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  • Olympic Japan: Ideals and Realities of (Inter)Nationalism
  • William W. Kelly (bio)
Olympic Japan: Ideals and Realities of (Inter)Nationalism. Edited by Andreas Niehaus and Max Seinsch. Ergon Verlag, Würzburg, 2007. 211 pages. €32.00.

Since their revival in 1896, the modern Olympic Games have been an enduring contradiction. Both in rhetoric and in practice, more so than all other [End Page 239] international sports championships, the Games have been joyous sports festivals that bring together athletes of the world in goodwill, harmony, and camaraderie. Even the International Olympic Committee (IOC) itself is an early example of transnational, not international, governance because the individual members of the IOC are selected not to represent their nations but rather to exemplify commitment to universal Olympic ideals.

At the same time, the Games are not mere play but are elite contests about winning and losing. From those first Games in Athens in 1896, the quadrennial gathering has showcased and incited the most passionate nationalisms, and the IOC has been mired in national and international politics. The Olympics are not a respite from political and economic rivalries among nations; they are an unavoidable stage for playing out those realities.

This insightful and informative collection of nine essays is an early entry into what promises to be a large field of books about the Olympics occasioned by the 2008 Games in Beijing. It is an important contribution to a small but growing literature on Olympic history in Japan. What all its chapters demonstrate, with a coherence unusual for an edited volume, are the ways in which Japan's engagement with the Olympic movement, its participation in the Games, and its sponsorship of the Games on four occasions have been heavily inflected with patriotic pride and state nationalism. In short, its lesson is that Japan's Olympic experience is quite normal—distressingly so to those who may wish the world's largest gathering to move us beyond sordid political realities, but reassuring to those scholars who want to fit Asian sports history within the Olympic experience in a year in which some prejudice has surfaced about the capacities of non-Western countries to fully appreciate the Olympic spirit and ideals. Beyond the obvious but narrow band of sports scholars, the volume should also be of interest to anyone concerned with the forms and functions of twentieth-century nationalism in Japan.

The editors have divided the contributions into three parts. The opening trio of essays considers the perception of and the reception in Japan of the Olympics as organization, as philosophy, and as an educational movement. Wada Kōichi excavates the earliest examples of Olympic news in Japan. The conventional starting point of Japanese Olympic history is 1909, when Kano Jigorō accepted an invitation to join the IOC. Wada exposes a prehistory to this moment, and his most interesting point is the role of several mid-Meiji literary magazines in promoting awareness of and early participation in the Olympic Games.

Unlike world championships in single sports like the FIFA World Cup in soccer, the multisport Olympics are both a movement and a broad philosophy. Often overlooked in the focus on Olympic Games and Olympic sports is the emphasis the IOC has come to place on Olympic education as a way of spreading its philosophy through a host nation, which is responsible [End Page 240] for developing public and school educational programs during and after its four-year Olympiad. The chapter by Matsumoto Naofumi argues that in early 1960s Japan, Olympic educational programs and curricula were used for enhancing national awareness and pride rather than the more global ideals of the IOC. The Ministry of Education developed a program of seven movements that would showcase Japan as host for the rest of the world, with titles such as the Olympic Understanding Movement, Public Moral Enhancement Movement, and even the Traffic Moral Enhancement Movement! At the same time, some local teachers developed rather innovative curricula that used the Olympics to teach about electrification, the railroads, and the Tōkaidō Shinkansen; to practice the techniques and movements of Olympic sports; and to train students how to cheer for foreign athletes. Indeed, it is worth noting that Japan...


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