Issues raised by the Olympic Torch Relay.

August 15th, 2013By Category: Culture

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 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.

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.

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