Running through East Asia: Sports in the Modern Age
Period Tuesday, January 26 –Sunday,March 14, 2021
Venue Special Exhibition Gallery B, National Museum of Japanese History

Adults: ¥600
college students: ¥250
* Free admission for High school age and below.

Hours Jan,Feb 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. (entrance closed at 4:00 p.m.)
Mar 9:30 a.m.–5:00 p.m. (entrance closed at 4:30 p.m.)
* Open hours and days are subject to change.
Closed Mondays (When Monday is a national holiday, the Museum is closed the following Tuesday.)


Since 2014, the National Museum of Japanese History has engaged in mutual exchange activities and research cooperation with the National Museum of Taiwan History in Tainan City, Taiwan. In 2016 we cosponsored a special international exhibition named “Taiwan and Japan: A Study of their Modern History, together with the History of Earthquakes.”

The National Museum of Taiwan History possesses an extensive collection of records about Olympic athletes. We focused on historical materials related to Chang Hsing-hsien, a Taiwanese athlete. He was active during the Japanese colonial period, and participated in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics and the 1936 Berlin Olympics, running for Japan. This finding prompted us to start a new joint research project on modern sports history. Last year, National Cheng Kung University (Tainan City, Taiwan) also joined our project, helping to broaden our understanding of Japan and Taiwan’s modern history.

We will present the results of our research project in this special international exhibition, featuring about 120 historical items, including materials such as nishiki-e (colored woodblock prints), photographs, and hand-drawn cartoons related to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and Japan’s modern school athletic meets. Through these materials, we can review the modernization of Japan and Taiwan. With Westernization, both countries adopted a broader concept of how the body can be used physically, eventually participating in the modern Olympic Games. We will also look at the recent history of sports while considering the historical relationship between Japan, Taiwan, and other East Asian countries. After the exhibition is held in Japan, it will move to the National Museum of Taiwan History in Taiwan.

Photo of Chang Hsing-hsien just leaving the starting blocks
National Museum of Taiwan History Collection, early 1930s

Highlights of the exhibition

* Reviewing the turbulent modern history of Japan and East Asia by focusing on the life of an unknown Taiwanese athlete, Chang Hsing-hsien, who was active when Taiwan was a Japanese colony.

* Exhibition of historical materials related to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, such as a commemorative 1000-yen coin and a bronze medal for men’s volleyball.

* Learning about the modern history of sports: what sports-related materials looked like 100 years ago; for example, batons used in relay races, hurdles, gym clothes, and athletic meeting programs.

* When did people start to use “Radio calisthenics program participation cards”?
Imagine how Japanese people reacted when they encountered “sports” as a leisure activity for the first time, while reviewing the spread of baseball games and radio calisthenics in Japan.


The exhibition looks back on the last 150 years since the concept of sports was introduced to Japan from Western countries, focusing on the life story of a Taiwanese athlete, Chang Hsing-hsien. This is the first time in Japan for an exhibition to be held placing such a strong focus on this athlete.

The exhibition project started when we heard that the National Museum of Taiwan History possesses numerous photos and medals related to prewar Olympic athletes. Chang Hsing-hsien was born in Taiwan and entered Waseda University in Tokyo. After graduating, he joined the South Manchuria Railway Co., Ltd., in Manchukuo but also continued his athletic career. While looking at the life history of Chang Hsing-hsien, we realized that his story parallels the modern history of Japan and East Asia. This exhibition’s primary purpose is not to provide a general history of sports; instead, we would like to focus on individual personal experiences and “voices” that come to light from the modern history of sports, and how we can transmit these voices to the exhibition visitors.

The exhibition comprises four chapters. In Chapter 1, we overview the dawn of the modern era in the late 19th century and Japan’s situation at the time when the novel concept of sports was first introduced from abroad. In Chapter 2, we see what kind of “wave” the concept of sports caused among Japanese people in the first half of the 1900s. Here, the exhibition focuses on the globalization of baseball games and sports for women. In Chapter 3, we focus on Chang Hsing-hsien, a world-class athlete, as a representative of both Japan and Manchuria. Looking through the “window” of one athlete’s life, we survey the turbulence of the times and Japanese history. Finally, in Chapter 4, we look back at the history of sports in Japan, which were reorganized after the War.

“Drawing of Children’s Physical Exercise in School” National Museum of Japanese History Collection, 1899

Chapter 1: Sports in Modern History

We look at how a new culture named “sports” that became part of Japanese people’s daily lives as part of the process of modernization, how people engaged in sports, and which kinds of conflicts occurred among people during this process.

“Western-style Gymnastic Games” National Museum of Japanese History Collection, 1860s

“Students’ Athletic Meet at Urawa Girls’ Middle School; Drying Clothes Competition,”
National Museum of Japanese History Collection, 1900s

Women’s Sports Sugoroku (Backgammon), Shufu-no-tomo,
Supplement to the January 1925 Issue, National Museum of Japanese History Collection

Kinue Hitomi at the women’s 100-meter preliminary race at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, “ Asahi Sports: The 9th International Olympic Games Special Issue,” Private collection, September 1928

Chapter 2: Sports and the Olympics during the “Imperial Japan” Era

After the First Sino-Japanese War, China ceded Formosa (Taiwan) to Japan. After the Russo-Japanese War, Japan occupied the southern half of Sakhalin, and in 1910, annexed Korea. While Japan was constructing its empire, the ancient Olympics were revived in Europe as the modern Olympics, and this led to the development of the new Olympics Games.

