Baron Nishi Riding Crop Gifting in Japan by Masi Oka

On July 31, 2021 in Tokyo, actor & producer Masi Oka returned the riding crop of 1932 Olympian Baron Nishi – the only Japanese ever to win a gold medal in equestrian – to his great-grandson Mitsuhiko Nishi .  Masi Oka played a pivotal role in connecting the LA84 Foundation with Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), Japan Sports Agency, Japan Equestrian Federation and the Nishi family for the historic gifting. 

In 1932 at the Los Angeles Olympics, Baron Takeichi Nishi became the first and only Japanese to win a gold medal in equestrian in Olympic history. He was beloved by the local Southern California community – a friend of Hollywood luminaries such as Charlie Chaplain and Douglas Fairbanks – and the pride of the growing Japanese American community at the time. Just a little over a decade later as a Japanese Army officer, he died in the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945, as was recounted in Clint Eastwood’s film “Letters from Iwo Jima.”  

In 1964, the Helms Foundation was gifted Baron Nishi’s riding crop by his widow. It was transferred to the LA84 Foundation when the Helms collection was acquired by LA84 following the 1984 Olympic Games, and had remained in its collection until its return to the Nishi family this summer.

When the Los Angeles non-profit LA84 Foundation, which focuses on play equity and youth sports, discovered the riding crop in its collection, President & CEO Renata Simril enlisted the help of Masi Oka to research the history of the riding crop.  On multiple trips to Japan, Mr. Oka met with government officials and the Japan Equestrian Federation to learn more, and was eventually connected with the great-grandson of Takeichi Nishi, Mr. Mitsuhiko Nishi. 

Mr. Nishi explained: “since there were many intermediaries when I first heard about the riding crop, it took me a while to piece together the full story.  However, it was a journey that made me realize the strength of friendship and its ability to transcend wars, countries, and generations.  I truly felt humbled by LA84’s effort to reach out and connect with my family after so long.”

Mr. Nishi shared how since high school, carrying on his great grandfather’s legacy has become a personal mission.  “I took on my mother’s maiden name Nishi when I was in high school as I felt the need to continue the family lineage.  My great grandfather had only one son (my grandfather) and my grandfather only had daughters (my mother) so unless I took on the Nishi name the family line would have ended.”

Mr. Oka shared that at the gifting in Japan, Mr. Nishi noticed the family crest on the tip of the crop, which no one had noticed before.  Mr. Oka shared that being involved with the riding crop which had so much history and had travelled so far and seeing scrapbooks of pictures of Baron Nishi were very inspirational.

Mr. Nishi noted Mr. Oka’s important role in the process: “I would especially like to thank Masi Oka who has been instrumental in making sure the message and the crop was delivered to me and to drive the discussion forward with various intermediaries involved.  There were multitudes of emails, video calls, and live meetings that made this story happen.” 

Mr. Nishi also shared a special message for the people of Los Angeles: “I am eternally thankful for the people of LA’s hospitality it provided to my great grandfather close to a century before and hope that in particular Japan-U.S. relations, not just politically but more importantly on a personal level, remain stronger than ever.  I also really look forward to the LA Summer Olympics in 2028 and will be rooting for its success wherever I am.”

The virtual announcement of the gifting can be viewed here:

Credit: Nishi Family
Mitsuhiko Nishi (right) and Masi Oka (left) in Tokyo/ July 31, 2021

Credit: Nishi Family
Baron Nishi with Uranus at the 1932 Olympics

Credit: Nishi Family
Baron Nishi & Douglas Fairbanks

Credit: Nishi Family
Baron Nishi (third from left)