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Japan and the Olympics Before the 1964 Tokyo Games

(The following post is by Cameron Penwell, Japanese Reference Librarian, Asian Division.)

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which actually took place in 2021 due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, marked the second Summer Games to be held in Japan, after the landmark 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and the third time Tokyo has been selected as host city—following the unrealized 1940 Summer Games. Japan has also hosted the Winter Olympics twice, first in Sapporo in 1972 and again in Nagano in 1998.

In the popular imagination, the 1964 Tokyo Games symbolically mark Japan’s recovery from defeat in World War II and the country’s phenomenal growth as an international economic power. While the 1964 Tokyo Olympics remains an important milestone, it is by no means the beginning of Japan’s Olympic history, which is longer and more complex. It started half a century earlier with the efforts of just a handful of athletes and features important contributions from women and colonial Korean subjects. It also includes the legacy of Tokyo 1940, the “phantom Olympics” that the Japanese government ultimately chose to forfeit.

The first modern Olympics was held in Athens, Greece in 1896. Japan, however, did not begin participating until 16 years later, when track and field competitor Mishima Yahiko (1886-1954) and marathon runner Kanakuri Shisō (1891-1983) represented their country at the 1912 Games in Stockholm, Sweden.

Although the Japanese team did not take home any medals, it was involved in one of the most peculiar episodes in Olympic history. During the marathon event, Kanakuri Shisō (sometimes also written as “Kanaguri” or “Shizō”) disappeared and never finished the race. Due to the unusually warm weather in Stockholm, numerous runners suffered hyperthermia and failed to finish the race. This was the case for Kanakuri, who had already been tired out by the arduous journey from Japan, which involved first travelling by ship and then traversing Eurasia on the Trans-Siberian Express.

Nine men standing on stage.

This photograph shows a group of Japanese athletes, likely taken on their way to the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium. Among those pictured are marathon runners Mogi (Motegi) Zensaku (front row, second from left) and Kanakuri Shisō (back row, far right). Standing front and center is Kanō Jigorō (1860-1938), the founder of judo and a leading figure in physical education and international sports in Japan. “Japanese athletes.” 1920. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Accounts vary in details, but it seems that Kanakuri, facing heat exhaustion and perhaps even falling unconscious at one point, stopped at the house of a Swedish family for assistance. After receiving something to drink and taking time to recover, he returned directly to his hotel. Embarrassed at his failure to complete the race, he departed for Japan the next day without contacting event officials, who reported him as “missing.” In 1967, the Swedish National Olympic Committee invited the 75-year-old Kanakuri back to Stockholm to finish the race, resulting in an official time of 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes, and 20.3 seconds.

Four male athlets.

The 1920 Japanese Olympic marathon team. Pictured left to right are Mogi Zensaku, Kanakuri Shisō, Miura Yahei, and Yashima Kenzō. Great Falls (Montana) Daily Tribune, July 4, 1920. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.

A male athlete.

A photograph of Kanakuri Shisō with a caption hailing him as a favorite in the marathon event at the upcoming 1920 Olympics. “New York Tribune,” June 20, 1920. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.

Following the cancellation of the 1916 Summer Games in Berlin due to World War I, the next Olympics was held in Antwerp, Belgium in 1920. Here, Kumagae Ichiya (1890-1968) became the first-ever Japanese Olympic medalist when he captured the silver in men’s singles tennis. Together with Kashio Seiichiro (1892-1962), he also took home a silver medal in the men’s doubles event. Kanakuri once again competed in the marathon, this time coming in a respectable 16th in a field of 48 runners.

Two male athletes standing.

Kumagae Ichiya, the first Japanese Olympic medalist, poses in a photograph circa 1920-25 next to American tennis great and former world No. 1 Bill Johnston. “Kumagae & Johnston [tennis].” Ca. 1920-25. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

As Japan’s participation in international athletics increased in the 1910s and 1920s, the country took a leading role in the development of sporting competitions in East Asia. Japanese athletes traveled to the Philippines to compete in the “First Oriental Olympic Games” in 1913. In addition to the host country, other competitors came from China, British Hong Kong, Siam, and British Malaya. Thereafter, the event became known as the Far Eastern Championship Games, with hosting duties shared in turn every two to three years among the US-ruled Philippines, China, and Japan. Ten games were held, primarily with participation from these three countries. The 11th games, originally scheduled to take place in Osaka in 1938, was cancelled due the Second Sino-Japanese War, which later became part of the larger Asia-Pacific theater in World War II.

black and white photo showing athletes marching.

Filipino athletes representing the US-ruled Philippine Islands in Tokyo at the 1917 Far Eastern Championship Games. “Filipino Athletes in Tokyo.” 1917. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

After disappointing results at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, which yielded just one bronze medal, the Japanese government expanded its support for Olympic athletes. In addition, a new organization, the Japan Association of Athletics Federations, was formed in 1925 to better organize and promote track and field at varying levels across the country. Efforts paid off at the 1928 Games in Amsterdam, where Oda Mikio (1905-1998) took first place in the men’s triple jump and became the first Japanese to win gold. Also notable was Kinue Hitomi (1907-1931), who not only became the first female Olympian from Japan but also won silver in the women’s 800 meters event.