In Japan, starting in the 1910s, sports events and international exchange tournaments were increasingly held in higher education institutions. These included the Secondary Schools Baseball Competition (later “Kōshien Tournaments”), and Secondary Schools Rugby Football Tournaments (later “Hanazono Rugby Tournaments”). At the time, most sports participants were male students who were able to go on to secondary education institutions (junior high schools under the prewar education system, and to vocational schools, which were not compulsory) and to higher education institutions. Consequently, most Olympic Games participants from Japan were male elite athletes who engaged in sports at higher education institutions.

Around that time, people also began to take up team sports, such as volleyball. These types of competitive sports were often practiced by factory workers in their free time, rather than by the elite class at higher education institutions. Team games became popular with people who had different backgrounds to those who took part in athletic sports or swimming.

Olympic Games Sugoroku (Backgammon), Shōnen Club, Supplement to the January 1920 Issue, Private collection

Radio calisthenics participation card and the reverse side of a participation medal. Private collection, 1940s

Chapter 3: A World-class Taiwanese Athlete, Chang Hsing-hsien

This part of the exhibition centers on a Taiwanese athlete, Chang Hsing-hsien, who participated twice in the Olympics Games in the 1930s, representing Japan. In October 1910, Chang Hsing-hsien (- 1989) was born in Taichung, a city in Central Taiwan. After graduating from a Taiwanese elementary school, Chang went to Taichung Commercial School, where he developed an athlete's makings. He then entered Waseda University’s Specialized Department and joined the Waseda University Running Club, which was a distinguished students’ athletic club in Japan. His capabilities were recognized as soon as he entered the university in 1931, and he was selected to compete in the following year’s Los Angeles Olympics Games, running for Japan. After graduating, he joined the South Manchuria Railway Co., Ltd. He continued to practice as an athlete and again represented Japan at the 1936 Berlin Olympics Games.

Let’s take a closer look at Chang. He lived as an athlete in the political orbit of “Imperial Japan,” namely colonial Taiwan, Japan’s mainland, and Manchuria, and ran as a world-class athlete in both the U.S. and Europe.

20th All Japan Championship (and 7th Meiji Jingu Athletic Meet), Commemoration medal
October 31 to November 3, 1933
National Museum of Taiwan History Collection

10th Olympiad, Los Angeles 1923, Participation commemorative medal (Front)
July 30 to August 14, 1932
National Museum of Taiwan History Collection

Yoshio Okita-related material photo No. 44, Waseda University student players, heading to Los Angeles for an international convention, Waseda University Archives Collection

Men’s 400-meter Hurdles Final at the Fourth All Japan Inter University Track & Field Championships, Kōshien, May 30 to 31, 1931
National Museum of Taiwan History Collection

Competitive 100-meter match in Harbin, Manchuria, July 13, 1933
National Museum of Taiwan History Collection

Manchurian team at the Three Overseas Territories (Taiwan, Korea, Manchuria) Athletics Competition, November 1935
National Museum of Taiwan History Collection

Together with Jesse Owens (U.S.), four-title winner of track and field events, at the Olympic Village Training Ground, Berlin, 1936
National Museum of Taiwan History Collection

Chapter 4: Sports in Postwar Japan

Japan’s postwar reconstruction was closely related to the revitalization of sports. Japan’s defeat destroyed most of its socio-economic foundations. As a result, athletes’ energy and positivity were a significant image to help people recall and rebuild the sense of unity and pride that they had briefly lost. The revival of sports also played the role of reconnecting social and historical relationships among people, which the War had disrupted. The sense of unity and pride that people were able to regain and share after Japan lost its status as an empire was also shaped by the movement and flow of people during Japan’s imperial period. After the War, Taiwan was liberated from colonial rule. However, it faced new difficulties due to the inflow of people from the continent and political purges. In spite of the current state of complicated international relations, Taiwan has participated in the Olympics as “Chinese Taipei.”

Men’s jacket for Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony,
Private collection, 1964

Tokyo Olympics bronze medal (front) (Men’s volleyball)
Private collection, 1964


People who survived turbulent times, such as Chang Hsing-hsien and Sohn Kee-chung,Kinue Hitomi, Hideko Maehata, and the other individuals we can see in athletic meet photos of the time, still pose profound questions to us. We would like to find a way in which visitors can remember their own questions and still think about them after returning home.

I am ashamed to say that when we started this joint research project with the National Museum of Taiwan History and National Cheng Kung University, the Japanese team members knew nothing of Chang Hsing-hsien. Investigating the materials left by Chang Hsing-hsien is, for us, equivalent to reviewing past relationships between modern Japan and the rest of the world. I believe that through this project, we were able to ask deep questions about national identity and what kinds of “waves” have buffeted us, as seen through the narrow but very revealing viewpoint of the history of sports.

Due to the unexpected spread of infectious disease, this exhibition was postponed together with the rescheduling of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It will be held in 2021. Someday, when these days become history, what kind of message will we pass on to the people in the future?