Tokyo 2020: Preparations for the 1940 Olympic Games and Lessons for Tokyo 2020.

By Austin Smith.

1940 Olympic seals
Tokyo 1940 seals

In the modern bid process, every aspect of the Games is documented in advance to help the International Olympic Committee (IOC) come to their decision. Tokyo’s vast 2020 candidature file outlines the Organising Committee’s Olympic vision in great detail, from planned venue installations to financing. In contrast, the specifics of Tokyo 1940 were mostly determined once the right to host the games had been awarded. Nevertheless, the key components of these preparations remain the same – venue location, the Olympic Torch Relay and the international message the Olympic city is trying to convey.

The 1940 Games were to be a celebration of 2,600 years of imperial tradition marked by an event which was perceived as a symbol of Western modernity. The Olympic Torch Relay and sporting venues needed to interact with imperial sites and symbols while demonstrating the strength of the nation. In contrast, the Tokyo 2020 bid centres around innovation, inspiration and heritage, the slogan is ‘Discover Tomorrow’. Past Olympic sites have been retained as part of a ‘Heritage Zone’ – this is twinned with the ‘Tokyo Bay Zone’ featuring new and innovative Olympic installations.

The first task following the award of the Olympics to Tokyo in 1936 was to create an Olympic Organising Committee. A twenty-six member committee was assembled which included Japan’s IOC members, the Mayor of Tokyo and the Japanese Amateur Athletic Association president. Controversially, Hideki Tōjō, the Vice-Minister of War, and Isoroku Yamamoto, the Vice-Minister of the Navy, were also made members of the committee. The work of the Olympic Organising Committee was to be hampered by controversy surrounding key decisions ranging from the logistics of the torch relay to deciding the site of the Olympic stadium.

The Olympic Organising Committee
Members of the Olympic Organising Committee for Tokyo 1940

Increasingly nationalist rhetoric and the decision to include government ministers in the Organising Committee contravened the wishes of the IOC. Concerned that the Olympics were being portrayed as a ‘national’ rather than a ‘civic’ celebration, the IOC President sought to remind the Olympic Organising Committee that ‘The Games are given to the town of Tokyo and not to Japan’ while reasserting the rights and duties of the committee.[1]

The biggest problem facing the Olympic Organising Committee regarded the location of the Olympic Stadium. Their preferred site was the Meiji Shrine Outer Gardens, which had been billed as Tokyo’s ‘sports centre… a park dedicated to the Emperor who opened the Empire to Western civilization and who guided the destinies of his nation until 1912’.[2] This imperial narrative was endorsed by the International Olympic Committee.

For the 1940 Olympics, the existing stadium would have had to be enlarged to accommodate up to 100,000 spectators. The Shrine Office declared that the site was incapable of supporting a venue of this size. The Olympic Organising Committee faced a choice, between undermining the symbolism of the 2,600th anniversary Games and violating the sanctity of the Meiji Shrine in order to accommodate a Western event. It was ultimately decided that the main stadium for the 1940 Olympic Games should be newly constructed in Komazawa.

As the map (below) shows, although the Olympic Stadium and Olympic Village were to be located in Komazawa, a number of installations remained around the Meiji Shrine and the Imperial Palace. The Komazawa and Meiji sites would go on to become 1964 Olympic Parks with the vision for the Olympic Stadium realised in the former Meiji Shrine Outer Gardens.

1940 map
A map of Tokyo showing proposed venue location for the 1940 Olympic Games.

The Olympic Torch Relay had been introduced for the controversial 1936 Berlin Games and the IOC was keen to establish it as an Olympic tradition. They favoured a plan by Carl Diem, Secretary General of the Organizing Committee of the Berlin Games and founder of the Olympic Torch Relay, which followed the Silk Route from Olympia to Tokyo. However, this historic route did not match the government’s nationalist vision of ‘Asia’ and the ongoing war with China made a continental relay impossible. Nevertheless, the transferral of the Olympic flame from West to East was seen as a significant symbol by Tokyo’s Organising Committee.

Alternative routes were suggested, including a plan to collect the Olympic fire in Olympia with a warship and transport it to a harbour in Kyushu. This revised torch relay was designed to include the symbolic imperial sites of Miyazaki and Ise before arriving in Tokyo – to emphasise the city’s position as an imperial capital. Ultimately, the debate over the torch relay remained unresolved and was to be a divisive issue again for 1964.

Tokyo’s right to host the Olympic Games was forfeited on the advice of the national government on 15th July 1938. The Official Report for 1940 states that ‘the cancellation was inevitably due to the national policy in the present emergency.’[3] A telegram was sent to the IOC President which read ‘We regret that, owing to protracted hostilities with no prospect of immediate peace, we have decided to cancel the Tokyo and Sapporo Games. We intend to apply for 1944 Games.’[4] This use of evasive language in reference to the relinquishment of the Games and aggression in East Asia would come to characterise post-war dealings with the International Olympic Committee.

The war in China had depleted national resources and an international boycott had been threatened. The Olympic Organising Committee did not receive either the promised funds or materials they had been allocated. Ironically, but by no coincidence, the desire to host an international event to demonstrate modernity along Western lines had been ended by colonial expansion intended to promote ‘mutual prosperity’ in East Asia.

Marquis Kido, Minister for Public Welfare, later stated, ‘I am hoping that a national athletic meet will be held in the 2,600th year of the Japanese era as manifestation of our earnestness in the celebration of that year.’[5] This statement reveals a continued desire to combine imperial symbols and sporting prowess to mark the anniversary. An ‘East Asian Games’ was staged at the Meiji Shrine Outer Gardens in June 1940, it was hosted by the City of Tokyo and the Japanese Amateur Athletics Association with the assistance of the national government. Athletes were invited from Japan, Manchuria, the Philippines, Thailand, Hawaii, and occupied China. A Shinto style flame relay was held from Kashihara, the place where Emperor Jimmu is believed to have descended to earth, to the Meiji Shrine. This commemorative event presented the imperial capital as the spiritual centre of a ‘new order in East Asia’ through the appropriation of an Olympic tradition.

This pre-war history Olympic Tokyo has been completely whitewashed from the history of the Japanese Olympic Movement presented by the Tokyo 2020 bid campaign. Even a short biography of Jigoro Kano, who worked to bring the Games to Tokyo until his death, fails to mention these efforts. Yet there is a clear desire to harness the history of Tokyo 1964, through a heritage zone containing imperial sites and past Olympic venues. The ‘pre-history’ of these sites, outlined above, is absent from the current bid rhetoric. Nevertheless, this continued connection between imperial sites and sporting heritage lives on in the urban fabric of the city. The slogan for Tokyo 2020 is ‘Discover Tomorrow’ but the bid campaign should not ignore the city’s Olympic origins.

The first instalment of the Tokyo 2020 series can be found here.


[2] Collins, The 1940 Tokyo Games, 112.

[4] In 1937, Sapporo had been awarded the right to host the winter Olympics. Official Report 1940, 121.

[5] Official Report 1940, 122.

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