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Japanese Americans and Cultural Pride at the 1932 Olympics

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Looking at the success of Japanese athletes at the 1932 Olympics offers insight to an interesting issue: national loyalty. It raises the question, do you root for the country you live in or the country you (or your ancestors) come from?

At the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, the majority of Japanese Americans living in L.A. rooted for Japanese athletes. With California home to 70% of the country's Japanese Americans, 35,000 of whom lived in or near Little Tokyo, this made for a strong fan base for the Japanese athletes in Los Angeles.

So why did most Japanese Americans root for Japan and not their adopted home country? Their loyalty appears to have stemmed not only from the bitterness for the consistent denial of human rights by the U.S. government, but also from a deep pride in their culture and heritage. The presence of the Japanese at the 1932 Olympics gave them the opportunity to connect with their past, and to be proud of where they'd come from.

Chuhei Nambu, Gold Medalist in the Hop, Step, and Jump | From the Official Olympic Report, 1932
Chuhei Nambu, Gold Medalist in the Hop, Step, and Jump | From the Official Olympic Report, 1932

This cross-cultural dynamic continues to be present in the sports scene in Los Angeles. Take, for instance, the 2011 Gold Cup Final at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, when the USA faced Mexico. Los Angeles, with its large Latino population, saw the same situation as at the 1932 Olympics -- Mexican Americans rooting for Mexico. This raised the critique that they should have been supporting the United States and not their native (or their family's native) country.

But in today's globalized world, it's hard to defend this perspective; whether or not we were born in the United States, all but the Native Americans ultimately come from somewhere else. Who is to say we can't support where we've come from? As we saw with the Japanese Americans rooting for the Japanese in the 1932 Olympics, sports offers the opportunity to take pride in one's culture.

With legal obstacles from the Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907 to the Immigration Act of 1924, Japanese Americans had struggled to assimilate into their new home and identify themselves as American citizens. However, when the 1932 Olympics rolled around, the Issei and the Nisei finally had the chance to identify themselves as proud Japanese, freely cheering on their kaigai zairyu doho, or "overseas brethren."

Chanting "Nihon wo kataseyo!" ("Make Japan win!"), Japanese Americans watched as Japan dominated in track and field and swimming, with athletes such as Chuhei Nambu, Miyazaki Tatsugo, and Kawaishi Tatsugo all winning gold medals. Japanese also thrived in equestrian and field hockey, securing gold and silver medals, respectively. Their success allowed for immense pride to blossom in L.A.'s Japanese American community.

Oshima Kenkichi in the Hop, Step, and Jump | From the Official Olympic Report, 1932
Oshima Kenkichi in the Hop, Step, and Jump | From the Official Olympic Report, 1932

What unites the 2011 Gold Cup Final and the Japanese in the 1932 Olympics is one common point: Los Angeles. This cosmopolitan metropolis, which houses immigrants from every corner of the world and thrives on its diversity, is bound to raise conflict when it comes to supporting sports teams. Do you root for where you live or where your family came from? Should it matter?

Perhaps we should instead simply focus on a positive note -- the ability of this momentous sporting event to bring together nations and to cause surges of national pride for many immigrants who are still struggling to cement their identity as Americans. This is one of the things that has made the Olympic Games so powerful for so many years.


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