Swimming As Samurai

Swimming As Samurai

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

At the International Aquatic History Symposium and Film Festival in 2012, Professor Atsunori Matsui, Professor Toshiaki Goya, and Hiroyasu Satake presented a paper entitled The History and Problem of Swimming Education in Japan.*

The aquatic researchers noted that swimming has long been performed in the island nation of Japan by the samurai warriors.

But it was a tragic sinking of a passenger boat in 1955 where 168 people drowned that spurred a nationwide building of swimming pools at schools in 1961. The Ministry of Education defined and encouraged the teaching of freestyle and breaststroke.

The construction program was largely successful with 86.7% of elementary schools, 73% of junior high schools, and 64.5% of high schools in Japan with their own pools and swimming as a compulsory subject in public education.

While children and teenagers throughout Japan learn how to swim in school, swimming was a matter of military necessity in previous centuries. Between the 15th and 17th century, warriors occasionally swam with their armor and helmet. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, swimming was passed along by military personnel who had to navigate through the rivers, seas, and lakes of Japan. Those traditions are kept alive by the Japanese Swimming Federation that authorizes 28 traditional styles of swimming as “Nihon-eiho” (Japanese style of swimming).

Professor Matsui explains that in the Japanese swimming textbooks of earlier times, the Japanese taught simple things (e.g., how to put swimsuit on), technical strokes (e.g., sidestroke, freestyle with scissors kick), survival skills (e.g., how to stay afloat, how to dive, how to recover from cramping), and open water navigational issues (e.g., how to go through waves and how to swim out of currents and eddies).

In 1968, swimming was recognized as an important physical exercise in school due to the revision of curriculum guidelines by the Ministry of Education. It is required in elementary school and by the time they are in junior high school and senior high school, they are also taught backstroke, butterfly, and the individual medley.

Photo above shows Jigoro Kano (1860-1938), the founder of Judo and first Asian member of the International Olympic Committee. He also served as director of primary education for the Japanese Ministry of Education who insisted on the importance of the swimming education and made it with a compulsory subject in a teacher-training curriculum.

* Refer to the presentation ’The History and Problem of Swimming Education in Japanhere.

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