A female athlete.

In 1928 Kinue Hitomi became the first Japanese woman to compete in the Olympics. Brownsville (Texas) Herald, May 28, 1928. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.

a book cover showing a gate and the right leaf in orange color.

Cover and title page of a Japanese publication chronicling the 1932 Summer Games in Los Angeles. “Daijikkai Orimupikku gahō = Xth-Olympiad.” 1932. Japanese collection, Library of Congress Asian Division.

Against the backdrop of the Great Depression, the 1932 Summer Games were held in Los Angeles, California. Due in large part to the global economic situation, nine fewer countries and 1,500 fewer athletes competed compared to Amsterdam just four years prior. Japan sent 31 athletes, its largest team ever and second in number only to the United States. The team placed fifth in overall gold medals, with seven, and firmly established themselves as top-ten Olympic contenders. Standout performances included those by Nanbu Chūhei (1904-1997), who won gold by setting a new world record in the triple jump, and Japanese swimmer Kitamura Kusuo, who took first place in the men’s 1500 meter freestyle event at the age of 14 years and 309 days. Doing so, he became the youngest male swimmer to win Olympic gold—a record that still stands today.

When considering the history of Japanese participation in international sports, it is important not to overlook the fact that Japan at this time was itself an empire comprising multiple nations. Athletes eligible to compete under the banner of the Rising Sun flag were not limited to those born in the Japanese archipelago; they could potentially come from other parts of the Japanese empire, such as Taiwan or Korea. In fact, at the 1936 Berlin Games, long-distance runner Son Ki-jŏng 孫基禎 (1912-2002) became the first Korean to win an Olympic medal, taking gold in the marathon event. Because he was competing on the Japanese national team, however, he was compelled to register using the Japanese styling of his name, Son Kitei. In the very same event, fellow Korean Nam Sŭng-nyong 南昇龍 (1912-2001) won the bronze, likewise competing for the Japanese team with his name rendered as Nan Shōryū. Five decades later, after a successful career in coaching, Son would bear the Olympic torch at the opening ceremony of the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea.

Long jumper Nanbu Chūhei, who won gold in the triple jump and bronze in the long jump at the 1932 Los Angeles Games. “Daijikkai Orimupikku gahō = Xth-Olympiad.” 1932. Japanese collection, Library of Congress Asian Division.

Male athletes running.

Son Ki-jŏng was the first Korean to win an Olympic medal, taking gold in the marathon event at the 1936 Berlin Games. “[Olympic games, Berlin – two photos of Kitei Son (Japan) in marathon].” 1936. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In 1936, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded Japan the right to host the 1940 Games in Tokyo. Central to the effort to bring the Olympics to Japan was Kanō Jigorō (1860-1938), the founder of judo and a leading figure in physical education and international sports in Japan. Planning and preparations for the 1940 Games began in earnest; however, following Japan’s invasion of China and the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, international opinion turned strongly against the idea of holding the Olympics in Japan.

A letter with handwritings, accompanied by an envelop, front and back.

A letter from Kanō Jigoro to Shimomura Hiroshi, a member of the House of Peers and then chairman of the Japan Sports Association, expressing concerns about the viability of the 1940 Tokyo Games. Kanō died just a month after sending the letter. “The Correspondence of Kanō Jigoro to Shimomura Hiroshi.” April 4, 1938. Available freely online as a contribution to the World Digital Library from the National Diet Library, Japan.

At the IOC Session held in Cairo, Egypt in the spring of 1938, Kanō managed to convince the committee to proceed with plans for the Tokyo Games. But on the ship back to Japan the 77-year-old Kanō passed away, and, with no end in sight to the continued war in China, prospects for a Tokyo Olympics dimmed. Faced with the potential of dozens of nations boycotting the games in protest, in July 1938 the Japanese government opted to follow advice from the IOC president to withdraw as hosts.

The 1940 Games were instead awarded to Finland, but the event was ultimately cancelled due to the outbreak of World War II. Following a 12-year hiatus due to the war, the Olympics resumed in London in 1948. Neither Germany nor Japan, though, were invited. In 1952, Finland at last got its turn, hosting the Summer Games in Helsinki. Coincidentally, this also marked Japan’s return to Olympic competition following the team’s exclusion from London. Twelve years later, in 1964, the Olympic Games would finally make their way to Japan.

Learn More

Collins, Sandra. “The 1940 Tokyo Games: The Missing Olympics.” London: Routledge, 2007.

Droubie, Paul. “The Phantom Olympics: Why Japan Forfeited Hosting the 1940 Olympics” in “Perspectives Daily” (blog), 21 July 2021. This article is freely available online.

Guttmann, Allen and Lee Thompson, “Japanese Sports: A History.” Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2001.

Kietlinski, Robin. “Japanese Women and Sport: Beyond Baseball and Sumo.” London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011. This book is freely available online.

Weber, Torsten. “Tokyo’s 1940 ‘Phantom Olympics’ in Public Memory” in “Japan Through the Lens of the Tokyo Olympics.” New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2020. This book is freely available online.

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