Tokyo’s Olympic Origins 1930-1936

April 19th, 2013By Category: Culture


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.

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.

Author of this article

Austin Smith

I am an ALT in Tokushima. I came to Japan on The JET Programme in summer 2011 having completed an MA in East Asian History at Newcastle University in 2010.

On 7th September 2013, the success or failure of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic bid will be determined. As the decision draws near, I will be writing about Tokyo’s Olympic history from the 1930s to the present day.

This project will allow me to revisit my own research, carried out back in 2010. I hope that I can promote the Tokyo 2020 campaign and raise awareness of the history of Olympic Japan by making this research available to a wider audience.

Related articles that may interest you