A Short History of Olympic Tokyo

An article written by Austin Smith for the October 2013 edition of AJET Connect magazine.

On September 7th 2013, Tokyo was awarded the right to host the Olympic Games for the third time in its history. As well as famously hosting the 1964 Summer Olympics, Tokyo was awarded the right to host the 1940 Olympic Games, an honour which was later relinquished.

The decision to award the 2020 Olympics to Tokyo has provided an opportunity to reflect on this Olympic history and to build upon the city’s rich Olympic heritage. My personal interest in the Japanese Olympic movement stems from the failure of Tokyo’s bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games – the stimulus for my MA research into the city’s Olympic history.

The fact that Japanese cities have now been awarded the right to host Olympics more times than any Western country, with the exception of the United States, demonstrates how well they have represented themselves to the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

In the case of Tokyo, these ambitions were first expressed to the IOC in 1932. It was hoped that the event could be held in 1940 to commemorate the 2,600th anniversary of the foundation of imperial Japan. The event would have showcased the remarkable recovery of the metropolis, which had been devastated by the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake in which approximately 140,000 people died.

Regrettably, the ongoing war in China depleted national resources and an international boycott had been threatened. Ironically, but by no coincidence, the desire to host an international event to demonstrate modernity along Western lines had been extinguished by colonial expansion intended to promote ‘mutual prosperity’ in East Asia.

The pre-war history of Olympic Tokyo has been whitewashed from the history of the Japanese Olympic Movement presented by the Tokyo 2020 team through their official website – even a short biography of Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo who worked to bring the Games to Tokyo until his death, fails to mention these efforts.

However, Tokyo’s successful bid for the 1964 Olympic Games did refer to the issue of 1940. The Governor of Tokyo wrote that –

‘Tokyo was once elected as the host city of the 1940 Games which, however, was later cancelled due to the unfortunate circumstances… consequently, Tokyo was already recognized by the IOC as being fully qualified and entitled for holding the Games. Personally, I am hoping that a great majority of the members of the IOC will be so sympathetic as to give another chance to Tokyo.’

By describing Tokyo as a victim of ‘unfortunate circumstances’ the issue of war responsibility is sidestepped. The 1940 Games were said to have been ‘cancelled’ rather than relinquished, leaving the responsibility for this cancellation open to interpretation. The fact that the city which was awarded the Olympics for 1940 was mostly destroyed by 1945 is also ignored.

In awarding the Olympics to Tokyo, the IOC accepted Emperor Hirohito, the figurehead of wartime Japan, as the patron of an event which ostensibly promotes world peace. This decision was part of a ‘rehabilitation’ of Axis powers, Rome hosted the Olympics in 1960 and Munich followed in 1972.

The desire to harness the heritage and history of 1964 is clear from the Tokyo 2020 bid material. A ‘Heritage Zone’ containing imperial sites surrounded by renovated Olympic venues features prominently in the successful 2020 bid.

The 1964 Olympic Stadium is being redeveloped at a cost of $1 billion to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup and, now, the 2020 Olympic Games. The venue, symbolically, stands on the site of the former Meiji Shrine Outer Gardens – the favoured site for the 1940 Olympic Stadium.

The Yoyogi National Stadium and the Nippon Budokan are two further symbols of 1964 that remain prominent landmarks of Tokyo, fifty years on. These multi-purpose buildings were designed to fuse Japanese and Western architectural styles and, their continued use, hosting a variety of national and international events, is a fantastic advert for Olympic legacy and testament to the vision of the architects.

The award of the Olympic Games to Tokyo was a trigger for vast urban improvements by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. A ten-year development plan for Tokyo was fast-tracked to improve the city’s poor infrastructure in time for the Games.

The Tokaido Shinkansen service between Osaka and Tokyo commenced on October 1st 1964, just nine days before the Olympic Games began. This rail service is still regarded as one of the safest, fastest and most efficient in the world. These developments were internationally recognised as symbols of Japan’s revival and post-war industrial growth and, in popular memory, they are directly associated with the 1964 Olympics.

Eighty-five percent of the Japanese population watched the 1964 Olympic opening ceremony on television, in what was seen as the start of a new era for Japan. Sakai Yoshinori was chosen to carry the sacred flame into the stadium and light the Olympic fire.

Sakai was born on August 6th 1945, the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, 17km from ground zero. Sakai has been described since as a ‘beautiful body’, a symbol of Japan’s ‘complete recovery’ following war defeat. Like all Japanese participants in the torch relay, Sakai represented a revitalized post-war generation, yet, he was also a reference to Japan’s position as the world’s first atomic victim.

The opening ceremony linked Olympic symbols of peace with a not so peaceful history and broadcast them to an international audience. The Japanese flag, national anthem and imperial family were offered to be reaccepted, globally, as symbols of modern Japan.

As well as shaping international perceptions of the city and transforming the urban fabric, the success of the 1964 Olympics galvanised subsequent Japanese Olympic bids. Sapporo and Nagano would go on to become Olympic host cities in 1972 and 1996 respectively. Unsuccessful bids from Nagoya, for 1988, Osaka, for 2008, and Tokyo, for 2016, were also launched.

Whatever your opinion of the Olympic Movement, it is important to view the case of Tokyo 2020 from a Tokyo perspective. The chance to reflect on, revisit and restore the remarkable Olympic legacy of 1964 is something to celebrate. Tokyo has demonstrated in the past that it is capable of delivering a well-run event and creating a lasting urban legacy, there is no reason to begrudge the capital the chance to do so again.

Tokyo 2020 will hope to demonstrate a historic narrative of Olympic Tokyo to the world – the theme of recovery. The Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11th 2011, generating a tsunami of unprecedented scale. Tens of thousands of lives were lost, people’s homes were destroyed and vital infrastructure was severely damaged. 100,000 people remain displaced by the resulting crisis at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant almost three years on. While the incident is not an immediate threat to the people of Tokyo, it is important that the nation demonstrates a complete recovery to an international audience once again.

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