- 35 Japanese Olympians fought and died for their country in World War II
- Two Japanese athletes rose to fame prior to the war for their remarkable act of sportsmanship in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games
- Though he stood as a symbol of international friendship prior to the war, Seuo Oe was killed by an American bullet when Japan invaded the Philippines in 1941.
With a best-selling book and a box office hit, author Lauren Hillenbrand and director Angelina Jolie popularized the story of Louis Zamperini - an American Olympian who fought in World War II and endured several tormented years in Japanese prisons.
For fans of “Unbroken,” one Brigham Young University historian has some “bonus features.”
Since 2008, Professor Aaron Skabelund has studied the 35 Japanese Olympians who fought and died for their country in World War II.
“Because the United States triumphed in the conflict, it has been easy for Americans to celebrate stories like Zamperini’s,” Skabelund said. “But for many Japanese today, Olympian soldiers – who are remembered not only as great athletes and brave soldiers but also as cosmopolitan internationalists – have generally been celebrated the most.”
One such story starts at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. On August 5, while Jesse Owens sprinted to victory in the 200 meters, “the real drama” of the day according to a New York Times reporter took place under the stadium lights at the pole vault.
After a full day of competing, only two Japanese athletes and one American remained. Earle Meadows won the Gold for Team USA with a new Olympic record of 4.35 meters. Seuo Oe and Shuhei Nishida had tied with jumps of 4.25 meters, and Olympic officials conferred to decide how to break the tie.
“Oe and Nishida competed for two rival universities, Keio and Waseda, which have a rivalry like BYU and the U of U,” Skabelund said. “At the Berlin Olympics in 1936, the two of them were teammates on the national team but still competing against each other as individuals.”
Event officials awarded the silver to Nishida and the bronze to Oe. But soon after, the two athletes divided their medals and swapped halves to make new medals that were part silver, part bronze. The pair later came to be known as the “friendship medals.”
Oe got a few more chances to compete against Meadows before war broke out, and the two reportedly became good friends.
“Oe’s friendship with Meadows and another American were portrayed as providing hope for good relations between Japan and the United States,” Skabelund said.
But war came and Oe’s conscription into the government and media transformed him into a symbol of national determination. When Japanese forces invaded the Philippines in December 1941, Oe – once a symbol for peace – was killed by an American bullet. His fate stands as a far different ending than for Louis Zamperini, whose survival during the war gave him time to later become unbroken from it.
Yet, thanks to Oe’s onetime friendship with Meadows and amicably splitting the medal with Nishida, he was celebrated after the war when Japan had become an American ally and when wounded Japanese national pride needed a boost.
For more about Skabelund’s research, read this article he published in Sport in Society.