Hindsight is 2020 for Japan

The decision to postpone the 2020 Olympics over the coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented, but in some ways, Japan has been here before – the cancelled Summer Games of 1940 were also due to be hosted in Tokyo.

Japan’s military aggression in Asia forced the annulment of what became known as the “Missing Olympics” after the Games were switched to Helsinki before finally being scrapped because of World War II.

Tokyo officials originally touted a bid for the 1940 Games as a way to show the city had recovered from a devastating 1923 earthquake, according to author David Goldblatt in his book The Games: A Global History of the Olympics.

Japan also framed the 2020 Olympics as the “Recovery Games” — a chance to show the country is back on its feet after the 2011 triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown.

Tokyo’s 1940 bid was spearheaded by Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo and first Japanese member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), who stressed the importance of bringing the Games to Asia for the first time.


“The Olympics should naturally come to Japan. If they don’t, the reason for this must be something unjust,” said Kano in his plea to the IOC.

The Japanese had a special reason for wanting to celebrate 1940, as it coincided with the 2 600th year since the enthronement of the nation’s legendary first emperor, Jimmu.

Tokyo launched an official bid in 1932 and found itself up against Rome and Helsinki.

Japan engaged in a fierce lobbying campaign that included pleading with Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to step aside. “In the you-scratch-my-back kind of deal that has become the norm in international sports politics, Mussolini announced with unusual candour, ‘We will waive our claim for 1940 in favour of Japan if Japan will support Italy’s effort to get the XIIIth Olympiad for Rome in 1944,” wrote Goldblatt. The IOC plumped for the Japanese capital by 37 votes to 26.

Before the bid had been tabled, Japan in 1931 invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria and two years later withdrew from the League of Nations – the precursor to the United Nations – after it refused to sanction the occupation.

The Olympic bid was therefore also an attempt to shore up international support, according to Asato Ikeda, assistant professor at Fordham University, New York, who has written about the 1940 Games.

Preparations for the Games gathered pace. The opening ceremony was set for September 21 1940. There were some hiccups though, including questions about whether the Emperor could declare the Games open, as the Japanese held him to be semi-divine and therefore unable to be seen and heard by ordinary citizens.

Japanese diplomats voiced concern that powers such as Britain and the United States could boycott the Games over Japan’s war-like activity. There was increasing clamour inside the country for cash to be diverted for military purposes. Yet, in words familiar to those following the story of the 2020 Games, Tokyo insisted the show would go on.

Barker cites a cable from Tokyo City Hall to the IOC which said: “The citizens of Tokyo are doing their utmost to make the 1940 Games a success.” But the Japanese Olympic Committee eventually bowed to the inevitable and forfeited in July 1938, saying what they euphemistically called “the trouble with China” had made staging the Games impossible.

The Winter Games, due to be held in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo, were also scrapped and the war put paid to the proposed rescheduling in the Finnish capital.

The next time the Olympic torch was lit was for London in 1948, four years after the city had originally been due to host. But Japan, as a defeated power, was excluded and Helsinki staged the next summer Games in 1952.

Tokyo finally became the first Asian city to host the Olympic Games in 1964. — AFP

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Richard Carter
Richard Carter
News editor for @afp in Japan. Former Europe/Africa desk chief. Ex Berlin, Brussels, Paris.

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