Athletes who have made Olympic Swimming history for Japan

(L to R) Ryosuke Irie, Takeshi Matsuda and Kosuke Kitajima of Japan celebrate finishing second in the Men's 4x100m medley Relay Final at the London 2012 Olympic Games (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
(L to R) Ryosuke Irie, Takeshi Matsuda and Kosuke Kitajima of Japan celebrate finishing second in the Men's 4x100m medley Relay Final at the London 2012 Olympic Games (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Today, 14 August, is Japanese Swimming Day, and Tokyo 2020 looks back at the incredible achievements of Japanese Olympians in the pool.

Swimming has brought many Olympic medals to Japan - 80, in fact - the third-highest total for the nation behind artistic gymnastics (98) and judo (84) - and in terms of gold, swimming ranks fourth with 22.

TSURUTA Yoshiyuki was the first Japanese athlete to ever to win gold in consecutive Olympic Games (Amsterdam 1928 and Los Angeles 1932), while MAEHATA Hideko was the first Japanese woman to win an Olympic gold medal (Berlin 1936).

But how much do you know of these other facts?

Breaststroke is Japan’s strongest event - earning the country 12 gold medals

Twelve of Japan’s 22 gold medals have come from breaststroke. With six gold in the men’s 200m event as well as three each in both the men’s 100m and the women’s 200m, it is without a doubt, Japan’s speciality.

Both Tsuruta and Maehata won their gold medals in the 200m breaststroke. Among the many accomplishments of Japan’s swimmers, KITAJIMA Kosuke’s feat of winning back-to-back golds at consecutive Olympic Games in the men’s 100m and 200m, is undoubtedly a historic milestone for Japan.

KITAJIMA Kosuke marked a milestone by winning two titles at two consecutive Olympic Games
KITAJIMA Kosuke marked a milestone by winning two titles at two consecutive Olympic Games

Another unforgettable achievement was by IWASAKI Kyoko.

Appearing at the Barcelona 1992 Games at the age of 14, Iwasaki put on an incredible burst of speed in the final stages of the women’s 200m breaststroke and made history by becoming the youngest ever swimmer to claim gold. The event remains one of the greatest moments in Japan’s Olympic history.

Japan continues to fare well in the breaststroke as evidenced by KANETO Rie gracing the podium in the women’s 200m event at Rio 2016. At the Tokyo 2020 Games, hopes are high that former 200m breaststroke world record holder, WATANABE Ippei, will be among those battling for gold.

KANETO Rie won gold in the 200m breaststroke at the Rio 2016 Games
KANETO Rie won gold in the 200m breaststroke at the Rio 2016 Games

The scintillating rise of Hagino and Seto

While Japan has exhibited stability and strength in the breaststroke in the past decade, their swimmers have also begun to achieve remarkable results in the individual medley events.

At the London 2012 Games, HAGINO Kosuke - a 17-year-old high school student at the time - edged out Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, in the 400m individual medley to snatch the bronze medal. It was the first time a Japanese male swimmer had ever achieved such a feat and eventually established Hagino as a multi-event swimmer. At Rio 2016, he won three medals a gold in the 400m individual medley, silver in the 200m individual medley, and bronze in the men’s 4x200m team medley relay.

The rise of Hagino (left) and Seto increased Japanese presence in the individual medley
The rise of Hagino (left) and Seto increased Japanese presence in the individual medley

Meanwhile, Hagino’s long-time friend and rival, SETO Daiya has also made good progress. At Rio 2016, he earned a bronze medal in the 400m individual medley. At the World Swimming Championships in 2019, he claimed gold in both the 200m and 400m individual medleys, which earned him a spot in the same events on Japan’s swimming team for the Tokyo 2020 Games.

With two more titles - in the 400m individual medleys from the same championships in 2013 and 2015 - there is no denying his competitiveness at international events.

