The Hope of Second Sons, And a Wish for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics

1932 was a breakthrough year for the Japanese in sport. Team Japan won 18 medals at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, 7 of them gold.

Chuhei Nambu took gold in the triple jump. Yasuji Miyazaki won two swimming gold medals, in the individual 100-meter freestyle and the 4x200-meter freestyle relay. With their gold medals, Masaji Kiyokawa, Yoshiyuki Tsuruta and Kusuo Kitamura as well showed the world Japan was an emerging swimming power.

What a proud moment for the Japanese, both in Japan and in America.

My grandfather, Kiyoshi Tomizawa, was living in California at that time. He emigrated from Japan to the US in 1903. He was the executive secretary for the Japanese American YMCA in Japan Town, San Francisco. And 29 years later, he was still a Japanese citizen.

I don't know if he saw, this poem in Rafu Shimpo, the Los Angeles newspaper for the Japanese American community at the time, but I'm sure he would have been proud to read it.

The flag of the rising sun
Went up the main mast.
It is no longer a dream.
On the scoreboards for each nation
Japan's points are rising fast.
Gloriously, truly gloriously
Several Japanese flags are fluttering
Against Los Angeles' blue sky.
My body shakes with emotion.
Tears of joy well up in my eyes.
Victories extol victories.

No doubt Japanese communities all across America were following the exploits of the Japanese team in Los Angeles with tremendous pride. Julie Checkoway, author of the brilliant book, The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui's Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory, stated that the achievements of the Japanese at the 1932 Olympics not only transfixed the Japanese in America, they transformed them.

Both Issei and Nisei in California had spent more than $100,000 on tickets to watch events, and again and again they saw the Japanese flag rise over the stadium, an image filled with symbolism. The Japanese sports commentators had even ventured to say that the sporting world of the West was now firmly at the feet of the Empire.

My grandfather may have needed that boost. He struggled to raise funds to build a wholly-owned YMCA building for Japanese Americans. It was the Great Depression, and there was a strong anti-Asian, anti-Japanese movement. Funds were not readily available to support the Japanese youth in San Francisco.

But my grandfather persevered, and with the help of many, got the YMCA built. It's still there. The Buchanan YMCA is a mainstay of what is still called the J-Town community.

I am in awe of my grandfather and the legacy he left. He demonstrated his values of hope, peace and understanding through his actions to all the people he touched. I will never have the impact on generations of people that he has had. He was a tremendous role model for his children, and his children's children, who are doing their best.

Thomas Tomizawa at Buchanan YMCA in SF.jpg

Second Sons

Ronald Takaki wrote a great history of Asian immigration to the United States, called "Strangers from a Different Shore." He explained what teachers taught Japanese school children in the late 19th century and the early 20th century - the social norm of primogeniture. To preserve the wealth of the family unit, primogeniture dictates that the first son inherits all or most of the wealth of the father. Any other children have to find new paths.

"First sons, stay in Japan and be men of Japan. Second sons, go abroad with great ambition as men of the world!"

I am a second son. My father is a second son.

The most important second son in my family was my grandfather, Kiyoshi Tomizawa. Kiyoshi's father, my great-grandfather Kiyotaka, grew up as a "samurai" in Fukushima. He was the Soma Clan minister of religion. He taught my grandfather the samurai arts— kendo, archery, and Chinese calligraphy. My great-great-grandfather had an imposing feudal name and title, Tomizawa Hachirozaemon, Minamoto-no-Takakiyo.

According to the family register of my grandfather, Kiyoshi was adopted by the Kataoka family around the age of 11. But apparently, Kiyoshi didn't get along with the Kataokas, and returned to the Tomizawas, around the age of 18. Remember, he was the second son. As my Auntie Grace once told me, my great grandfather couldn't afford to have two sons.

So as the second son, my grandfather still had a great adventure ahead of him.

International Man

The time my grandfather was a university student was a really exciting time in the world.

The steam engine led to tremendous innovation. The steam locomotive and steam ship in particular, increased mobility and global trade, as well as immigration to the United States. It also facilitated the sharing of ideas around the world.

Established in England in 1844, the Young Men's Christian Association spread quickly all over the world. The YMCA triangle represents spirit, mind, body. The goal was to develop good, healthy men and women, particularly in the growing middle class. Millions of people had been working in farms, and now were working in crowded cities in factories.

Because of the steamship, the missionaries of the YMCA went all over the world. And one of them came to Sendai, Japan, and met my grandfather.

My grandfather attended Tohoku Gakuin College in Sendai, a Christian school connected to a Church organization in the United States. In 1898, he was 19 years old and he was baptized.

Three years later, my grandfather met John R. Mott, a leader in the YMCA. Mott traveled the world in steam locomotives and steam ships, and was said to have traveled 1,700,000 miles in his life, the equivalent of fully 68 times around the world. He visited Asia repeatedly and knew about parts of the world that most others in the West knew. He would go on to become a friend of American presidents.

In 1946, John Mott was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This was a man who spoke out against colonialism. He hated the racism of the Western world and often spoke about the dignity of all people, no matter their color, their belief or their nationality. Mott was a clear thinker and a great speaker.

