Tokyo 2020: Issues Raised by the Olympic Torch Relay.

By Austin Smith.
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Plans for the Olympic Torch Relay will begin in earnest if Tokyo is awarded the right to host the 2020 Olympic Games next month. The logistical concerns of the 1940 and 1964 Olympic Organising Committees would have to be revisited for 2020.

With such a symbolic international event, how to best include Japan’s neighbours must be assessed. Tensions remain with South Korea and China over ongoing territorial disputes and the issue of wartime responsibility. This article will look at the symbolism and logistics of the 1964 Olympic Torch Relay and suggest ways in which the Tokyo 2020 relay should be approached.

The 1964 Olympic Torch Relay was a significant international event as it marked the beginning of the first ‘Asian’ Olympic Games. Proposals for the 1940 Olympic relay and the Asian Games torch relay of 1958 were revisited. Carl Diem’s 1930s plan, to follow the Silk Route across Asia, was considered and later dismissed due to the ‘numerous difficulties presented.’[1] As mentioned in a previous article, this route failed to conform to the vision of Asia that the organisers wished to promote in the 1930s, the same can be said of Japan in the 1960s.

It was eventually decided that the torch would be relayed by air outside of Japan. The plane used for the air route was named ‘City of Tokyo’ and it stopped at Athens, Istanbul, Beirut, Tehran, Lahore, New Delhi, Rangoon, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Hong Kong and Taipei before reaching Okinawa, an area still under U.S. occupation. The People’s Republic of China, the USSR and the Korean peninsula were notable absentees from this air-relay across Asia.

The flame was then shared between four torches and transported from Okinawa by air to Kagoshima, in southern Kyushu, and to Sapporo, in Hokkaido. These torches were carried across four routes through major cities in Kyushu, Honshu, Shikoku and Hokkaido.

The flames were fused in a unifying ritual, in Imperial Palace Plaza, on the eve of the opening ceremony.[2] Hosting the Olympic flame overnight at Imperial Palace Plaza united imperial and Olympic themes while heightening the anticipation for the Games. As seen in the build-up to previous events, the association between the imperial family and modernity was being reinforced through the medium of Olympism.

It was decided that the relay runners, within Japan, would be between sixteen and twenty years of age, representing the post-war generation and the rebirth of a modern nation. Seven runners completed the final section of the Olympic Torch Relay, between the Imperial Palace Plaza and the National Stadium, with Sakai Yoshinori chosen to carry the united flame into the stadium during the opening ceremony to light the Olympic fire. Eighty-five percent of the Japanese population watched the event on television in what was seen as the start of a new era for Japan.[3]

Sakai lights the Olympic Flame
Sakai lights the Olympic Flame

Sakai was born on August 6th 1945, the day of the atomic attack on Hiroshima, 17km from ground zero. Igarashi describes Sakai as a ‘beautiful body’, a symbol of Japan’s ‘complete recovery’ following war defeat.[4] Like all Japanese participants in the torch relay Sakai was of an age that represented a post-war generation – a rejection of the scarred bodies of wartime Japan.

The choice of Sakai as the final torch bearer displays evidence of national pride as well as national politics. Sakai was a reference to Japan’s status as the world’s first atomic victim.[5] He has been described as an embodiment of Japanese history ‘from its lowest point at the end of the Second World War to the present of 1964, when Japan was able to host this magnificent festival of peace.’[6]

Many commentators have remarked upon the similarities between the 1964 Olympic logo, worn on Sakai’s chest, and the Japanese flag – particularly when viewed from a distance against the white background. This uniform had been worn throughout the torch relay by both Japanese and foreign runners. Christian Tagsold goes as far as to draw comparisons between Sakai lighting the Olympic flame and the Japanese flag flying over battlefields during the Asia Pacific War.[7]

The opening ceremony was broadcast live to an international audience and, once the flame had been lit, Emperor Hirohito declared the Games open. The ceremony linked Olympic symbols of peace with a not so peaceful history. It was the first opportunity to demonstrate to the world that Japan and Tokyo had fully recovered from war defeat.

Nationalistic symbols such as the flag, the national anthem, and even the imperial family, were offered to be reaccepted by an international audience as symbols of modern Japan.

