The 1964 Tokyo Olympiad

The 1964 Tokyo Olympiad

The 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo can regarded as the birth of modern day Japan. Despite regaining independence in 1956 after the Allied Occupation, the Games were a turning point for Japan. Presenting a technologically advanced, modern and peaceful nation to the world only two decades after the end of World War II was tremendous step for Japan and helped fashion an image which has persisted for decades. The event was not merely vital for Japan’s international image.  The Games of the XVIII Olympiad were enough of a cultural touchstone that it continues to appear as an element in Japanese popular culture as recently as in the Ghibli film From Up on Poppy Hill and in the 2011 anime Showa Monogatari. With Japan’s successful bid for the 2020 Games, the amazing success of 1964 stands as both a goal and as an inescapable comparison.

Tokyo had previously won the opportunity to host the 1940 Games as part of a broad range of diplomatic initiatives meant to engage with the international community, particularly in the field of sport, after Japan’s withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933. Tokyo’s efforts on this front were undercut by the outbreak of war in China, illustrating the serious divisions that had emerged in the Japanese government over the best path for the nation to take. Eventually under hardening international pressure to relinquish the games, quiet hints at  boycotts, especially from the United States, and demands by the military for war material meant the effective cancellation of the Games in 1938. Tokyo gained a second chance to show what might have been in 1964, although this time the stakes and motivations for Japan were much different. World War II was still fresh in the minds of many in 1964 and Japan’s options on the international stage were quite limited. Hard power initiatives were completely off the table while lingering distrust made re-entry into the international community difficult. The apolitical and peaceful nature of the Games made it the perfect opportunity for Japan to move back into world affairs. As Jessica Abel has noted, the Olympics work as a political event because nations have agreed to the myth that it is not. By divesting the Games of politics, ostensibly for the glory of individual sport, it allows for political maneuvering that would otherwise not be possible or be called out. Sochi 2014, Beijing 2008 and Berlin 1936 are but a few occasions where the host nation tended to eclipse the Games themselves. (The Games still are referred to by the name of the host city, despite the fact the effort to host a modern Olympics is a truly national affair. Another way the Games maintain a discrete distance between event and politics as Abel also points out.)

The Games proved to be a resounding success with far reaching impact both internationally and domestically. The technological advancements on display elevated Japan’s world reputation, with milestones such as the first live broadcast of the Games to the world. The desire to present a modern, international city inhabited by an equally modern people led to a wholesale revamp of both city facilities and a drive towards the internationalization of education for the Japanese people.  (The ramifications of the drive for modernization is explored to a degree in From Up on Poppy Hill, echoing earlier anxieties over modernity as seen in the Meiji era.) The shinkansen, by now a symbol of Japan, also saw its inaugural run in time for the Games.  Japanese nationalism, still viewed with suspicion, found an outlet acceptable to the world at large and many Japanese felt justifiably proud of their nation’s new peaceful accomplishments. The Games had a distinctly Japanese feeling to them and Judo was an Olympic sport for the first time, putting another element of Japanese culture in play worldwide. Tokyo 1964 was a resounding success of what Joseph Nye’s deems a soft power initiative, a diplomatic effort which Japan continues to exercise to this day. It will be interesting to see how the legacy of 1964 will impact the 2020 Games in a new era fraught with new tensions as well as the way the run up to the Games will be depicted in popular culture.

Further Reading

  • “Japan’s Sporting Diplomacy: The 1964 Tokyo Olympiad” by Jessica Abel
  • Japan 1941 by Eri Hotta
  • Tokyo Olympiad, a documentary film by Kon Ichikawa
  • You can also check out my own review of Abel’s “Japan’s Sporting Diplomacy” in the 2013 volume of Olympika: The International Journal of Olympic Studies

Leave a Reply