The Sacred Fire Relay (1964) by Nakamura Hiroshi

By Austin Smith.

The Sacred Fire Relay (1964) by Nakamura Hiroshi

The Sacred Fire Relay (1964) by Nakamura Hiroshi fits seamlessly into the “OUT OF DOUBT: Roppongi Crossing 2013” exhibition at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, both stylistically and thematically. In fact, the connection between Tokyo, the Olympics and the ongoing issue of Japanese militarism are as obvious today as they were in 1964.

Tokyo was awarded the right to host the 2020 Olympic Games just two weeks before the exhibition opened. The Olympic issue must be considered against the exhibition’s post-Fukushima theme, the ongoing nuclear crisis which has led to questions being raised about Tokyo’s suitability as an Olympic host.

“Roppongi Crossing” is a triennial exhibition offering a comprehensive overview of contemporary art in Japan. “OUT OF DOUBT” is on display at the Mori Art Museum from September 21st 2013 to January 3rd 2014. The exhibition features approximately thirty artists in order to give an impression of Japan’s post-war avant-garde art scene – including expatriate artists and artists of Japanese descent.


In the first room of the exhibition, pieces by Nakamura Hiroshi (b.1932) are juxtaposed against the work of artists born in the 1970s and ‘80s – including, art from Kozama Sachiko (b.1972) completed earlier this year. This is billed by the curators as an attempt to start a ‘dialogue’ between the post-war generation of avant-garde artists and the current crop. Post-traumatic comparisons are drawn between art created after The Great East Japan Earthquake (March 2011) and the post-war avant-garde movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Nakamura’s ‘reportage’ style is evident in his surrealist depiction of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Torch Relay and Opening Ceremony. During the 1964 Olympics, the flag, the national anthem, and even the imperial family, were offered to be reaccepted by an international audience as symbols of modern Japan.

Olympic plumes of smoke from Self Defense Force in at the Opening Ceremony, 1964.
Olympic plumes of smoke from Self Defence Force in at the Opening Ceremony, 1964.

The Sacred Fire Relay, an oil on canvas painting, is dominated by the Japanese flag, under which Self Defense Force fighters mark out the Olympic Rings in plumes of smoke, as they did during the 1964 Opening Ceremony. Raging flames, reminiscent of an atomic blast or fire-bombed city, and de-humanised torch bearers dominate the centre of the canvas. Altogether, it is a powerful and chaotic, almost apocalyptic, scene.

The flames evoke memories of Sakai Yoshinori, the final torch bearer, who lit the Olympic Flame in front of Emperor Hirohito and millions watching around the World. Sakai was born on August 6th 1945, the day of the atomic attack on Hiroshima, 17km from ground zero – a reference to Japan’s status as the world’s first atomic victim.

Nakamura’s early work critiqued U.S. military presence in Japan, his inclusion of the Japan Self Defense Force in this piece can be seen as a continuation of this stance. Significantly, in recent months it has been suggested that the constitution may be changed to strengthen Japan’s regional military position and expand the Self Defence Force. However, Article 9 and the peace associated with it remain a source of pride for many Japanese people.

Nationalism and identity are themes of the “OUT OF DOUBT” exhibition, attempts have been made to go beyond the geographic boundaries of Japan by including expatriates and artists of Japanese descent. Through his work, Nakamura clearly questions the presence of nationalist symbols and militarism during an event that ostensibly promotes peace while heralding a ‘new beginning’ for modern Japan. The inclusion of The Sacred Fire Relay in the “Roppongi Crossing 2013” exhibition and the juxtaposition with contemporary art demonstrates that the concerns of 1964 remain relevant.

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