The promotion of peace was somewhat undermined by the Japanese Self-Defence Forces involvement in the opening ceremony. Eight members of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force carried the Olympic flag into the stadium from the south entrance and hoisted it into place on a 15.21m pole as Sakai Yoshinori entered the stadium. The Olympic rings were drawn by the smoke trails of five fighter planes from the Japanese Air Self-Defence Force. The Self-Defence Force was, and remains, a divisive issue in Japan as the establishment of the Self-Defence Force defied the constitution set out in 1947.

The issues raised by the 1964 Olympic Torch Relay and opening ceremony remain contentious. It seems inevitable that the Self-Defence Force and the imperial family would be involved, particularly after the, well-received, London 2012 opening ceremony which showcased monarchy and militarism to the world.

The logistics of the torch relay are far more uncertain, Carl Diem’s vision of a Silk Road relay was realised for the 2008 Beijing Games, making it the longest torch relay in Olympic history. Given the ongoing hostility in the region, it seems unlikely that this route will be reused, nevertheless, every effort should be made to incorporate Japan’s neighbours and promote mutual understanding.

[1] The Official Report of The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964, v. 1, 245.

[2] Official Report 1964, 3.

[3] C. Tagsold, ‘The Tokyo Olympics as a Token of Renationalization’, in Niehaus and Seinsch, Olympic Japan, 113-114.

[4] Y. Igarashi, Bodies of Memory: Narratives of War in Postwar Japanese Culture, 1945-1970 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 153-163.

[5] S. Collins, ‘Fragility of Asian National Identity’, in M. Prince and D. Dayan eds., Owning the Olympics: Narratives of the New China, (University of Michigan, 2008), 192.

[6] Tagsold, ‘The Tokyo Olympics as a Token of Renationalization’, 113-114.

[7] Tagsold, ‘The Tokyo Olympics as a Token of Renationalization’, 113-114.

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Tokyo 2020: The Urban Legacy of Tokyo 1964.

By Austin Smith.

Tokyo Tower, May 30th 2013.
Tokyo Tower, May 30th 2013.

On May 30th 2013, Tokyo Tower marked one hundred days until the outcome of the 2020 Olympic bid process with a light display and the release of hundreds of Olympic-colour balloons into the night sky. This date also signified the handover of Tokyo Tower’s main broadcasting responsibilities to Tokyo Skytree. Tokyo Tower, completed in 1958, became a global symbol of modern Tokyo at the 1964 Olympics, it is hoped that the Skytree, the world’s tallest free-standing structure, can enjoy a similar legacy – with Tokyo 2020 as the defining event in its history.

The Yoyogi National Stadium and the Nippon Budokan are two further symbols of 1964 that remain prominent cultural venues, fifty years on. Both will feature as part of a Heritage Zone if Tokyo’s 2020 bid is successful. 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 Nippon Budokan, 1964.
The Nippon Budokan, 1964.
Yoyogi National Gymnasium, 1964.
Yoyogi National Stadium, 1964.

Preparations for Tokyo 1964 were under intense international scrutiny from the outset. The scale, complexity, and cost of the 1960 Rome Olympiad had led to calls for the Olympic Games to be scrapped. Fortunately, there was a carefully considered venue strategy for 1964 – to expand and reconstruct as many existing sports venues as possible (particularly those built for the 1958 Asian Games) and supplement these with the landmark installations outlined above. This strategy made the direct cost of the games manageable.

The Olympic Organising Committee were given the power to acquire state owned land, in prominent areas of Tokyo, yet venue location did not change significantly from the pre-war plans proposed for 1940. As the graph (below) demonstrates, the amount of money spent on Olympic venues and the Olympic village was just 2.75% of the overall Olympic driven investment and a relatively low overall amount in comparison with subsequent host cities. Remaining investment was aimed at developing a solid transport infrastructure and improving the backdrop of the Games, the city itself.

Comparing investment in Olympic expenditure, Tokyo 1964 – Beijing 2008.
Comparing investment in Olympic expenditure, Tokyo 1964 – Beijing 2008.[1]
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 for 1964. These projects went beyond attempts to achieve ‘Western standards’ which resulted in a lasting legacy, both in the urban fabric and popular memory.

