Highly Rated: The 1936 Tokyo Imperial University Eight

At the 1936 Marlow Regatta, Tokyo Imperial University Crew, radical in both rowing style and boat design, produced a sensation amongst the conservative British rowing establishment.

7 September 2022

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch bows to a legendary crew.

There are several barroom legends that have grown up around the 1936 Tokyo Imperial University Eight that raced at the Marlow and Henley regattas and then went on to represent Japan at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. These mostly concern the rates (the number of oar strokes per minute) that they set in competition and in practice. While these have often been exaggerated, this does not change the fact that they were a remarkable crew.

A “Moga” or “Modern Girl”, symbolic of Japanese modernism in the inter-war period. Picture: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Japan had been an ally of the United Kingdom since entering an alliance in 1902 and had played an important role on the Allied side in the First World War, 1914 – 1918. Further, in 1904-1905 it had unexpectedly defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War and later helped the Allies to erode Germany’s influence in Asia. During the First World War, its supply of shipping, textiles and arms to the Allies had turned the country into an industrial power. All this gained Japan an honoured position at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference and by the 1920s it was enjoying its new position as a modern world power. One manifestation of this was the desire to make its mark in the Olympic Games.

No athletes from any Asian nation participated in the first four Olympics (1896, 1900, 1904, 1908) so the 1912 Swedish Olympic Committee made a direct invitation to the Japanese government. Allegedly and stereotypically, the Japanese did not want to lose face by refusing and so the Ministry of Education reluctantly took on the task of raising teams. No funding was in place and eventually just two runners were sent. By the time of the 1920 Olympics, Japan was able to field a fifteen-man team, but the Japan Amateur Athletic Association underestimated the costs of the journey to Belgium and back and was unable to pay for the athletes to return home. The embarrassment was so great that the Japanese government agreed to provide subsidies for future Olympic participation.

Japan’s not too impressive rowing record at the two Olympic Regattas that they had entered before 1936: 1928 and 1932.

In a piece that needs to be treated with some scepticism, The Times of 1 July 1936 wrote about Tokyo University’s Henley crew. It suggested that their inspiration came from a past royal visit: 

Japan has been preparing for this (Henley) visit ever since (Crown Prince Hirohito), visiting Oxford some years ago, saw in the rooms of the captain of the Magdalen College Boat Club, some oars and also a cup or two – the Grand, the Stewards, and the Goblets, and determined that his country also should cultivate rowing as rowing is known in England…

(In fact, a Briton, FW Strange, is usually given the credit for introducing “rowing as rowing is known in England” to Japan in 1875 and a very brief history of rowing in that country is here.)

Crown Prince Hirohito of Japan on a visit to Oxford on 14 May 1921. He became Emperor at the end of 1926. The rowers seem unimpressed that they are in the presence of a man worshipped by many at that time as a god (but perhaps such a thing is a common occurrence in Oxford).

A New Approach and a Three-Year Plan

Whatever influence Hirohito had in Japan’s international rowing aspirations, it seems true that after unimpressive performances in the 1928 and 1932 Olympic Regattas, it had been decided that a new approach was required. During a three-year period, both boat design and rowing style were adapted to suit people of a small stature. In Japan’s 1936 Eight for example, the heaviest man was “6”, weighing 11 stone 7 lbs / 72.6 kgs / 160 lbs. The average crew weight was just 10 stone 6 lbs / 66.2 kg / 146 lbs. This was about 2 1/2 stone / 16 kgs / 35 lbs less than the average top oarsman at the time. 

A technical description from The Times of the boat used by the 1936 Japanese eight.
The Japanese designed and built boat was nearly ten foot shorter and, allegedly, 70 pounds (30kgs) lighter than usual. It was designed by Dr Inokuchi from the Tokyo University Department of Naval Architecture and made from Hinoki wood, a form of cypress that was considered sacred in Japan and that has been used since ancient times to build temples and shrines. An internal view of the cramped craft is on Getty Images.
A breakdown of the Japanese rowing style from The Times. It suggests that they had adopted the classic English “orthodox” style of rowing, “combining body and slide perfectly, to these little men of 10 stone it comes quite natural to do so. That is the secret of their perfect rowing…” Contrary to orthodox teaching however, they used swivel rowlocks, not fixed-pin.

The Grand Challenge Cup, Marlow

Then, as now, Marlow Regatta was a warm-up event for Henley. Tokyo had already been practicing in the UK for nearly two weeks and there were all sorts of towpath rumours about the speed of the exotic foreigners. 

