen-year old Ethel Ogawa, for example, earned letters in basketball and volleyball at Franklin as early as 1928. Nisei female athleticism was not solely a Seattle phenomenon, either, as in January 1941 Bellingham’s Edith Takagi was elected captain of the Bellingham-Blanchard girl’s basketball squad.
FN9. In 1940 there were 2,479 voters of Japanese descent living in Washington and another 654 in Oregon. Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940, Population, Vol. II, Pt 7, Table 4, 304; Table 10, 312; Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940, Population, Vol. II, Pt 5, Table 4, 964; Table 10, 972.
FN10. Northwest Times, July 29, 1947, 1.
FN11. The Sixteenth Census reported 8,882 native born Americans of Japanese descent living in Washington in 1940 and another 2,454 in Oregon. About 55% were male. This means there were about 4,885 male Nisei living in Washington and another 1,350 living in Oregon. By my calculations, there were about 585 judoka living in Washington and another 190 in Oregon. Adding 585 and 190 gives a sum of 775. Adding 4,885 and 1,350 gives a sum of 6,235. Dividing 775 by 6,235 and multiplying by 100 gives a total of 12.4% for the region. Dividing 625 by 4,885 and multiplying by 100 gives a total of 12.8% for Washington. Dividing 190 by 1,350 and multiplying by 100 gives a total of 14% for Oregon. Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940, Vol. II, Pt. 7, Table 4, 304; Vol. II, Pt 5, Table 4, 964.
FN12. On this topic several pre-WWII Nisei judoka, including one who trained at the Kodokan in Tokyo, told me that they didn’t start learning kata until they were ranked 2-dan or higher, and I have yet to find any prewar male judoka who admit to learning kata before earning brown belts. (While female judoka learned kata before World War II, few women did randori until the 1950s.) For what the interview subjects told me, see Joseph R. Svinth, "How Prewar Judo Training Was Conducted" in Journal of Asian Martial Arts, forthcoming.
FN13. Japan Times, February 3, 1929, 8. On February 3, 1914 Japan Times reported that "enthusiasm was not so evident [in higher school students] as in the case of middle school students." Baseball, on the other hand, was about twice as popular with Japanese high school boys as either kendo or judo.