This column appeared in The Japan Times on Aug. 9, 2009.

Swim legend Furuhashi inspired Japan at tough time

By Ed Odeven

There are historical icons in every nation. But only a few individuals can be considered symbols of a nation’s collective psyche during a particular era.

This is Hironoshin Furuhashi’s legacy.

The “Flying Fish of Fujiyama” died at the age of 80 last Sunday in his hotel room in Rome. While in the Italian capital, the Japan Swimming Federation’s honorary president had a front-row seat at Stadio del Nuoto during the hot, humid days to watch the exploits of Michael Phelps, Junya Koga and others at the 12th FINA World Championships.

“That was really his style — to be a part of the swimming world until the last day,” Masanori Takaya, the Tokyo 2016 Bid Committee’s manager of international communications, said during a Friday phone conversation.

Indeed, Furuhashi’s never-wavering support for the sport was on display until the very end of his life.

“He was one of the great motivators after World War II,” journalist Hideki Mochizuki told me on Tuesday.

“Obviously, he’s a hero. I believe that’s a fact.”

Mochizuki said there are historical parallels between Furuhashi and a beloved ex-ballplayer known throughout the archipelago as Mr. Giants.

“He’s as big as (Shigeo) Nagashima in baseball,” said Mochizuki, who pens a swimming column for Asahi Shimbun and also writes for Swimming World Magazine.

In addition to his record-shattering feats in the pool, Furuhashi had served as a member of FINA, swimming’s world governing body, since 1968, including his most recent role as vice president. He also held a number of positions within the Japan Swimming Federation, including the presidency at one time (beginning in 1985).

As president of the Japanese Olympic Committee from 1990 until 1999, he stepped into the position after the tenure of business tycoon Yoshiaki Tsutsumi and steered the organization during the buildup to the 1998 Nagano Winter Games.

In the past several days, prominent leaders have issued statements that captured the essence of Furuhashi’s impact on Japanese society. These words reveal the strong emotional connection Furuhashi has had with several generations of Japanese.

“Hearing the sad news, I can’t believe it. We are very upset,” said Tsunekazu Takeda, the JOC president. “Furuhashi was a model citizen for us and the pride of the Japanese sports world. He had been making the best effort to help us bid for the 2016 Olympic Summer Games.”

Dr. Ichiro Kono, the chair and CEO of Tokyo 2016 said: “Mr. Furuhashi is a legend in Japan. He is our greatest ever sportsman, and his incredible achievements that brought hope and inspiration to millions of people will live on. . . . He became a symbolic figure of courage and pride for all Japanese, representing a rising sun in post-war Japan.”

He added: “We were humbled by Mr. Furuhashi’s active support for our Tokyo 2016 Olympic bid. Even during the FINA Swimming Championships, we talked every day and he kept encouraging us to drive forward.

“Knowing that the Flying Fish of Fujiyama was at our side gave us great confidence that we could achieve our nation’s ultimate dream — to host the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games.”

On Nov. 3, 2008, Furuhashi was one of six recipients of the Order of Culture at the Imperial Palace. Fittingly, the honor, given at a Culture Day event, was bestowed upon him by Emperor Akihito. Two Nobel laureates in physics were among the other honorees.

Furuhashi, who comfortably blended in with luminaries from all walks of life, was surrounded by appropriate company that day. But it was not his crowning achievement; it was simply an appropriate honor that reminded a nation of his historical relevance.

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Born on Sept. 16, 1928, in Shizuoka Prefecture, Furuhashi would earn great fame two decades later when U.S. journalists dubbed him the “Flying Fish of Fujiyama” during the 1949 U.S. national championships in Los Angeles.

He first gained recognition for his swimming exploits in his homeland, setting a non-recognized world record in the 400-meter freestyle in 1947.

In 1948, Furuhashi and his compatriots didn’t compete in the London Olympics due to IOC sanctions handed down after World War II. But that couldn’t keep Japan from staging the now-famous “Beat The Olympics” extravaganza at a Tokyo pool.