The Northern Whig of 5 June 1936 noted:

The crew represent Tokyo University, described as “Japan’s Cambridge”, and they hold the university championship in Japan. The visit (to the UK) has been arranged by Mr Otsuki, who gained a trial cap while at Oxford, and who has himself rowed for Tokyo… (The) coach is Dr Seta.

(While I have no opinion on the matter, some may conclude that, if Tokyo Imperial was indeed “Japan’s Cambridge,” then the country had one other university that was superior.)

There were five entries for the Marlow Grand: London, Thames, Quintin, First Trinity and Tokyo. The latter two were drawn in the only preliminary round.

In the first heat, Tokyo met First Trinity Boat Club, Cambridge, established in 1825. First Trinity had produced the crews that won the Olympic coxless fours in 1924 and 1928, the college’s two boat clubs had nineteen Henley wins between them since the war, and their 1936 Marlow crew had been successful in that year’s May bumping races at Cambridge. However, the Japanese visitors started at 46 strokes per minute to Trinity’s 40 and were two lengths up after two minutes. They eventually won by three-quarters of a length, producing a final burst of 48 strokes per minute when the Cambridge crew came within half-a-length. A photograph of the finish is on the Alamy site.

From the 1936 Marlow Regatta programme. Two weeks later, the Henley programme mysteriously showed the First Trinity crew about seven pounds per man lighter. (Thanks to Tony Evans and Mike Sweeney for finding this.)

In the semi-final, Tokyo met the holders, a fresh London Rowing Club crew. The Japanese went off at a lower rate than they did against First Trinity and initially London led. However, when stroke Tadashi Negishi took the rate to up 48, their opposition could not respond.

The final against Thames Rowing Club (who had an easy qualifying race against Quintin) was reported in The Times:

Tokyo were content to play a cat-and-mouse game with Thames. They would take a short lead and then drop to a “short paddle” at 40 allowing the Putney crew to come up level and take a few feet lead. (Near the finish) Tokyo began one of their electrifying spurts, raising the rate in a few strokes from 40 to 46 and then astonishing everyone by a final spurt at the rate of 52 – a spurt such as has never been seen in first-class racing – went on to win by one and half lengths. Their reception was tremendous and they well deserved it.

After Marlow, Tokyo were “strongly fancied” for the Grand at Henley.
The Marlow Grand Challenge Cup in the hands of the 2022 winners, Molesey Boat Club. Picture: @MarlowRegatta.
Wonderfully, the names of the 1936 winners were engraved in Japanese characters on one of the silver plaques attached to the base of the Marlow Grand Challenge Cup. This must have taken a lot of effort and I think shows the respect that the visitors earned. It also clearly survived anti-Japanese feeling resulting from the Second World War. Picture: @MarlowRegatta.

The Grand Challenge Cup, Henley

The Devon and Exeter Gazette of 3 July 1936 referenced the casually racist stereotypes of the time under the headline “Nippy”:

They sit their boat like unemotional clockwork idols, each man watches his blade all the time – a dreadful infraction of the hoary “eyes-in-the-boat” fetish – and working like a piece of well-oiled machinery, they can strike up to fifty-two or more per minute. At Henley the riverside experts now offer 7 to 1 on the Japanese boat for the Grand. But the Henley course is much longer and harder than Marlow where the boats race with the stream. The Japanese crew may not be able to stick their terrific sprint up-stream for a mile and a half.

There was great public interest in what the Tokyo crew would do at Henley.

There were nine entries for the 1936 Henley Grand: Pembroke (Cambridge), Thames, Union BC (Boston, USA), Leander, London, Quintin, Zürich (Switzerland), Jesus (Cambridge) and Tokyo Imperial University (Empire of Japan). 

In the first round, the Japanese drew one of the least favoured entries, the Thames Tideway club from Chiswick, Quintin Boat Club. The foreign visitors had an easy victory. After the race, The Times reported:

The real form of the Tokyo Imperial University has yet to be disclosed for yesterday, in their heat with the Quintin Boat Club, they played a game of cat and mouse with their opponents. The race was rowed in a strong head wind and rain storm and the Japanese crew went off very slowly, for them, striking only 40 in the first minute, so that Quintin led away from the mark. However, it was only on sufferance, for when the Tokyo crew made one of their famous spurts, at 50, near Fawley, they quickly gained a length. Along the Enclosure they had another spurt, and won, without extending themselves, by two lengths.

The Times summary of the Quintin race.
Tokyo leading Quintin home.

Sadly, in the semi-finals Tokyo was defeated by Zürich RC by a huge six lengths in a contest in which they did not employ any of their famous “spurts”. It was a performance described by The Times as “too disappointing to represent their real merits” and in which they “never showed any of the fire with which they rowed down inferior crews at Marlow”.

