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Spotlight: Hitomi Kinue – Japan’s First Female Olympian

A silver medalist in the 1928 Games, Hitomi Kinue was a pioneer for women in sport in Japan

By Matthew Hernon

Next up in TW’s Spotlight series is Hitomi Kinue, the first woman to represent Japan at the Olympics. She also became the first female from this country to win a medal, picking up a silver in the 800 meters. The Okayama Prefecture-native set various world records throughout her career, but her legacy goes beyond her achievements on the track.

Hitomi was a pioneer for female Japanese track and field athletes, pushing for their involvement in international competitions. On top of that, she spent the last years of her life campaigning for the establishment of an organization to support their cause. Sadly, on August 2, 1931, exactly three years to the day after her podium finish in Amsterdam, Hitomi died of pneumonia. She was just 24.

Background

Hitomi was born in Okayama on new-year’s day in 1907. Her parents were wealthy farmers which meant she was able to study at Okayama Girls’ High School, one of the best institutions in the region. At the time, females in Japan were slowly starting to participate in more athletic activities. New role models were also emerging such as Isoko Asabuki who was making waves in tennis. That was the sport Hitomi initially decided to take up and she was soon selected for the school team. It was in track and field, though, where she made the biggest impression.

At 16, Hitomi appeared in her first ever athletic meet and set an unofficial national record of 4m 67 in the long jump. The following year she broke unofficial world records in triple jump and javelin. After getting a job with the Osaka Mainichi Shimbun, Hitomi was selected for the Women’s World Games in Gothenburg. The competition began in 1921 after the IOC refused to allow women to compete in track and field events at the Olympics. As Japan’s only representative in Sweden, she won four medals including two golds in standing long jump and long jump.

1928 Amsterdam Games

The 1928 Olympics in the Netherlands was the first to feature women’s track and field events. There were five competitions – 100 and 800 meter-races, 4 x 100m relay, high jump and discus. Hitomi competed in the 100 meters. Despite breaking the world record in the race just over two months before the start of the Games, she was disappointingly eliminated at the semi-final stage. Putting that disappointment behind her, she decided to enter the 800 meters despite having never run it before. She was given the green light as last-minute entries were allowed.

Getting through the qualifying round, Hitomi lined up for the final at the Olympic Stadium on August 2, 1932. It was one of the most important days in Japan’s sporting history. Mikio Oda won the country’s first Olympic gold after a leap of 15.02 meters in the triple jump. At the same venue, Hitomi became the nation’s first female medalist as she finished runner-up in the 800 meters. She overtook several runners on the home-stretch and finished with a time of 2:17:6, less than a second behind winner Lina Radke.

Six of the runners in the race surpassed Radke’s previous world record. Despite this, the male-dominated media at the time concentrated more on the negatives. “It was not a very edifying spectacle to see a group of fine girls running themselves into a state of exhaustion,” wrote Knute Rockne in the Pittsburgh Press. Many other newspapers focused on how drained the competitors looked at the end with many collapsing to the ground. In the eyes of the press, they were simply too weak for such a long distance. A few days after the race, the IAAF voted to exclude the women’s 800 meters from future Games. It didn’t return until 1960.

Dealing with Sexism

Coming back to Japan, Hitomi was praised by national newspapers for her historic feat in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, she also had to deal with sexist and inappropriate questions from reporters. In his book Japanese Women and Sport: Beyond Baseball and Sumo, Robin Kietlinski included an extract from an interview the runner did with the socialist women’s newspaper Fujin Sekai. The journalist asked how much she weighed, to which she replied, “Around 53 or 54 kilograms.” 

“So, since that is about the same weight as most men,” continued the journalist, “haven’t people said that they are doubtful that you are really a woman?” This was later followed up with: “This may be a bit rude but the shape of your chest and hips really isn’t like normal Japanese women, so it seems like you are more like a Western woman.” Another question asked was: “Is it true that very intense physical activity can cause gynecological abnormalities for women?” 

In spite of these disparaging remarks, Hitomi did her best to stay positive. On the track, she continued to excel, winning four medals at the 1930 Women’s World Games in Prague, Czechoslovakia. That included another gold in the long jump. Appearing alongside Hitomi at the competition were five younger Japanese athletes. As the government provided no financial support, they had to raise funds themselves. Hitomi decided to appeal to every all-girls’ school, telling students the athletes were representing all of them. It worked. 

“The challenge Kinue Hitomi had worked on is still one we have to face now.”

Hitomi’s Legacy

Hitomi was determined to promote women’s advancement in athletics. She was working towards the establishment of a women’s federation until her death in 1931. Eventually, a tough schedule took its toll on her body. After the 1930 Women’s World Games, she toured with the Japan team around Europe with little time for rest. In March 1931 she entered a hospital in Osaka under a false name to avoid publicity. She passed away just over four months later. At 24, she should have been reaching the peak of her career.

The impact that Hitomi had on women’s sport in Japan was immense. She helped pave the way for Japanese females to compete around the globe. At the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, 16 of the country’s 131 participants were women. Swimmer Hideko Maehata narrowly missed out on a gold in the 200m breaststroke. Four years later in Berlin, she became Japan’s first-ever female Olympic champion. That may not have been possible without Hitomi. 

Today, women are seen as just as integral to Japan’s Olympic team as men. In terms of equality, however, Yoshiko Tanaka believes there’s still some way to go. Author of the book Immortal Runner, Kinue Hitomi, she views Japan’s first female Olympian as a true pioneer and would like to honor her legacy by continuing to fight for equal rights.

“Kinue Hitomi was treated horribly,” said Tanaka at a symposium in 2018. “For example, someone published a novel and accused her of being a man. But she overcame it. While she didn’t cry in front of people, she divulged her frustrations to her sister. For future female athletes in track and field, we still don’t have a supportive organization. I think the challenge Kinue Hitomi had worked on is still one we have to face now.”