The Olympics and Japan: A Retrospective

As the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games move from primetime viewing to public memory, we must once again endure the long four-year wait for the 2020 Olympiad in Tokyo. The Summer Games will be an important event for Japan: emblematic of the reconstruction and recovery following the aftermath of the Triple Disaster of March 2011, and a powerful projection of Prime Minister Abe’s vision of Japan as a proud “beautiful country” within the international community of nations. Abe himself even took centre stage as the culmination of Japan’s impressive handover video

Tokyo 2020 also provides an opportunity to revisit and reflect upon Japan’s previous Olympic milestones. I have selected three such landmarks for discussion today - 1912,1940, and 1964. 


Japan first participated in the games during the fifth Olympiad in Stockholm in 1912, becoming the first Asian nation to do so. The Japanese team consisted of two athletes, Mishima Yahiko (track and field) and Kanakuri Shizō (marathon).  

Neither athlete was able to return home with a medal, but Kanakuri did cause quite a stir in the marathon. A combination of inadequate footwear (Kanakuri ran in split-toed padded tabi) and the searing summer heat resulted in Kanakuri retiring from the race after 27km. Kanakuri returned to Japan promising to do better next time, however he had neglected to make his withdrawal from the marathon known to Olympic officials. As a result, he was recorded as “missing” in the final race results. 

However, the story doesn’t end there.  Kanakuri would later be invited to return to Sweden to officially “finish” the race, although not until 1967. Despite being in his seventies, Kanakuri leapt at the chance, allowing officials to finally stop the clock that had started ticked all the way back in 1912. His final time? Fifty-four years, eight months, six days, five hours, thirty-two minutes and 20.3 seconds. Kanakuri, in obvious good spirit, commented, “It was a long trip. Along the way, I got married, had six children and 10 grandchildren.”(*1) 


The second major Japanese Olympic milestone is “the missing Olympics” - the cancelled 1940 Tokyo Games.(*2) As the first non-western nation to be awarded the games, Japan was afforded an opportunity to present a distinctly Asian perspective on the competition. Furthermore, 1940 would be a particularly auspicious year for Japan as it marked the 2,600th Anniversary of the Ascension of Emperor Jimmu and the founding of Japan as a nation (Kigen 2,600-nen), a fact quickly capitalized upon by the organising committee. Although ostensibly an international event, much of the ideology behind Tokyo 1940 was aimed towards the domestic audience to foment national pride and strengthen the "kokutai" (i.e. the “national essence” of Japan). Likewise, the games would act as a forum for “people’s diplomacy” through which Japan could justify its burgeoning empire free from the criticism of the international community. This was particularly significant given Japan’s withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933 following the Manchurian Incident. 

Interesting parallels can also be drawn between the 1940 games and the upcoming 2020 games given the geographical and economic situation of the period. Most noticeably, the Japan of 2020 will have overcome many similar challenges to those of the late 1930s: reconstruction following a devastating natural disaster (the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 versus the 3.11 Triple Disaster of 2011); increased tourism as an aid to recovery from economic malaise (the 1929 Wall Street Crash versus the 2008 Lehman Shock); and a government keen to stress the value of tradition and national culture (the commemoration of Kigen 2,600-nen versus Prime Minister Abe’s vision of a “beautiful country”). 

However, Tokyo 1940 was not to be. The Marco Polo Bridge Incident of 1937, heralding the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War, brought renewed threats of boycotts and increasing international pressure on Japan to forfeit the games. Domestic pressure also grew, both from a materiel perspective but also a moral one. Was it right to compete while soldiers were fighting overseas? Believing the war would soon be over, Japan persisted in its pursuit to host the 12th Olympic Games, however as hostilities dragged on this position grew increasingly untenable and Japan officially forfeited the games in July 1938. 


The Olympic flame would not return to Asia until 1964, when for the second time Tokyo was designated host city. This time, however, Japan's aims were very different. Postwar recovery, international rehabilitation and solemn remembrance were key elements of the opening ceremony. This was most apparent during the lighting of the Olympic flame, with the honour given to nineteen-year-old Sakai Yoshinori, born in Hiroshima on the morning of the atomic bombing. 

Technology also played an integral role during the 1964 Games. This was the age of rapid economic expansion and consumerism, when owning a car, cooler (air conditioner) and colour TV meant that you could count yourself among an ever-expanding middle class. As a result, Tokyo 1964 marked the first time the games had been broadcast internationally via satellite. Likewise, the newly constructed Shinkansen “bullet train”, which had opened just a few days ahead of the opening ceremony, was able to shuttle competitors, tourists and businessmen alike between Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka at record speed. This was a far cry from the devastation of a generation before. 

The introduction to the Olympics of new sports such as judo also gave the Japanese a newfound sense of pride. Likewise, the nationalistic ideology which had dominated the 1940’s bid was replaced with images of multiracial athletes lined up together, emphasising international cooperation and peaceful competition. Indeed, Tokyo 1964 would “not only be a display of sportsmanship by the world’s athletes, but would also serve to highlight the continuing efforts of the Japanese people as a worthy member of the world family of nations.”(*3)

Left: Official Poster of the 1940 games. Right: Promotional poster from 1964.

Left: Official Poster of the 1940 games. Right: Promotional poster from 1964.

2020 - A NEW DAWN 

So what can we expect for Tokyo 2020? From the video shown during the closing ceremony of Rio 2020 it appears that Japan is going all-out on the soft power front, with references to popular video game and anime characters such as Captain Tsubasa, Pac-Man, Doraemon, Hello Kitty and Mario. There are also clear references to the imagery of Tokyo 1964, which are echoed in the promotion of the technological aspects of the games,4 with plans to showcase emerging technologies such as self-driving taxis, instantaneous language translation, and ultra-HD broadcasts. Environmental concerns, highly pertinent in light of events in Fukushima, will also be addressed with plans to run the Olympic Village on hydrogen.(*5) 

Above: Screengrab from Japan’s official handover video echoing promotional artwork from 1964

Above: Screengrab from Japan’s official handover video echoing promotional artwork from 1964

As for the man taking centre stage, Prime Minister Abe seems to be playing to the crowd, perhaps keen to show a lighter side to his personality and cast aside recent controversies such as the reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution (the so-called “peace-clause”) to allow for collective self-defence, the introduction of the State Secrecy Law, and his continuing visits to Yasukuni Shrine. Abe will also be keen to show a welcoming face, particularly to Japan’s closest neighbours with whom tensions have been rising in recent years over various territorial disputes. Indeed, the idea of a “people’s diplomacy” may be alive and well in the 21st century. However political ambitions aside, Tokyo is sure to wow the crowds in four years’ time. Faster, higher, stronger may be the Olympic motto, but it could equally apply to Japan’s Olympic ambitions. I, for one, cannot wait. 

Roddy McDougall is a PhD candidate in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh.


1 A full account of this story is available at The Japan Times. 2012. Better late than never for Japan’s first, “slowest” Olympian. via (Accessed 02/10/2016) 

2 For a comprehensive overview of the 1940 Tokyo Games, refer to Collins, Sandra. 2007. The 1940 Tokyo Games: The Missing Olympics. Routledge: Oxford 

3 Quote taken from McClain, James L. 2002. A Modern History of Japan. Norton: New York. 

4 An interesting infographic on the proposed technological innovations can be found at 2016. Tokyo 2020: The Olympics of the Future. via (Accessed 02/10/2016) 

5 Refer to 2016. The Olympic Village of the Future. via (Accessed 02/10/2016)