Transport was the backbone of the project, to accommodate visitors during the event as well as the rapid growth of the city. Twenty-two highways were constructed at a cost of ¥72.1 billion and eight expressways at a cost of ¥105.8 billion.[2] Two subway lines of 12.5km and 9.4km were specifically completed in time for the Tokyo Olympics and were integrated into the existing network, which was already subject to an eight line, 177.5km post-war expansion.

The newly constructed Edobashi interchange, 1964.
The newly constructed Edobashi Interchange, 1964.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government was determined to present a ‘clean’ city to the world, a ‘Beautification of the Capital Movement’ was launched and 4.7% of Olympic investment was allocated towards improving hygiene (more than that spent on Olympic installations).[3] Tokyo was a city under constant construction, it was not until this period that pre-war urban planning problems were addressed.

However, to assume the developments benefited the entire city would be misleading. Improvements were concentrated around affluent areas that would gain international attention, mostly within the Yamanote Line.[4] Nevertheless, the achievements made in time for the 1964 Olympic Games facilitated the transition of Tokyo into a modern, prosperous metropolis.

Arguably, the most significant investment of this period was the construction of the bullet train, which accounted for roughly 40% of indirect expenses. The Tōkaidō Shinkansen service between Osaka and Tokyo began on October 1st 1964, just nine days before the Olympic Games began. The importance of this development was internationally recognised – Time stated that ‘Japan was greeting not only a new rail service but a symbol of the nation’s postwar industrial growth and a new bond between its two largest cities.'[5]

Ironically, like Tokyo’s Olympic ambitions, plans for a standard-gauge rapid train service originated in the 1930s. A plan for this system was drafted in 1939 and, although some work was carried out, it was completely abandoned by 1943 due to the need for steel to be used for military purposes. High speed rail was to be established across East Asia to connect the Japanese Empire, and, despite war defeat, there was no break in the pursuit of land purchases to allow the lines construction – 19% of land required had been purchased by 1943 and this was later supplemented by land devalued by U.S. bombing. In this respect the first bullet train of 1964 represents not only ‘modernity’ but also, a realisation of pre-war ambitions.

The efficient transport network which was constructed in time for 1964 Olympics remains a major strength of Tokyo’s 2020 bid. Tokyo’s superb pre-existing infrastructure has contributed to the perception that the city is a safe option for 2020. Tokyo 1964’s status as arguably the greatest urban legacy in Olympic history is evidenced in the planned ‘Heritage Zone’ which will revive a remodeled Olympic Stadium, the Yoyogi National Stadium and the Nippon Budokan as Olympic venues. Tokyo Tower also stands in the Heritage Zone, to complete the connection between the Olympic legacy of 1964 and 2020.

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[1] The graph is based on an example found in, H. Liao, and A. Pitts, ‘A Brief Historical Review of Olympic Urbanization’, The International Journal of the History of Sport, 23, 7 (2006), 1247., it has been edited to include data for 1968, (see Official Report of the Organizing Committee, vol. II, 23–4, cited in K. Brewster and C. Brewster, ‘Mexico City’s Hosting of the 1968 Olympic Games’, The International Journal of the History of Sport, 26, 6, (2009), 840-865). The data for Moscow 1980 has never been released. Total expenditure estimates vary from relative values of $600 million to $3,700 million. The ‘Supportive Infrastructure (%)’ is a useful indicator of how successful an Olympic legacy a Games has produced, e.g. the 1976 Olympic Games are generally considered to have a negative impact on the city of Montreal.

[2] The Official Report of The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964, v. 1, 48.

[3] Y. Igarashi, Bodies of Memory: Narratives of War in Postwar Japanese Culture, 1945-1970 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 143-163.

[4] The circular Yamanote commuter rail line services central Tokyo – only four of Tokyo’s twenty-three Wards fall within this boundary.

[5] ‘Japan: Fast Ride to Osaka’, Time, 4th September 1964.

Tokyo 2020: Learning from Defeat and Redefining Tokyo’s Olympic Dream, 1952-1959.

By Austin Smith

Scenes following the award of the 1964 Olympic Games to Tokyo, Munich, May 1959.
Joyous scenes following the award of the 1964 Olympic Games to Tokyo, May 1959.