Nor could it stop Furuhashi from posting headline-grabbing victories in the 400 and 1,500 freestyle races, completing both in times that were superior to that year’s Olympic winners’ times and the then-world records. Neither record was recognized, though, as the Tokyo meet was not considered an official event.

A year later, the world was forced to take notice of Furuhashi’s extraordinary skills.

In August of ’49, Furuhashi set world records while competing against top-notch competition in the 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyle races in L.A. In doing so, he gave his fellow Japanese a much-needed dose of good news and a belief in their ability to succeed, winning those races in 4 minutes, 33.3 seconds, 9:35 and 18:19.

Then, in 1950, Furuhashi showcased his scintillating skills in front of the home fans in Tokyo, going up against Australian standout John Marshall, Hawaiian nisei Ford Konno and U.S. dynamo John MacLane.

In a well-delivered chronicle of the 400-meter freestyle final, Time magazine included this description in its Aug. 14, 1950, issue:

“The crowd was on its feet screaming, ‘Furuhashi, gambare (Furuhashi, fight hard)! The hometown boy chop-chopped to a furious pitch, splashed past Marshall at the 350-meter mark (and) . . . won by 10 yards (9.1 meters).”

Furuhashi outperformed his foes in the 800, too, beating Konno with plenty of room to spare (by 2.74 meters).

In a nutshell, that meet proved that Furuhashi was one of the world’s elite athletes, and the Flying Fish of Fujiyama won both races in world-record setting times.

All told, it’s been said he set 33 world records during a swimming career cut short due to World War II and its aftermath.

He made his Olympic debut at the 1952 Helsinki Games, but failed to deliver the type of performance — world records, gold medals — that had been his trademark. He placed eighth in the 400-meter freestyle two years after getting dysentery while training in South America.

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Furuhashi had his first prominent position in sports administration, gaining valuable experience in his role as the secretary of the Japan delegation chief. He also spent a number of years as a professor of physical education and swimming at Nihon University.

* * * * *

Looking back on the JOC’s collective efforts to host the 1964 Tokyo Games during an interview that appeared in a Tokyo 2016 promotional package, Furuhashi reflected on the significance of that point in Japan’s history by expressing these thought-provoking remarks: “At that time, Japan was in the thick of post-war reconstruction, so along with the excitement of hosting the Olympic Games for the first time, it engendered an atmosphere that made us feel like we had to move forward and create a proper nation.

“We had to overcome many challenges in order to host the Olympic Games in that kind of atmosphere, but I think it was extremely meaningful.”

Furuhashi was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1967.

His ISHOF biography simply states, “Furuhashi was one of those rare competitors so far ahead of his competition that he set standards for all to copy.”

And at a time when most people have little — if any — interest in questioning the status quo, Furuhashi wasn’t afraid to speak his mind about the high-tech swimsuit controversy that has dominated the headlines in the past year.

“It’s not the swimsuit that matters. In my days, people swam in fundoshi (loincloths),” he was quoted as saying in 2008. “Everybody should swim in fundoshi.”

Well, of course, that idea won’t come to fruition, but it’s a valid point nonetheless.

It’s only natural that athletic records are broken over time, but some things remain timeless. Case in point: Swimmers from Japan’s younger generations learned valuable lessons about hard work and dedication from the sport’s elder statesman, too.

In a well-circulated story that appeared in numerous publications in recent days, Daichi Suzuki, the men’s 100-meter backstroke gold medalist at the 1988 Seoul Games, recalled a priceless bit of advice Furuhashi gave him.

“He told me to ‘swim until you become a fish’ when he encouraged me during my competitive years. I won’t forget that,” Suzuki once said.

The Flying Fish of Fujiyama has passed away, but his legacy will remain a vital part of Japan’s cultural identity for centuries to come.