Fifty-six years ago, Tokyo saw the opening of its first Olympic Games. That moment is seen by many as a turning point for Japan. The Games saw the country emerge from the devastating consequences of World War II as a united, peaceful member of the international community, a global industrial power and an exporter of top-quality technological goods.
When Yoshinori Sakai ran into Tokyo’s National Stadium, holding the Olympic flame on 10 October 1964, his participation in the Opening Ceremony was laden with meaning. Known sas “Atomic Bomb Boy”, Yoshinori had been born in Hiroshima 19 years earlier on 6 August 1945, the same day an American bomber dropped an atomic bomb on his city.
And now, he jogged up a flight of stairs, held the torch high, and lit the cauldron to open the Tokyo Games. As the flames leapt up, they signalled not just the beginning of the Games, but the rebirth of a new Japan.
This Japan was projecting confidence, culture, and technological leadership too. In fact, the Games showcased so many innovations that one British journalist dubbed them the “science fiction” Games.
Some 56 years later, as Tokyo prepares to host an Olympic Games fit for a post-corona world, the themes of rebirth and resilience are once again on the cards. This time, Tokyo symbolises the resilience of a world in the midst of a global pandemic.
“Back in 1964, the first Olympic Games in Asia marked a new beginning for a peaceful and dynamic Japan among the family of nations,” said IOC President Thomas Bach at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Flame lighting ceremony in March 2020. “The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 will again be a symbol of hope and confidence for all Japanese people […].”
Tech and design innovation
Back then, technology was a major focus. From satellite broadcasting and colour television to monorail and bullet trains, the Games turned Tokyo and its surroundings into a hotspot for new technology.
Broadcast technology made a giant leap for humankind, for example, when the Japanese government and NASA collaborated to launch a communications satellite made originally for telephone use. Using new technology, the satellite transmitted TV signals instead, broadcasting the Olympics live to a third of the planet.
The first ever use of close-pickup microphones and slow-motion replays enhanced the experience, while computers enabled televisions to show the athlete times. And while most viewers watched in black and white, some events – such as the Opening Ceremony, wrestling, volleyball, gymnastics, and judo - were broadcast in colour for the first time ever.
Other innovations included time measurement down to 1/100th of a second by linking the starting gun to a quartz clock and photo-finish camera. Meanwhile, pole vaulters swapped aluminium poles for lighter, more flexible versions.
The use of graphics to overcome barriers was also new and impacted graphic design for decades to follow. Tokyo 1964 were the first Games to introduce pictograms, which have continued to be an important element of all the Olympic Games editions that followed. Tokyo 2020 has taken this legacy even further by creating the first ever kinetic Olympic and Paralympic sports pictograms.
Similarly, Tokyo 1964 organisers replaced Japan’s traditional national symbols with modern, futuristic designs. Responsibility for the look and feel of the Games was given to Yusaku Kamekura, considered one of the founders of post-war Japanese graphic design. With a passion for abstract, highly stylised art, he produced the well-known Tokyo Games emblem.
The legacy of the Games had begun well before 1964. As soon as Tokyo was selected to host the Games, it accelerated its development plans for the city, building new housing, hotels, parks, and improving water supply and sewage. Besides the glamorous Tokyo Prince Hotel, the 17-floor Hotel New Otani became the tallest building in the city.
Road and rail upgrades were accelerated too. The Shinkansen high-speed train line between Tokyo and Osaka, known as “the Bullet Train”, opened just nine days before the Games began. The world’s fastest train at the time, it was one of the Games’ most iconic legacies and was later expanded to reach other parts of the country.
Other upgrades left a major impact too. The Tokyo Monorail was the world’s first ever monorail used at scale for urban transport. By 2019, it was carrying nearly 300,000 passengers each weekday on its now 17.8-kilometre track. Meanwhile, the Games expanded Tokyo’s underground railway and the Metropolitan Expressway, a gigantic road network, which alleviated traffic congestion in what has become the world’s largest city.
1964 venues still shining at Tokyo 2020
The Yoyogi National Stadium, which staged the swimming, diving and basketball events was seen by some as “one of the finest sports buildings in the world”. Its distinctive design and unique suspended roof combined traditional Japanese architecture with western modernist aesthetics, making it an architectural icon. Today it continues to host sports competitions and is used by the local community as a multi-purpose cultural and entertainment centre.
Other 1964 venues too have been used extensively for sporting activities. Six of them will be reused for the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Games: Yoyogi National Stadium, Nippon Budokan, Equestrian Park, Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, Enoshima Yacht Harbour and Asaka Shooting Range.
The spirit of “konjo”
Some of Tokyo 1964’s most notable legacies have been the impact created by athletes.
The Japanese women’s volleyball team captured the nation’s hearts as they won Olympic Gold, defeating the heavily favoured Soviet team in the final. Their game was seen by more Japanese television viewers than any other event in the Games and their success led to widespread and popular coverage of volleyball, including through television documentaries. Meanwhile, a new generation of volleyball players won gold at the Montreal Games in 1976, then picked up medals at Mexico City 1968, Munich 1972, Los Angeles 1984, and London 2012.
Football was another victory for Japan. The national team beat Argentina 3-2 in the group stage and went on to reach the quarter finals. Soon after, in 1965, Tokyo created the Japan Soccer League.
In all these sports, the spirit of “konjo” – roughly equal to “grit” or “never giving up” – was given new agency by the Tokyo Olympics in the minds of many Japanese. It was perhaps best represented by Kokichi Tsuburaya, who won bronze in the men’s marathon, narrowly missing silver.
The Games left their mark in other ways too. They sparked the opening of sports clubs and training clinics across the country, helping establish sport as an integral part of Japanese people’s lives.
This legacy began in 1961 when the Japanese government introduced “the Sports Promotion Act”, which laid out measures to promote sport at local and national levels. The new Japan Junior Sport Clubs Association (JISA) helped more children to access sport and by 2018, it had 650,000 youngsters involved in 31,000 sports clubs across the country.
In these and other ways, the Tokyo Games helped to unify the Japanese population. Widespread television coverage helped create a sense of shared national experience, while repeated replays of the official Olympic film over the coming decades cemented the Games in the national memory.