The Japanese haven't always been so-so athletes. At the L.A. Games in 1932, Japanese athletes won seven gold medals, fifth among the competing countries; they took home six golds from the Berlin Olympics of 1936, seventh among all countries. After World War II, however, there was little time or energy for sports in the ruined country, but as Japan was rebuilt, so was the desire to compete.
"Food was scarce, it was a very difficult era for the Japanese people," says Seiichi Tanaka, director of physical education at Tokai University. "But we had a high level of pride and fighting spirit then. We were hungry to win." That was evident in the 1964 Olympics, held in Tokyo. The men's gymnastics team won five of eight gold medals and the judo team three of four golds; the Japanese won 16 golds altogether.
"You don't see that hunger today," Tanaka says. "Life is very good in Japan now. We used to eat rice for physical strength; now we eat rice for mental strength."
The decline in sports began after the 1964 Olympics when, as Tanaka says, life became easier. The Japanese students" antigovernment movement in the late 1960s did nothing to stem the slide. "The charm of sports died in our young people," says Katsuya Hayashi. "Students saw athletes as privileged people, treated like stars by the government. They began a movement to restrict sports activity by students. It was a very severe power struggle."
The effects of the struggle remain today. Only 5% of the athletes on Japan's Seoul Olympic team were students, compared to 40% of most European teams. JASA hopes to change that, and recently some progress has been made. Parents now see a child, who because he attended a low-prestige university would never have been employed by a major firm like Hitachi, hooking up with Hitachi because he is good in volleyball and can help the company team. "They see money being paid to athletes other than just professional baseball players," Tanaka says. "And that helps them rationalize spending money and time on sports lessons."
Furthermore, because of the Japanese team's poor showing at Seoul, the Ministry of Education increased the budget for JASA by $2.8 million, to $8.6 million, and initiated a stipend system to pay for training and housing of the country's top athletes. Mizoguchi, for example, had his stipend doubled to $2,400 a month after his performance in San Jose. "The government is now concerned," JASA's Hayashi says. "It sees the importance of a strong sports system."
Tokai and Keio universities have begun research on nutrition and dietary supplements to help Japanese athletes make gains in weight and size. "There are natural things available that can elevate cardiovascular ability and increase size," says Hayashi. "It's important right now to think about nutrition and getting our athletes to eat better. Some students still eat noodles five times a week."
And many have not discovered weight training. "We are considered weak people and that is a shame," says Hirokazu Kobayashi, who coaches decathletes on the national team. "But it is for lack of training. We need to increase training for strength."
With stars such as Mizoguchi, who can bench-press 418 pounds and squat 490 pounds, as role models, Japanese sports officials hope that young athletes will become interested in events that require size and strength. "Mizoguchi is the new breed of athlete," says Hayashi. "If we can keep the good aspects of Japanese tradition and adapt to this age of technique, we can one day be dominant."