My grandfather was heavily influenced by Mott, inspiring him to "go abroad with great ambition as a man of the world." My grandfather borrowed money from his uncle, and bought a ticket on a ship to America.

On November 4, 1903, my grandfather boarded the SS Riojun at Yokohama for an 18-day trip on the Pacific Ocean, arriving in Seattle, Washington on November 21, 1903. He almost did not make it to America.

Traveling by steamship in those days was risky. Ships would often meet with disaster. Ocean storms were a common reason. According to the Seattle Times the day my grandfather landed on American soil, "the steamship Riojun which arrived this morning from Yokohama, had a very stormy voyage, and for five days she was rolling from beam to beam in an easterly gale. ...she was on her beam ends with her port rail buried. It was feared for a time the Riojun would turn turtle."

Because my grandfather met John Mott and the SS Riojun did not capsize, I and the entire Tomizawa clan in America exist.

Roy connects to Shiga relatives in Fukushima_1989.jpg

Journey Back to Fukushima

On my first birthday, I was in New York City. My mother and brother were with me, but my father, Thomas Tomizawa, was away. It was October 10, 1964, and he was in Tokyo, working as a journalist for NBC News, which broadcasted the 1964 Tokyo Olympics to an American audience.

My father had a great career as a globe-trotting journalist and news producer. He also lived in Japan - working for a newspaper for the US Military called "Stars and Stripes." That was in 1957-1958, when he met my mother. They moved back to the United States. My brother Mike was born, and then I was. As my father travelled the world as a journalist, I existed.

After I graduated from university, I worked as a newspaper reporter in Pennsylvania, but I felt the urge to "go abroad with great ambition," so I moved to Tokyo in 1986.

I knew my father's side of the family was from Fukushima. One hot August day in 1989, I went to Odaka City in Fukushima to pick up records of the Tomizawa family that went back about 150 years. The local city officials told me my relatives lived nearby. As it turned out, my grandfather's sister's family ran the Shiga barbershop.

My Japanese was not so good. But when I showed them the records, they understood I was family. They showed me pictures. They fed me sushi. And they took me to the place where the Tomizawas were buried. This was a very moving moment - to stand in the place my father's ancestors stood.

I returned to Odaka in July, 2019, to see my second cousin, Takashi Shiga, and visit the site of my father's ancestors. Odaka is exactly 20 kilometers north of Dai Ichi Nuclear Power Plant. After the earthquake, tsunami and the explosion at Dai Ichi, Shiga-san and his family left Fukushima, but they were able to return 8 years later. The spot where my ancestors were buried is only 100 meters from the sea. Everything here was wiped away by the tsunami.

But the memories remain.

Thomas Tomizawa at Tokyo Olympics_5.JPG

The Recovery Games - A New Hope

The opening ceremonies of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were finally held on July 23, 2021. When Tokyo won the bid to host the 2020 Games in 2013, it was only two years after 3.11, and thus these Games were dubbed the Recovery Games.

Today, these Recovery Games have been reinterpreted, an opportunity to overcome not natural disaster, but the ills of a global pandemic. And while fans were not allowed into the stands, they surrounded the National Stadium for over three hours, hoping to feel the excitement again, and feed off the energy inside. They wanted to experience this together, with many other people - strangers and friends alike - as they did two years before during the fantastic 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Fans around the world watched opening ceremonies on television. One thing everyone could see and agree on: the athletes were very happy to be in Japan. Many have said they are grateful to Japan for deciding to go ahead with the Games.

People want to see athletes perform at their highest levels, unchained by the bondages that have held all of us down. People want to cheer again, simply because they have had so little to cheer about.

My grandfather would understand. In 1932, he was far from raising the funds necessary to build a YMCA for Japanese Americans. But he did not allow the Great Depression, open discrimination of the Japanese in America to stop him. I'm sure the Olympics and the achievements of his countrymen inspired him, and gave him hope.

We need a balance of caution and optimism in order to live long and healthy lives. We've weighed heavily on the side of caution during the worst days of the pandemic, and with signs of improvement due to the vaccination rollout, we want to shift the balance to optimism. The fans outside the stadium and the athletes inside the stadium were expressing a hope, an expectation, that we are gradually mending.

Hope propels us.

The growing ratio of the vaccinated, combined with the state of emergency discouraging opportunities for super-spreader events, it's possible that infection rates will drop enough to ease the collective anxiety of Japanese society. It's possible the mood in August will be different from July. It's possible, that at the end of the current state of emergency, citizens, corporations and government alike will look to take steps toward normalcy.

Who knows? The 2020 Tokyo Paralympics may be kicking off at just the right time. The Paralympics may be the opportunity that fans, both domestic and international, are allowed into the stadiums and arenas. Full capacity at venues may be a stretch, but seeing fans in the new National Stadium will be a welcome sight.

I have tickets to the opening and closing ceremonies of the Tokyo Paralympics.

I have hope.

Roy Tomizawa

Roy Tomizawa is a sports journalist who recently published a book, "1964 — The Greatest Year in the History of Japan: How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan's Miraculous Rise from the Ashes."
Text: Roy Tomizawa