Ultraman’s Origin Story: The 1964 Tokyo Olympics Men’s Gymnastics Team

Eiji Tsbarya and his Ultraman creations
Eiji Tsuburaya and his Ultraman creations
Ultraman is 50 years old! He’s still battling kaiju! And he hasn’t aged a bit.

It was July 17, 1966 when the first episode of Ultraman aired on Japanese televisions. Since then, Ultraman has been re-packaged in close to 40 different television series or movies, and is an internationally recognized phenomenon, on the same level as Pokemon, Hello Kitty and Doraemon.

Ultraman is the brainchild of Eiji Tsuburaya, who at the time was producing a newly launched series called “Ultra-Q“, what might be called a Japanese version of the television series Twilight Zone or Outer Limits, which were popular in the early 1960s.

Ultraman baltan seijin

Ultra-Q was not unpopular, but the broadcaster, Tokyo Broadcasting System did some research and discovered that the kids loved the episodes with all of the giant monsters (known in Japanese as “kaijyu“). This was particularly true thanks to the popularity of the Godzilla movies. As it turned out, Tsuburaya understood that. After all, he was the co-creator of the Godzilla movies. So after the first season of Ultra-Q ended, Tsuburaya decided to devote his series to kaiju, by introducing a character that would forever defend the world from the bad ones.

In one of those quick feats of legerdemain, Tsuburaya changed the name of his series from Ultra-Q to Ultraman. Broadcast in color, Ultraman burst on to the scene, and thus was born a cultural icon that all Japanese in their 40s, 50s and 60s can remember with nostalgic bliss.

But where did Tsuburaya get the term “ultra” from? That takes us back a couple of more years to 1964 and the Tokyo Olympics. Japan had just begun its run of men’s gymnastics dominance, by winning the team gold at the 1960 Rome Summer Games. They were expected to do well on their home turf in 1964, but they knew they would have tough competition, particularly with the Soviet Union. In an interview of the Helsinki Olympics medalist and member of a committee dedicated to strengthening gymnastics in Japan, Tadao Uesako, the Japanese newspaper, Daily Sports, revealed Japan’s gymnastics strategy.

Ohno Hayata Mitsukuri Endo Yamashita
Men’s gold medal gymnastics team from Japan: Takashi Ohno, Takuji Hayata, Haruhiro Yamashita, Takashi Mitsukuri, Yukio Endo, from the book Tokyo Olympiad 1964, Kyodo News Service
In 1964, international scoring for gymnastics worked on a three-level scale of A, B and C, where level C was considered the highest level of difficulty for a particular discipline or routine. It was Uesako’s view that Japan’s gymnasts were aspiring to levels beyond C, or as he called it, “Ultra-C“. And from that article, another foreign word (or in this case, prefix) entered the Japanese lexicon.

So there you have it – Tsuburaya made the leap from “Ultra-C” to “Ultra-Q”, thanks to the Japanese men’s gymnastics squad that took gold, ultimately sticking the landing on Ultraman.

Happy Birthday Ultraman!