Runner-Up: Japan in the German Mass Media during the 1936 Olympic Games

By Law, Ricky W. | Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

Runner-Up: Japan in the German Mass Media during the 1936 Olympic Games


Law, Ricky W., Southeast Review of Asian Studies


Japan and Germany both saw an opportunity in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games to use the publicity to promote their image in the world. In particular, the host country's mass media generated a wealth of materials, ranging from radio broadcasts to newspaper articles, cigarette-card photographs, and film footage. This study makes use of these primary sources to analyze their portrayals of Japan during the Games, revealing an overall image plagued by stereotypes and misconceptions. Japan, whose successes often came across as surprises, also appeared as a sort of lesser runner-up best suited for aping Germany. Given that the Olympics occurred only three months before the Anti-Comintern Pact of November 25, 1936, these unflattering depictions of Japan in the German mass media indicate that German-Japanese rapprochement resulted from a radical shift from previous cultural and social attitudes.

Politics, Mass Media & the Olympics

Although the ancient Olympics provided, in spirit, a sanctuary for peaceful sports competition, their modern successors have, in practice, become battlegrounds for ulterior conflicts precisely due to their universal prestige. The controversies surrounding the 2008 Beijing Olympics merely illustrate this phenomenon (see Lord 2009). In the history of entanglements with politics of the modern Olympics, the 1936 Berlin Games stand out as a notorious example. One does not have to be a historian to know that the Hitler regime exploited the event to trumpet Aryan superiority and Nazi organization. Less well known, however, is that an athlete also tried to use the Olympic spotlight to call attention to his native land. By winning the symbolically significant marathon for the Japanese team, Son Kitei [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1912-2002) became the most publicized Asian sportsman in Germany. Hundreds of thousands of spectators experienced the race along the route or on rudimentary public televisions, and untold more listened on radio across Germany and the world (F. Richter 1937, 335-43). The day following his victory, Son's photograph dominated the front page of the newspaper Volkischer Beobachter (People's observer); and Son even received a reception with the Fuhrer himself (Volkischer Beobachter 1936j). Nonetheless, despite the widespread and technologically sophisticated coverage focused on Son, most German descriptions of him failed to mention that he came not from Japan but Korea, even though Son tried to highlight the fact and was prepared to tell Hitler of the plight of his homeland (Walters 2006, 233). How could the German media neglect or obscure such obvious details?

This article explores the extent of German understanding of Japan through the lens of mass media depictions during the 1936 Summer Olympics and analyzes its significance in Japanese-German relations. Although the Games presented some Berliners with a rare occasion to see numerous foreigners from distant lands, most contemporary Germans had to rely on the mass media to inform themselves. The Games also imposed a unique moment on the media to report, up close, the appearances and activities of a group of Japanese of unprecedented size in Germany. As Japan and Germany would take the first step toward alliance by concluding the Anti-Comintern Pact just three months after the Games, such an analysis can reveal broader German attitudes toward Japan and put foreign relations in a cultural perspective. Moreover, while most studies investigate the regime's exploitation of the Games to enhance its prestige and legitimacy, comparatively few examine the portrayal of non-German participants--other than anecdotes about Jesse Owens. The imbalance in scholarly attention partly reflects the wealth of source materials generated by the propaganda machine and its relative neglect of foreigners. This official inattention also benefits the purpose of this article, since editors, commentators, and reporters likely felt less pressure to politicize the appearance of Japan and more latitude to express unfiltered opinions.

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