What really caused this tidal wave of Japanese triumphs? A variety of things. For starters, swimming was hardly a minor sport in that island nation. As far back as the Tokugawa Period (1603-1868), when Japan was fractured into many fiefdoms, each feudal lord had his own samurai, who were trained to fight—and swim. As Kiyokawa, the gold-medal backstroker who's now a spry 71, says: "Swimming was virtually a martial art in Japan then. The samurai approached it like a military science." Indeed, those warriors practiced swimming in full armor to enhance endurance, and developed a more powerful sidestroke by swimming for miles with a bow, sword or, later, a rifle held aloft in one hand.
Although samurai swimming had little direct bearing on the Japanese triumphs at the 1932 Games, the English-language Japan Times ran a post-Olympic article saying that people shouldn't be surprised at the victories in Los Angeles, any more than "those who are acquainted with 'Bushido' [martial arts] are surprised at Japanese victories in modern warfare. The emergence of Japan as a great swimming nation at the Tenth Olympiad is paralleled in a way by the rise of Japan as a great power." A year before the Olympics in Los Angeles, the Japanese had invaded and taken over Manchuria, and the imperial forces would soon move on China, the Netherlands East Indies and Fiji as the empire expanded throughout the South Pacific.
Kitamura, now 66 and a lawyer, denies any connection between the swimming miracle and 1930s Japanese militarism. "It was a time of political expansionism that grew out of economic depression—not just in Japan," he says. "The government felt that to improve the economy Japan must expand overseas. That tied in with the pride in our international success in the Olympics. In that sense, I suppose, the government tried to use our victory. But there was no talk of such things among the athletes."
The manager of the swimming team, Norio Nomura, now 84, says that U.S. swimmers were responsible for the Japanese victories, and he recalls seeing American swimming manuals around pools in Japan as early as 1918. "After 1932 everyone was talking about the Japanese crawl," says Nomura, "but actually our techniques came from watching Johnny Weissmuller."
That's an over-simplification, because the Japanese had more than the U.S. example going for them. They were probably in better condition than swimmers from other countries; as a result of Japan's shortage of indoor pools, they'd undertaken a lot of out-of-the-water conditioning including aerobic exercises and stretching, which wasn't widely done in those days. The use of oxygen, another Japanese innovation, was of some help, mainly in shorter races. And the Japanese had some fairly radical things going for them once they got in the pool. In Forbes Carlile on Swimming, the Australian coach says this about the Japanese swimmers in Los Angeles: "Because of the generally small stature of the Japanese, with rounded shoulders and short legs with well-developed calves, the stroke they evolved has probably, with good reason, been called a 'masterpiece of adaptation.' Japanese swimmers endeavored to aid the pull of the arm stroke by the very strong beating of the legs. They have flexible ankles which gives them a lot of propulsion from their kicks without much effort. The arm recovery became quickened and shortened, the hand entering only a short distance in front of the shoulder followed by a long underwater glide forward.... During the arm recovery and arm drive, a continuous and powerful leg beat drove the body forward over the leading hand.... With this stroke, considerable body roll was introduced for the first time among modern champions."
Buck Dawson, director of the Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, adds: "They were using a straight-arm crawl while Americans were using a bent-arm crawl. They moved their arms much faster and in a windmill, going in just in front of the head, straight under the body and coming out at the hips. The fact that they had shorter arms probably made this technique work better for them than it would for most Americans."
Despite the youth and talent of its team, Japan's domination of swimming didn't last long. The Japanese did all right in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, winning three gold medals, but in the nine Games held since then, Japan has had only two men's swimming victories. Says Kiyokawa, now 71, "We didn't actually fall apart; the rest of the world just caught up with us. As a defeated nation after World War II, we were barred from the  London Games, and the isolation hurt us. We didn't know what the others were doing. We lost touch."
Only Crabbe's 400 broke the string of Japanese victories in 1932. His strongest event was supposedly the 1,500 free, but he finished fifth. By that time he had already won the 400. Oddly enough, the man he beat by scant inches wasn't Japanese, but the Frenchman, Taris.
When the 400 began, Crabbe wasn't all that worried about Taris. He believed his strongest challengers would be the three young Japanese in the race, particularly Tsutomu Oyokota, 19. Through the heats, Crabbe had watched Taris closely and had determined that, perhaps because Taris set a furious pace for the first 300 meters, he tended to fade toward the end. Crabbe figured Taris didn't have the stamina to win, and Crabbe decided that he would pace his race by staying close to the Japanese.
A crowd of about 10,000 filled the bleachers at the Olylmpic pool, basking in shirtsleeves beneath a flawless sky. The spectators were cheering for Crabbe, except for a contingent of local Nisei who enthusiastically favored the Japanese swimmers, whom they fed and feted during the Games.