The Times report on the Tokyo – Zürich race.

Perhaps there was a little gloating at the result. The Western Mail of 4 July 1936 had the headline, Japanese “Wonder” Crew Defeated. The newspaper said of the Zürich race:

(It) was in one respect a triumph for the British orthodox style of rowing, which the world has imitated. The remarkable Japanese crew in their 52ft boat, with a striking rate that has been at once the horror of Old Blues, found their strange methods of no avail against the smooth powerful orthodoxy of Zurich RC… 

The Hull Daily Mail also took the opportunity to rebuke the cheeky foreigners for their efforts and had the headline “WIZARD JAP CREW BEATEN: Zurich RC’s Normal Style Triumphs”

The Yorkshire Post’s comment was harsh but true:

The story of the (Zürich) race is briefly told, for Japan’s rowing effort of the last three years was destroyed in as many minutes…

The Japanese in training. Zürich won the final of the 1936 Grand, defeating Leander by 1 1/4 lengths. 

The Zürich crew averaged 81.52 kgs against Tokyo’s 66.2 kgs. The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News of 10 July 1936 called the Swiss Grand winners “Probably the fastest crew that ever rowed at Henley”. Even allowing for hyperbole, losing to such a crew should not have been regarded as an humiliation by the Japanese.

Interestingly, the First Trinity crew that Tokyo easily beat in the first round at Marlow was the same one (but for the bowman) that won the Ladies’ Plate at Henley a few weeks later. Tokyo could not have entered the Ladies in those days as, until 1967, the event was only open to academic institutions from the UK and also to Trinity College, Dublin. However, it does show that the Japanese crew were of a Henley winning standard.

Olympic Regatta, Berlin

The Japanese Eight in Berlin. Picture: University of Tokyo.

The winners of each of the three first rounds of the eights (USA, Hungary and Switzerland) went straight to the final, the rest to the repechage. In their round one race, Japan recorded a time of 6.12 and came fourth out of five, behind France (6.11), Britain (6.02) and the U.S. (6.00). However, they were ahead of fifth placed Czechoslovakia who recorded 6.28. The Tokyo University crew’s  first round time was also better than those of Canada, Australia, Brazil, Yugoslavia and Denmark. Of course, conditions can vary between races producing very different boat speeds.

The Times of 13 August reported:

Japan, who used the fast stroke that started and alarmed so many people when they first began to race in England, led for about a quarter of the way in the first heat of the Eights, with Great Britain and France next, and then the Washington crew… Great Britain soon afterwards took a slight lead from Japan and France, and when she began to draw away from both it was America who took up the challenge…

The winner of each repechage went to the final but, in their rep, Japan came in second, seven-seconds behind the winners, Italy (6.35). In the last 300 metres, the Japanese crew hit 48 strokes per minute in a vain attempt to go ahead. Their time of 6.42 did at least put them ahead of third placed Yugoslavia (6.47) and fourth placed Brazil (7.06). For what it is worth, Japan’s repechage time was also better than those of Germany, Australia and Czechoslovakia – but still their Olympic dreams were over.

Japan’s 1936 Olympic Regatta record. It was actually their almost unnoticed coxed four that had the most successful Olympic campaign: third out of six and four-seconds behind the winner in round one, second out of five and five-seconds behind the winner in the repechage.

“Thorough and Enthusiastic”, 1933 – 1936 

In summary, the 1936 Tokyo Imperial University Eight was good enough to win Senior Eights at the prestigious Marlow Regatta, beating Thames RC’s Henley Grand crew, London RC (also possibly their Grand crew) and the eventual winners of that year’s Ladies Plate, First Trinity. At Henley, it won a round and then lost to one of the best eights seen there in years. In Berlin, it was faster than Australia, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Brazil in both round one and in the repechage. Wherever they raced, most of Tokyo’s opposing crews were perhaps twelve kilograms a man heavier. 

After the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Japan was scheduled to be the host nation in 1940 but the Second World War, 1939 – 1945, meant that the next Olympic Games actually took place in London in 1948. Japan was not invited to London and next competed in Helsinki in 1952. There, its only boat, a coxed four, came last in its first round and last in its repechage. Clearly and understandably, any impetus that had been set up nearly twenty years previously by the 1936 Eight had been lost. 

The Yorkshire Post succinctly and bluntly summed up the Japanese attempt to win on the international rowing stage in the late 1930s. Following their defeat at Henley, it wrote:

The Japanese have been very popular here and their bold bid to meet Western oarsmen on level terms had been so thorough and so enthusiastic that everybody has admired them; but theirs was a forlorn hope.

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