How The 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games Changed The Global Identity Of Japan

Shotaro Honda Moore
7 min readMar 7, 2019

It is often talked about the actual benefits of hosting the Olympic Games in terms of its overall effects on the host nation. This is hard to necessarily quantify in terms of simply dollars. Some countries choose to host the games to strengthen their nations image, while others do more so to stimulate their tourist industry. Some games are definitely more influential than others in terms of long lasting effects. Possibly one the most important games for a host nation ever was the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games.

Japan had actually originally won the bid to host the 1940 Summer Olympic Games, but this was obviously cancelled due to the outbreak of World War 2. This coupled with the fact it would be the first non-western country to host the Olympics, would add emphasis to an already incredibly important event for the country of Japan. It was the first chance to be the focal point of a major event in the world since the ending of the war. With many other nations watching, the Japanese government went to extreme lengths to foster an image of stability and modernity for a country that had a negative image globally. These Olympic Games would hopefully erase prejudice caused by the violent images of the nation portrayed in propaganda and those of their own doing.

Futuristic Wonderland?

As one would assume at this point in time Tokyo, let alone Japan was not the tourist magnet it is today. Today there is the a mass appeal to Tokyo as it is the largest city in the world that totes some rather impressive technology and culture. This unique sci fi esque aesthetic really began to take shape in due part to the 1964 games.

So what exactly was done to create this image for the a country? Well one of the first things you notice when seeing architecture built for the 1964 Olympics is that it was clearly inspired by science fiction and space. Such buildings as Yoyogi Stadium, The Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium and Tatsumi are such examples that show this intent.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium Featuring A Spaceship Like Design ©ShotaroHondaMoore

These buildings however are far from the only push for technological developments that would facilitate this belief. Others such as the Shinkansen, often referred to as a bullet train and the construction of Tokyo Tower are other initiatives the government undertook. These both ended up having tremendous impact, not just to foster this image, but as infrastructure for transportation and media. The Shinkansen is one of the most popular means of traveling domestically and the later helped place a TV set in so many houses in Japan.

The Shinkansen Made A Special Demo Preview At The 1964 Games.
The Tokyo Tower Being Constructed Prior To The Toky 1964 Games.

There are other motivations behind this desire to make Tokyo into a technological wonderland. The hope was that Japan would not be seen as lagging behind in the world technology like they had been in the 19th century. As you may know already, the island nation of Japan was for the most part closed off from much of the world. The Japanese government enacted a foreign policy called Sakoku which means “closed country” and was in effect for over 200 years (1633-1853). This separation from especially the western world saw Japan flourish in terms of cultural development, but fall behind in regards to technology. Thus by the time of the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century/early 20th century, when Japan was re opened to the world, many countries viewed it as somewhat a backwards country. Today we see that image all but eliminated as the Japanese are often regarded as one of the leaders in technological development.

Goodbye War, Hello Peace?

If you have studied Japanese history (or any countries history really), you can see the prevalence of how violence and war shaped the country. However the stereotype of Japan as a particularly violent loving nation is one that was rampant in the first half of the 20th century. Even in modern pop culture, the Japanese warrior class known as samurai have garnered such notoriety.

A Portrait Titled ‘A Group of Samurai’, From 1890. ©The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Now a lot of this stigmatism was not based off of nothing. Bushido code, which is a set of teachings that depicts the ideals and virtues of what a warrior should be, did have quite a few violent aspects. For instance it often called for warriors to take their own life upon defeat. These Bushido teachings did not end with the samurai after their eventual erosion during the Meiji Restoration.

Although a lot of these innately violent associations with the countries are unjust, it is hard to deny that during World War 2, Japan had created one of the most nationalistic and militaristic cultures in the world. Many Japanese were willing to follow their countries orders in the name of the Emperor with little waver. Even the basis of many popularized sports were derived from warring practices, e.g kendo. This of course all changed with two historically significant events, the dropping of the atomic bombs.

Post war, America changed many things within Japan to hopefully alter this culture. Things such as the Oath to the Emperor, that was recited by students at the beginning of each day and sports such as kendo were taken out of the education system. This cultural change wasn’t all facilitated by the United States however, as many Japanese felt a similar sentiment after witnessing the direction war was heading.

At the 1964 Summer Olympic games, Japan wanted to be seen as a nation striving for the future of international peace. This was to be done so in a couple of manners. There were overtly scheduled presentations that were done to symbolize this. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Site, which is one of todays iconic location for Japanese and tourists had a display where the “Peace Flame” was lit in 1964. This flame is still going today and will never be put out until there ceases to be nuclear weapons on this world.

Even In The Rain, The Flame At The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Burns. ©ShotaroHondaMoore

With the obvious Cold War being ever present during this time period, the Japanese government was also particularly sensitive to the ongoing dispute between the worlds superpowers. There was a strong effort made to be the mediators between the two, as they are so close to the United States politically and Russia geographically.

Were the Japanese truly successful in changing this image in the minds of other countries? It’s tough to say, as western countries may have been much more accepting of this drastic change. Other Asian countries who directly suffered at the hands of the Japanese empire maybe less so. China, North Korea and Indonesia didn’t even participate in the games, however this was due to protest against the IOC, not Japan directly.

Japan As A Sports Country?

For many, athletics may not be at the top of the list when it comes to their image of Japan. Possibly because of the lack of Japanese athletes in main stream team sports, especially of the North American variety. However those who follow the likes of gymnastics, swimming, wrestling and figure skating will know the Japanese to be a competitive bunch. This rise to becoming a consistent top 5 medaling nation really began at the 1964 Olympic Games. One of the most publicized Olympic Gold medal winners would be Japan’s Women’s Volleyball Team, who became known as “The Witches Of The Orient”.

Japans Gold Medal 1964 Women;s Volleyball Team, “The Witches Of The Orient”. ©Kyodo

It’s true that Japan had success prior to the 1964 games, finishing with 16 total medals in 1960, 4 being gold, but this symbolized a rise to being a consistent leader in the world of athletics. Some may question if this success was spurred on by home court advantage, which can’t be 100% ruled out. However what really made the difference was the amount of resources and funding that the Japanese gave their athletes. It is stated the costs for the 1964 Olympic games was roughly 282 million dollars, but there are rumors the true costs exceeded 1 billion. It has been nicknamed by the Japanese people as the trillion dollar Games. This increased support for the athletes saw Japan’s Olympic team take home 29 total medals: 16 gold, 5 silver and 8 bronze at the 1964 Summer Games.

The effects of the 1964 Olympics are of course much wider in scope than purely the perception and image they gave to the outside world, but the importance of this “rebranding” of sorts was essential for Japan for a number of reasons. For instance this new, cleaner image helped give rise to tourism in Japan, which more than doubled by 1970 from roughly 350,000 in 1964 to over 800 000 by the end of the decade. It is clear to see that the 1964 Olympics is one of the most influential events to shape the modern day image of Japan.

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Shotaro Honda Moore

A writer living in Japan. Creating articles about the 2020 Tokyo Games. A regular contributor to Junkture Magazine.