70 years after WWII: Lessons from 'the phantom Tokyo Games'

70 years after WWII: Lessons from 'the phantom Tokyo Games'
A monument to Jigoro Kano sits beside the main entrance to the National Stadium in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo. The stone bears an inscription commemorating Kano and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

As the Sino-Japanese War intensified, Japan forfeited its right to host the 1940 Tokyo Olympic Games, which is now called "the phantom Tokyo Olympics."

Looking toward the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, I retraced the process of how the Games were cancelled. And it took me by surprise.

In the gap between the ideal of Jigoro Kano, who strove to realise the 1940 Tokyo Games but died at sea, and the reality he faced, there appears to be a fundamental question of what the Olympics mean to our country.

Jigoro Kano

"This is the gate that never opens."

I was given a helmet to wear and then taken to the west part of the outer perimeter of the National Stadium, which is currently being demolished to construct a new stadium for the 2020 Games.

My guide from the Japan Sports Council was pointing to an entrance gate for VIPs, which has been closed for 50 years since it was used during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

A stone monument beside a path to the gate sat on the edge of an excavated hole from the demolition work. Carved in granite was a relief of Kano, bearing a vaguely forlorn expression.

A stone standing next to the monument had an inscription that had begun to erode from wind and rain.

I traced it with my fingertips to read it: "Let us bring the Olympics to Japan. This was the longtime dream of late Jigoro Kano, a pioneer of the sports world in Japan.

We, those who succeeded in doing what he wanted to do, built here a monument in memory of our mentor and to commemorate the Tokyo Olympics."

The stone is dated Oct. 10, 1964 - the opening day of the Tokyo Olympics.

Across the path stands a monument of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the Olympic Movement and the International Olympic Committee. This means that, on that date, these two looked out on those making their way to the opening ceremony.

Successful bid

Tokyo's hosting of the 1940 Olympics was decided at an IOC session shortly before the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

In direct talks with then Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, Japanese IOC members managed to convince him to promise to postpone a bid for an Olympics in Rome.

Though then IOC President Henri de Baillet-Latour was sceptical about holding the event in Tokyo, the Japan side invited him for a long stay in the country.

Those bold attempts, which could be restricted under regulations today, paved the way for Tokyo.

What successfully dispelled misgivings about an Olympics in Asia, located many weeks away by ship, was the "resonance" of thoughts of Kano and Coubertin.

Kano was an educator and the founder of judo. He was appointed to the IOC at Coubertin's request in 1909, becoming the first Asian member.

Kano espoused a philosophy of "seiryoku zenyo, jita kyoei," literally meaning, use your physical and mental abilities for the good for society, and seek your own prosperity and that of others together.

I read a 1933 article written by Kano for a magazine kept in a reference room of Kodokan Judo Institute.

The article says, for our society's continued existence and development, reconciliation and harmonization are indispensable, for which individuals apply their energies for good things and seek to flourish together with other people and other countries.

This philosophy matched Coubertin's own that sports is a form of education that can elevate humanity.

It is enlightening to learn about a Japanese man who had such ties with Coubertin and helped promote the sporting ethos at the dawning of Japan's Olympics.

The two felt that promoting Olympic values in Asia would help spread the idea of the universality of these goals. Coubertin acted to convince Baillet-Latour and back the Tokyo Olympics.

Military impact

However, once Tokyo won the bid, Tokyo and the central government took advantage of the event.

Political support is a must to achieve a successful Olympics, but Japan's sporting prowess was in some ways lacking, and our nation's sports world failed to share initiative with political powers. The situation seems to be the same with the upcoming 2020 Olympics.

At that time, the Tokyo city government originally prepared an Olympic bid based on the idea that the event would commemorate 2,600 years since Emperor Jinmu became the first Japanese emperor.

Kokushikan University Prof. Junko Tahara says that Dainippon Taiiku Kyokai, predecessor of the Japan Sports Association, failed to show a clear vision for the Olympics by setting sports as its core, and so the Games came to be understood as an opportunity to showcase Tokyo's prosperity and the sublimity of the Japanese spirit to the world.

The military, meanwhile, insisted that the decline in people's physical strength posed a threat to national defence, and tried to improve the situation by launching the health ministry.

For this purpose, the promotion of physical education was encouraged, and the hosting of Olympics was given approval.

At the time, the military reportedly said it would be ideal to have such athletic competitions during the Games as swordplay and a sport in which athletes fire bows or guns while moving through mountainous terrain.

This implies that the physical education in the nation was gradually transformed into a form of training exercises during the war.

Olympic venues were also expected to be used for national defence purposes after the Games. Prof. Satoshi Shimizu of University of Tsukuba said that former planned sites for the Games in the current Komazawa Olympic Park in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, were later used for air defence and other military purposes.

Despite these ideas, Kano seems to have held the conviction that if the Olympics were brought to Tokyo, the country would be able to promote reconciliation with participating countries and more people in Japan would come to believe in the value of sports.

When the Sino-Japanese War began in 1937 and delays in preparation for the event triggered concerns about whether the Games could really be held in Tokyo, Kano himself went to Cairo to participate in the IOC session there in 1938 although he was quite old at the age of 77.

Though he later said he felt during the session as if Japan's position was untenable, Kano was able to persuade the IOC members to move forward with the Tokyo Olympics.

Prof. Hisashi Sanada of the University of Tsukuba assumes that it was because the IOC members were moved both by the fact that Kano risked his life to come to Cairo and the will of Coubertin, who died a year before.

Kano died on the ship he was returning to Japan on. Two months later, the Cabinet decided to recommend the Tokyo Olympic Games be cancelled. Japan remains the only country that has given up hosting the Summer Olympics after winning its bid.

Value of sports

The Olympics were held in Tokyo in 1964 thanks to those who had followed in the footsteps of Kano's conviction, with IOC members loyal to Coubertin's will supporting them. The word "will" engraved on the monument represents such ties.

But Kano's visage on the monument standing at the construction site seems to suggest another wish.

The Olympics and sports that are promoted by political initiatives for national interests can be easily abandoned when they are considered not to benefit those interests. However, the Olympics, Kano seems to tell us, should be held with fundamental values and philosophies of sports at its core.

"The phantom Tokyo Olympics" may be a lesson transcending time for us as we prepare to host the 2020 event.

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