Tokyo 2020: The urban legacy of Tokyo 1964

July 3rd, 2013By Category: Uncategorized


On May 30th 2013, Tokyo Tower marked one hundred days until the outcome of the 2020 Olympic bid process with a light display and the release of hundreds of Olympic-colour balloons into the night sky. This date also signified the handover of Tokyo Tower’s main broadcasting responsibilities to Tokyo Skytree. Tokyo Tower, completed in 1958, became a global symbol of modern Tokyo at the 1964 Olympics, it is hoped that the Skytree, the world’s tallest free-standing structure, can enjoy a similar legacy – with Tokyo 2020 as the defining event in its history.

The Yoyogi National Stadium and the Nippon Budokan are two further symbols of 1964 that remain prominent cultural venues, fifty years on. Both will feature as part of a Heritage Zone if Tokyo’s 2020 bid is successful. These multi-purpose buildings were designed to fuse Japanese and Western architectural styles and their continued use, hosting a variety of national and international events, is a fantastic advert for Olympic legacy and testament to the vision of the architects.

Preparations for Tokyo 1964 were under intense international scrutiny from the outset. The scale, complexity, and cost of the 1960 Rome Olympiad had led to calls for the Olympic Games to be scrapped. Fortunately, there was a carefully considered venue strategy for 1964 – to expand and reconstruct as many existing sports venues as possible (particularly those built for the 1958 Asian Games) and supplement these with the landmark installations outlined above. This strategy made the direct cost of the games manageable.

The Olympic Organising Committee were given the power to acquire state owned land, in prominent areas of Tokyo, yet venue location did not change significantly from the pre-war plans proposed for 1940. As the graph (below) demonstrates, the amount of money spent on Olympic venues and the Olympic village was just 2.75% of the overall Olympic driven investment and a relatively low overall amount in comparison with subsequent host cities. Remaining investment was aimed at developing a solid transport infrastructure and improving the backdrop of the Games, the city itself.


The award of the Olympic Games to Tokyo was a trigger for vast urban improvements by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. A ten-year development plan for Tokyo was fast tracked to improve the city’s poor infrastructure for 1964. These projects went beyond attempts to achieve ‘Western standards’ which resulted in a lasting legacy, both in the urban fabric and popular memory.

Transport was the backbone of the project, to accommodate visitors during the event as well as the rapid growth of the city. Twenty-two highways were constructed at a cost of ¥72.1 billion and eight expressways at a cost of ¥105.8 billion.[2] Two subway lines of 12.5km and 9.4km were specifically completed in time for the Tokyo Olympics and were integrated into the existing network, which was already subject to an eight line, 177.5km post-war expansion.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government was determined to present a ‘clean’ city to the world, a ‘Beautification of the Capital Movement’ was launched and 4.7% of Olympic investment was allocated towards improving hygiene (more than that spent on Olympic installations).[3] Tokyo was a city under constant construction, it was not until this period that pre-war urban planning problems were addressed.

However, to assume the developments benefited the entire city would be misleading. Improvements were concentrated around affluent areas that would gain international attention, mostly within the Yamanote Line.[4] Nevertheless, the achievements made in time for the 1964 Olympic Games facilitated the transition of Tokyo into a modern, prosperous metropolis.

Arguably, the most significant investment of this period was the construction of the bullet train, which accounted for roughly 40% of indirect expenses. The Tōkaidō Shinkansen service between Osaka and Tokyo began on October 1st 1964, just nine days before the Olympic Games began. The importance of this development was internationally recognised – Time stated that ‘Japan was greeting not only a new rail service but a symbol of the nation’s postwar industrial growth and a new bond between its two largest cities.’[5]

Ironically, like Tokyo’s Olympic ambitions, plans for a standard-gauge rapid train service originated in the 1930s. A plan for this system was drafted in 1939 and, although some work was carried out, it was completely abandoned by 1943 due to the need for steel to be used for military purposes. High speed rail was to be established across East Asia to connect the Japanese Empire, and, despite war defeat, there was no break in the pursuit of land purchases to allow the lines construction – 19% of land required had been purchased by 1943 and this was later supplemented by land devalued by U.S. bombing. In this respect the first bullet train of 1964 represents not only ‘modernity’ but also, a realisation of pre-war ambitions.

The efficient transport network which was constructed in time for 1964 Olympics remains a major strength of Tokyo’s 2020 bid. Tokyo’s superb pre-existing infrastructure has contributed to the perception that the city is a safe option for 2020. Tokyo 1964’s status as arguably the greatest urban legacy in Olympic history is evidenced in the planned ‘Heritage Zone’ which will revive a remodeled Olympic Stadium, the Yoyogi National Stadium and the Nippon Budokan as Olympic venues. Tokyo Tower also stands in the Heritage Zone, to complete the connection between the Olympic legacy of 1964 and 2020.


[1] The graph is based on an example found in, H. Liao, and A. Pitts, ‘A Brief Historical Review of Olympic Urbanization’, The International Journal of the History of Sport, 23, 7 (2006), 1247., it has been edited to include data for 1968, (see Official Report of the Organizing Committee, vol. II, 23–4, cited in K. Brewster and C. Brewster, ‘Mexico City’s Hosting of the 1968 Olympic Games’, The International Journal of the History of Sport, 26, 6, (2009), 840-865). The data for Moscow 1980 has never been released. Total expenditure estimates vary from relative values of $600 million to $3,700 million. The ‘Supportive Infrastructure (%)’ is a useful indicator of how successful an Olympic legacy a Games has produced, e.g. the 1976 Olympic Games are generally considered to have a negative impact on the city of Montreal.

[2] The Official Report of The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964, v. 1, 48.

[3] Y. Igarashi, Bodies of Memory: Narratives of War in Postwar Japanese Culture, 1945-1970 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 143-163.

[4] The circular Yamanote commuter rail line services central Tokyo – only four of Tokyo’s twenty-three Wards fall within this boundary.

[5] ‘Japan: Fast Ride to Osaka’, Time, 4th September 1964.

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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