The Legacy of Tokyo 1964

Throughout history, the Olympic games have been an apt window for nations and host cities to parade their culture on an international stage. In 2016, over 3.6 billion people  from around the world tuned in to watch the games in Rio de Janeiro. The mass media frenzy which the games attract  means that hosts have ubiquitously harnessed them for diplomatic displays. Arguably, it is paramount for host nations to perfect the games’ cultural sentiment rather than simply facilitating a stage for the world’s top athletes to compete.

Yoyogi National Gymnasium, Tokyo, 1964 Olympic Games. Designed by Kenzo Tange it was built between 1961 and 1964 to host the swimming and diving events of the 1964 Summer Olympics. (Credit: The JR James Archive via Flickr)

Naomi Osaka’s igniting of the cauldron on the 23rd of July signalled the official commencement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games. However, with ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, big questions remain around organisers’ ability to broadcast an image of Japan to the global audience. Casting an eye back to Tokyo 1964 reveals how Japan previously used the games as a vehicle to improve impressions of the country. 

Reflecting on Tokyo 1964, former Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe spoke of the optimism which had characterised the build-up to the games. “We were much poorer then than we are today,” Mr Abe told the crowd. “But Japanese people back then were passionate about hosting the Olympics in Tokyo, and that passion fuelled the success of the games.” In the lead up to the games, Japan had been eager to shake off its problematic relationship with the West. The country was largely perceived as a militarist pariah, which had combined with the other axis powers nineteen years earlier to engender a brutal international conflict – World War II. Additionally, ultranationalist voices had shunned international cooperation in favour of a Japan-centric approach to politics. Economically, it was commonly held by Western nations that Japan had yet to fully realise the degree of modernity found in Europe and North America, and was lagging technologically. Thus, the advent of the Tokyo 1964 games signalled a major revitalisation of Japan’s image. 

The Tokyo 1964 games successfully showed that Japan had undergone a fully-fledged process of modernisation. The architecture of several of the Olympic buildings in the main areas of Shibuya and Shinjuku stood as a primary symbol of this modernity. The widely revered architect Kenzo Tange, who had previously drawn up the plans for the Memorial Cenotaph in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, was enlisted to design the aquatics centre. The Yoyogi National Gymnasium was particularly striking due to the daring curves on its roof. Moreover, the Gymnasium was built to implicitly link the games with Japan’s cultural past. It was purposely built so that there was a line of sight between the gates of the Meiji Shrine and the centre of the Gymnasium. The shrine had been built to memorialise Emperor Meiji, who had presided over the Meiji restoration before his death in 1912. Perhaps just as important was that symbolism relating to Japan’s recent nationalistic history was eschewed. 

Moreover, the games presented a prime opportunity to demonstrate Tokyo’s rapid urban development as a symbol of the nation’s modernity. The city focused on up-scaling and updating its infrastructure. The Haneda International airport was ameliorated to accommodate new jet airliners, including its own commercial passenger jet the YS-11, which was used to transport the Olympic flame. Similarly, Tokyo’s monorail system was improved to better connect the airport to the inner-city. Crucially, nine days before the opening ceremony of the games the Shinkansen bullet train was unveiled by Japan’s wartime emperor, Hirohito. On its inaugural journey, the train impressively covered a total of 250 miles in a mere three hours. Tokyo’s canal system also received an upgrade in tandem with the improvement of hygiene standards in the Sumida River which had once emitted an unpleasant odour. During the games themselves, new electronic touchpads were used in swimming, along with the photo finish being introduced. Most importantly, the organisers made sure to telecast the games live and in colour for the first time in Olympic history. Thus, Japan had triumphantly applied the Olympic motto of “faster, higher, stronger” to revitalising its capital city which stood as a beacon for the country’s modernity. 

The success of the Tokyo 1964 games thus represents a tough act to follow for the current organisers of the 2020 games. In 2019, before the pandemic, the organisers articulated a lofty goal to “bring positive reform to the world” and to “harness togetherness to bring about further enhancements to Tokyo, Japan and the world.” Even with a yearlong postponement and rigid Covid-19 restrictions in place the organisers will strive to leverage the ongoing games to full effect.

Ben Carter, History in Politics’ Summer Writer

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