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.

Tokyo 2020: Tokyo’s Olympic origins, 1930-1936.

By Austin Smith.
Japan has successfully hosted the Olympic Games on three occasions; the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo and the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. In 1936, the 1940 Olympic Games were also awarded to Tokyo. However, the right to host the first Olympiad in Asia was relinquished due to escalating conflict in China. This article will revisit Tokyo’s first Olympic bid, from the first expressions of interest to the award of the Games to Tokyo.

The fact that Japanese cities have been awarded the right to host the Olympics more than any other non-Western nation shows how well they have represented themselves to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). A successful Olympic bid must have clearly defined civic and sporting ambitions, in the case of Tokyo, these ambitions were first expressed to the IOC in 1932. An invitation from the Mayor of Tokyo was presented to the IOC by Kano Jigoro and Kishi Seiichi a month before the Los Angeles Olympiad. It was hoped the event could be held in 1940 to commemorate the 2,600th anniversary of the foundation of imperial Japan.

The events in Los Angeles were arguably the most significant in the early history of the Japanese Olympic Movement. Not only was the desire to host the Olympic Games first officially expressed, the performance of the athletes identified Japan as a sporting nation. Kishi, a member of the IOC, was of the belief that athletic prowess, rather than the modernity of a city, signified whether a nation was seen as a viable host by the international community. He was also an advocate of strong participation to demonstrate bushido spirit and promote understanding of the Japanese race. A large team was sent to LA and it was hoped that a strong presence would encourage émigré who had suffered from the Californian Alien Land Laws. Seventy percent of the Japanese people in mainland USA lived in California, and there was a sense that a strong performance could challenge stereotypes.

The Japanese flag was raised eighteen times as Japan won seven gold medals, seven silver medals and four bronze medals, finishing fifth in the medal table above Great Britain and Germany. The official report for Tokyo 1940 recalls that ‘the Japanese swimmers masterfully outclassed their rivals and won such laurels as surprised the sportsmen of the world’, a fair appraisal, as Japanese entrants won every men’s race but one.[1] Similarly, the official report for Los Angeles 1932 recalls that Nambu Chuhei displayed ‘astonishing all-round ability’ by setting a new world record while taking gold in the triple jump, earning a bronze medal in the long jump and participating in the 4x100m relay.[2] These performances were a measure of the progress of Olympism and Western sport in Japan.

20130408-144438.jpg
Japanese swimmers at Los Angeles, 1932.

An official send-off for had been held in Tokyo, featuring a parade from the Meiji Shrine to the Imperial Palace, to the sound of the national anthem and cheers of “banzai!” This had served to unite imperial and sporting themes, this connection was reinforced when the victorious athletes returned to the city. The success in Los Angeles was officially celebrated to reinforce support for the 1940 bid. An estimated five million people lined the streets of Tokyo, waving the Japanese and Olympic flags as the athletes passed by. The Olympic fever generated by the results galvanised the bid campaign, as it fostered the idea that Tokyo should host the Games. The Los Angeles Olympics were a turning point in the level of support for the Tokyo bid and this was reflected by an escalation of the bid campaign.

However, Tokyo’s Olympic bid can in fact be traced back as far as 1930. The campaign between 1930 and 1932 has been described as a one man crusade by Nagata Hidejiro, the Mayor of Tokyo. His desire to host the Olympics stemmed from the success of a ‘Reconstruction Festival’, held in March 1930, to celebrate the completion of the rebuilding project which followed the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. 1940 was identified as the next economically viable and politically significant opportunity as it coincided with the 2,600th anniversary of Imperial Japan. Nagata asked Dr Yamamoto Tadaoki, a professor of electrical engineering at Waseda University, to canvass the opinion of European mayors during the World Students’ Athletic Championship Meet in Germany. A press conference was held on his return from Europe to announce the campaign to host Asia’s first Olympic Games.

At the 1934 IOC Session in Athens, Kano attempted to define Tokyo domestically and internationally. He presented the IOC with images of sport in Japan and a pamphlet, ‘Tokyo: Sports Center of the Orient’, which identified Tokyo as a sporting city and as a leader of modernity in Asia. Tokyo was presented as the perfect Olympic host, a unique candidate that embodied old and new, East and West. Kano went on to describe Tokyo as ‘a modern city, a clean city, a metropolis in Western fashion against the panorama of an age-old civilisation.’[3]

Despite these efforts, the IOC was thought to be ambivalent towards Tokyo’s bid and so the decision was made to invite the IOC President to Japan. Count Baillet-Latour agreed to the visit on the condition that it was publicised as a private trip and his expenses were paid by the City of Tokyo. The official report recalls that, ‘throughout his sojourn of three weeks’, the president ‘inspected various sports stadiums and facilities for the Olympic Games in Tokyo and conferred with authorities concerned.’[4] Baillet-Latour’s visit was influential, the minutes from the 1936 Berlin Session record that ‘The President feels justified in recommending Tokyo to the choice of his colleagues, a choice which would mean the extension of the Olympic ideals to this part of the world.’[5] In addition, Kano emphasised the fact that the Olympics ‘have been celebrated in Europe and in the United States of America exclusively’ and declared ‘Asia wishes to have them in her turn.’[6] The vote was held the next day, and the decision was given in favour of Tokyo.

The desire for Tokyo to be perceived as a modern city and as a leader of East Asia resonates with the Tokyo 2020 bid. The Beijing Olympics in 2008 twinned with China’s rapid economic growth has fuelled a desire to reassert Tokyo’s position as a global city. As we have seen, politics play a huge role in determining the successful Olympic host. Tokyo’s bid for the 2016 Olympics failed due to the IOC’s desire to host the Olympics in South America for the first time, as well as a perceived lack of public support. In Istanbul and Madrid, Tokyo is up against two major cities that are yet to host the Olympic Games. It remains to be seen whether Tokyo can harness its own Olympic history and be awarded the right to host the Games yet again.

References –

1. Report of the Organizing Committee on its work for The XIIth Olympic Games of 1940 in Tokyo until the relinquishment, 1.

2. The Games of the Xth Olympiad, Los Angeles, 1932: Official Report, (Los Angeles; The Xth Olympiade Committee of the Games of Los Angeles, 1932)

3. S. Collins, The 1940 Tokyo Games: The Missing Olympics: Japan, the Asian Olympics and the Olympic Movement (London: Routledge, 2008), 53.

4. Collins, The 1940 Tokyo Games, 53.

5. Collins, The 1940 Tokyo Games, 8.

6. Collins, The 1940 Tokyo Games, 7.