In October 2009, during the 121st Session of the International Olympic Committee, a vote was held to determine the Olympic host city for 2016. Tokyo was knocked out in the second round of voting, behind Madrid and, the eventual winners, Rio de Janeiro. The current Tokyo 2020 bid must effectively respond to, and learn from, this defeat if the capital is to overcome a renewed Madrid campaign and efforts by Istanbul to be awarded the right to host the 2020 Olympic Games. For lessons in how to bounce back from an unsuccessful bid campaign, Tokyo need look no further than the capital’s bids to host the 1960 and 1964 Olympic Games.

In 1952, just one month after the post-war U.S. occupation of Japan had officially ended, a renewed bid to bring the Olympics to Tokyo was launched. From the outset, the campaign was framed nationally while focusing on the country’s wartime past. It was argued that hosting the Olympics would allow ‘the true Japan, now restored to peace, to return to the international stage and have the real Japanese, who sincerely aspire to world peace, be recognised by the people of the world.’[1]

In 1955, official bid material, including a bid book, was submitted to the IOC to support Tokyo’s campaign to host the 1960 Olympic Games. The opening statement read – ‘Distinct victories and defeats engrave deeply in the bosoms of the people of every nation… Tokyo once had the honour to be selected as the host city for the games of the XIIth Olympiad, but to our great regret we met a misfortune of losing this chance on account of the fateful war.’[2]

This bid material, presented to the IOC in 1955, included Tokyo, a collection of photographs assembled by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. Unfortunately, the collection included mainly non-Tokyo locations such as Nikko, Himeji and Mount Fuji. This suggested to the IOC members that post-war Tokyo lacked an urban identity.

The sporting images used further undermined the bid, rather than promoting Tokyo’s thirst for international competition the compilation was dominated by sports unique to Japan. In the wake of war defeat, Japanese athletes had been suspended from participating in the Olympics, which limited the amount of relevant sporting material available to the campaign team.

The voters were left unimpressed by the Olympic narrative presented by the City of Tokyo for the 1960 Olympics. Tokyo was eliminated in the first round of voting at the IOC Session in June 1955, generating the least number of votes of the seven competing cities. Rome was ultimately chosen to host the 1960 Games, the first step in rehabilitating axis powers that would see Tokyo host the Games in 1964 and Munich in 1972.

In 1958, Tokyo’s Olympic fortunes would improve dramatically – the 54th IOC Session was set to be held in the Japanese capital to coincide with the 3rd Asian Games. This was seen as ‘an excellent time to acquaint the members of the IOC with Tokyo’s ability to manage an Olympic Games’ and the event was used as a platform to project a vision of Olympic Tokyo.[3]

The 1958 Asian Games emblem.
The 1958 Asian Games emblem.

The Asian Games were held in Tokyo between the 24th May and 1st June 1958. The event allowed the reconstructed capital of Japan to be internationally showcased. Athletes from twenty countries participated under the patronage of the International Olympic Committee. Emperor Hirohito, absolved of wartime responsibility, officially opened the Asian Games and Crown Prince Akihito was patron. This, despite the fact the Asian Games hosted nations that had suffered at the hands of imperial aggression until 1945.

The event was held at the newly completed National Stadium on the site of the former Meiji Shrine Outer Gardens, the favoured site for the 1940 Olympic Stadium. The stadium would later be enlarged in preparation for the 1964 Olympics. Symbolically, a torch relay was held for the first time in Asian Games history, to promote Olympism in Asia. The relay began at the site of the previous Asian Games, Manila, stopping in Okinawa, before arriving at Kagoshima for a relay to Tokyo. This route evoked wartime memories while seemingly attempting to define the boundaries of post-war Japan.

Mikio Oda, the first Asian to win an individual Olympic Gold medal, ignited the ‘Sacred Flame’ in Tokyo.[4] Oda represented Japan’s pre-war Olympic legacy and his presence united pre-war and post-war ambitions to achieve internationalism through athleticism. These Games would be remembered for the demonstration of Japanese athletic prowess as the team won sixty-seven gold medals.

The Asian Games were proof that post-war Japan was capable of staging an international sporting event and it gave the visiting IOC members a clear vision of what Olympic Tokyo would be like. The vote to determine the Olympic host for 1964 was to be held the following year, at the IOC Session in Munich.

Tokyo’s bid to host the 1964 Olympics was presented to the International Olympic Committee following the Asian Games. The bid material attempted to address the flaws of the previous campaign, mementos of the Asian Games and the IOC Session in Tokyo were also included. The planned location of Tokyo’s Olympic venues, and their surroundings, would have been acutely familiar to those who attended the 54th IOC Session and Asian Games.