Turning our eyes to the women’s category, OHASHI Yui continues to raise hopes. Since TAJIMA Yasuko won silver in the 400m individual medley at the Sydney 2000 Games, Japan has not seen a medal of any colour in this event. Having claimed silver and bronze in the World Swimming Championships in 2017 and 2019, respectively, Ohashi appears to be ready to stake her claim for a podium place at the Tokyo 2020 Games.

Japan’s medals in backstroke and butterfly

A swimming style that has brought two gold medals to Japan in the past is backstroke. Both are from the men’s 100m events; one by KIYOKAWA Masaji at Los Angeles 1932 and the other by SUZUKI Daichi at Seoul 1988.

Suzuki had developed the dolphin kick, first used by American Jesse Vassallo, to the point where he was able to proceed roughly 25m underwater, and this kick later became synonymous with backstroke.

IRIE Ryosuke has long been Japan’s leading backstroke swimmer
IRIE Ryosuke has long been Japan’s leading backstroke swimmer

In the men’s category, IRIE Ryosuke, who won bronze in the 100m backstroke and silver in the 200m backstroke at London 2012, still reigns supreme to this day. The backstroke specialist, who will turn 31 in 2021, is striving to make the Tokyo 2020 Games the climax of his career.

For the women’s events both NAKAMURA Reiko and TERAKAWA Aya among others have earned medals at four consecutive Games from Sydney 2000 to London 2012, raising Japan’s international presence in the event.

In the butterfly, Japan has seen only one gold medal - won by AOKI Mayumi in the women’s 100m event at Munich 1972. However, Japanese swimmers have had podium finishes at all editions of the Games since Athens 2004.

In the men’s category, YAMAMOTO Takashi and MATSUDA Takeshi won silver and bronze in the 200m events.

At the Rio 2016 Games, SAKAI Masato won silver in the same event, nearly denying Michael Phelps victory by just 0.04 seconds. Seto, whose main focus is the individual medley, also thrives at butterfly events, and is eyeing a medal at Tokyo 2020.

In the women’s events, HOSHI Natsumi, who won bronze medals at both London 2012 and Rio 2016, has been Japan’s main hope in this event for the past few years.

SAKAI Masato (left) finished a mere 0.04 seconds behind winner Michael PHELPS in the 200m butterfly event at the Rio 2016 Games
SAKAI Masato (left) finished a mere 0.04 seconds behind winner Michael PHELPS in the 200m butterfly event at the Rio 2016 Games

Japan has long struggled in the freestyle

It could be said that the freestyle is not Japan’s strong point in recent years.

Although SHIBATA Ai won gold in the women’s 800m freestyle event at Athens 2004, majority of Japan’s medals in this stroke were won prior to 1960 - however, at Rio 2016, Japan emerged with a bronze medal in the men’s 4x200m relay for the first time since Tokyo 1964.

In addition, several freestylers who have recently proved themselves a match for overseas swimmers have begun to come to the fore. Among these is MATSUMOTO Katsuhiro, who won silver in the men’s 200m freestyle at the 2019 World Championships.

SHIBATA Ai won a gold medal in the women’s 800m freestyle event at the Athens 2004 Games
SHIBATA Ai won a gold medal in the women’s 800m freestyle event at the Athens 2004 Games

Golden hopes in the relay

Japan has produced results not only in individual events but also in relays.

At London 2012, Japan’s team had three individual medallists: IRIE Ryosuke, KITAJIMA Kosuke and MATSUDA Takeshi, who managed to win silver in the men’s 4x100m medley relay.

The women’s team also won bronze in the same event. At the Tokyo 2020 Games, the 4x100m mixed medley relay, in which a team of four consisting of two men and two women competes, will take place as a new event.

Hopes are high in Japan that the host nation will fare well and dominate the event.

At the London 2012 Games, Japan won silver in the men’s 4x100m medley relay
At the London 2012 Games, Japan won silver in the men’s 4x100m medley relay