A Dynamic Compendium of Interesting Japanese Literary and Publishing Facts
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    Japan’s ‘first’ Olympic Book, ‘The Fruits of Olympus’, was published in 1940[UPDATED: 3-1-2023]

    In 1932 Japan sent a large team of 115 men and 16 women to the Los Angeles Summer Olympics. They performed extremely well, winning 7 gold, 7 silver, and 4 bronze medals. Japan’s success at this Olympics did not just generate nationalistic pride at home; it also produced one of Japan’s first Olympic literary works, a bestselling novella by Hidemitsu Tanaka (1913-1949), Orinposu no Kajitsu, The Fruits of Olympus (1940).

    Tanaka was an Olympic rower who at the age of 19 competed in the Men’s Coxed Eights. He and his Olympic crew didn’t bring back any medals from the games. But the Olympic experience led to Tanaka’s novella, which unlike his Olympic feats was a major success, creating its own narrative milestone.

    The Fruits of Olympus, a rites of passage novel about unrequited love, is the tale of a young moody athlete, also a rower, leaving his country and representing it on the Los Angeles Olympic stage. It is not a tale of the fruits of success.

    The Fruits of Olympus is not your typical Japanese sports book with an individual becoming a national hero by overcoming every challenge faced through extreme hard work and diligence. Much of the short novel takes place on the boat journey from Japan to the games in the United States.

    The novella, a semi-autobiographical I-novel style work of autofiction, follows Sakamoto, a university rower who doesn’t enjoy all aspects of being part of his Olympic team. The rowers life takes on new meaning, however, during the boat journey to America on which a female athlete (an 18 year-old high jumper) catches his eye and he falls for her. 

    The Fruits of Olympus articulates the anxiety of youth struggling with young love, authority, peer-pressure and expectations. Rowing success is elusive, Sakamoto’s efforts are fruitless and he returns to Japan without fulfilling his dreams; and is unable to rise to the challenge of even telling the high jumper how he feels.

    The Fruits of Olympus was initially published in a literary magazine, Bungakukai, but became more popular in book format, according to academics, after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War – especially among schoolboys.

    Perhaps, as some academics have argued, Sakamoto’s international failure, his skepticism about the strategy and approach adopted, and his inability to articulate his feelings, including those of defeat, reflected how many felt in post-war Japan.

    Since its publication in 1940: popular Japanese sports have diversified to include diving and football as well as rowing; and Japan’s Olympic literature has also evolved in a way that would undoubtedly have surprised but perhaps also delighted Tanaka.

    Japan’s ‘first’ Olympic Book, ‘The Fruits of Olympus’, was published in 1940 Posted by Richard Nathan
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    Japan’s first rugby book published in 1909 criticised baseball, arguing that rugby was the superior sport[UPDATED: 9-11-2019]

    Japan’s first book on rugby, Ragubi Shiki Futoboru (Rugby-Style Football), was published in 1909, a digital copy of which can be accessed online at Japan’s National Diet Library

    The book not only introduced the game and its rules to Japanese readers for the first time, but it also critiqued baseball, insisting that rugby was superior in terms of its sportsmanship.

    Let’s play rugby, not baseball!’ its foreword states, which then also goes on to quote a famous Japanese baseball player of the era Shin Hashido (1879-1936), who apparently held similar views, saying that, ‘In the future, I will play rugby instead of baseball’.

    Baseball, despite its popularity, was controversial and considered harmful by some sections of the Japanese press and society, which argued that playing the sport would turn students into ‘non-achievers’ and ‘delinquents’, and not the disciplined loyal heroes Japan wanted to develop. Baseball arrived in Japan in advance of rugby in 1872 while rugby only arrived on Japanese shores in the 1890s.

    Japanese books of this period mostly focused on introducing new sports and their rules to readers, and not on tactics and game-winning strategies or inspiring narratives associated with the sport. 

    Since the publication of Japan’s first book on the sport, rugby and sports literature in general have grown considerably in Japan to the extent that one can now find inspiring narratives, heroic tales of winning teams and individuals, as well as multiple formats and styles including anime, mangaas well as books.

    Japan’s first rugby book published in 1909 criticised baseball, arguing that rugby was the superior sport Posted by Richard Nathan