In contrast to the 1955 bid book, there were a series of images of international athletes – sprinters, gymnasts and basketball players. An image of the ‘Sacred Flame’ being lit by Oda at the National Stadium was also included, provoking thoughts of the Olympic flame burning brightly in the capital. One of the final images was a double page colour photograph of Tokyo at night, it featured the neon lights which would go on to become characteristic of modern Tokyo.

The strength of public support for the bid was also emphasised, it is stated that ‘this current desire of Tokyo is whole-heartedly backed and supported by all segments of the entire Japanese nation.’[5] With regards to the current Tokyo 2020 bid, this is an aspect that needs to be constantly taken into account, low levels of public support contributed to the failure of the 2016 bid.

In a concluding section, the bid book outlined reasons for the 1964 Olympics to be awarded to Tokyo. The first reason reiterated 1930s claim of universality – this would be the first ‘Asian’ Olympic Games. The second reason was a reminder of Japan’s history of Olympism, stating that ‘Japan has been and is enthusiastically devoted to the Olympism since her first participation in the V Olympiad at Stockholm, 1912.’[6]

The final reason given by the Governor of Tokyo read – ‘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 recognised 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.’[7]

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, which leaves the responsibility for this ‘cancellation’ open to interpretation. The fact that the city which was awarded the Olympics for 1940 was mostly destroyed in 1945 is also ignored.

Nevertheless, at Munich, the vote was held to determine the host city for 1964. Once the candidate presentations had been given it was stated that ‘several delegates are definitively in favour of Tokyo.’[8] Out of 56 votes, Tokyo polled 34, leading Detroit (10), Vienna (9), and Brussels (5). The victory was made all the more satisfying as Tokyo had finished behind Brussels and Detroit just four years earlier, a turnaround that the Tokyo 2020 team hopes to replicate against Madrid this coming September.

By emphatically awarding the Games to Tokyo, the IOC implied that they approved of Tokyo’s re-defined Olympic narrative, which had been showcased during the Asian Games and IOC Session. Yet, by rewarding a demonstration of Olympism, selecting Tokyo as the first Olympic host in Asia and accepting the emperor as a figurehead, the decision of 1958 displays considerable similarities to that of 1936.

The outcome of the 2020 campaign could mirror the turn of fortunes seen in the 1950s, it may even coincide with an economic revival similar to the one that followed the 1964 Olympics – but only if Tokyo can demonstrate that lessons from the 2016 campaign have been learnt. Work must also be done to improve international relations in the East Asian region.

The issue of war responsibility is as prominent as ever, international media have been closely following controversy surrounding ‘comfort women’, official visits to Yasukuni Shrine and lingering territorial disputes which have the potential to damage the Tokyo 2020 bid. There even could be regional opposition to the Tokyo bid if the capital’s pre-war Olympic connections, which are retained in the fabric of the 2020 bid, gain international attention. Despite this, Tokyo has a strong chance of defeating bids from Madrid and Istanbul due to the troubled financial situation in Spain and ongoing security concerns in the Middle East.


[1] S. Collins, ‘‘Samurai’ Politics: Japanese Cultural Identity in Global Sport – The Olympic Games as a Representational Strategy’, The International Journal of the History of Sport, 24, 3, (2007), 362.

[2] Bid to host the 1960 Summer Olympic Games, 1955, BOA/IOC/BID/S4, BOA Collection, University of East London, London, non-paginated.

[3] The Official Report of The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964, v. 1, 35.

[4]‘Third Asian Games, Tokyo 1958’, Bulletin du Comité International Olympique ( Olympic Review ), 1957 May No. 58, 65.

[5] Bid to host the 1964 Summer Olympic Games, 1958, BOA/IOC/BID/S5, BOA Collection, University of East London, London, non-paginated. (here-after referred to as Bid Book 1958)

[6] Bid Book 1958.

[7] Bid Book 1958.

[8]‘Extract of the minutes of the 55th session of the International Olympic Committee in Munich (Haus des Sportes) May 25th to May 28th 1959’, Bulletin du Comité International Olympique (Olympic Review), (August 1959) 67, 51-52.