The Path to the 1940 Tokyo Olympics Part 3: Tokyo Out of the Ashes of the 1923 Earthquake

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Tokyo after the 1923 earthquake
These black and white photos seem eerily similar. They are both of Tokyo, but the first picture is the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in 1923. The second picture is the result of firebombing that took place by the US Air Force on March 9-10, 1945.

In other words, Tokyo climbed out of the fiery ashes of destruction, not once, but twice in the first half of the 20th century. People outside marveled at the patience and resiliency of the Japanese after the triple shock of earthquake, tsunami and radiation terror that stunned Japan on March 11, 2011. But the world has seen these qualities before.

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Tokyo after the firebombing in 1945
And both times, out of the ashes of 1923’s Great Kanto Earthquake and the horrifying and sustained firebombing of Japan’s capitol in 1945, Tokyo rose to the pinnacle of international recognition in sports by being selected as the host country for an Olympiad. Many know of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, how a defeated nation, subservient to foreign governance for 7 years after World War Two, rose to economic prominence to host the first Olympics in Asia, and arguably, at the time, one of the best run Games ever.

But many are unfamiliar with Tokyo’s selection to host the 1940 Olympic Games.

The idea to nominate Tokyo to be a host was the brainchild of Hidejiro Nagata. He was the mayor when the earthquake struck Tokyo on September 1, 1923.

In all, though, 140,000 people died, the first in buildings that pancaked immediately on top of them; the second swept away by a tsunami that had followed hard upon the great tremor, and the third in a pillar of fire that consumed everything it found in its freakish path. Tokyo was gone. A pile of rubbish, ash, the smoke of fires, even after months, still rising from the ruins. Mobs had taken over the city, gangs in the streets torched what little there was left of shops and homes, sowing even more fear among the people, who worried that the government, too, might fall.

The above is how Julie Checkoway, author of the book, The Three-Year Swim Club, described Tokyo after the tragedy. But she continue to write how, a decade later, the city recovered and celebrated its rebirth. Checkoway writes about Mayor Nagata and his pride in Tokyo’s phoenix-like re-emergence. The mayor was proud of the shiny, modern metropolis Tokyo had become, and he wanted the world to know. “He had come to make it a habit to personally greet every delegation of foreigners arriving in his city, and in so doing to show them both the warmth of his and others’ welcome and the grandeur of which the new Tokyo was capable.”

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Checkoway’s book is about the legendary American swim coach, Soichi Sakamoto, who was part of a Boy Scouts delegation visiting Japan. Sakamoto, who was a Nisei American who had never been to Japan, was eager to see the Japan of his past. As Checkoway explains, “what he found and enjoyed most on the trip was not the Japan of the past but a country in the midst of embracing its modernity. Like everyone, he heard about the destruction of Yokohama and Tokyo – the quake had occurred during the year in high school he’d been ill – and so when he found that both cities had risen from the rubble and the conflagration, it was among the sights that stunned him.”

Mayor Nagata knew this was the way to change the world’s neutral to negative perceptions of Japan – get them to visit. And what better way to bring the world to Tokyo was to host the two biggest socio-economic events in the world: The World Exposition and the Olympics.

But Nagata needed supporters in high places. He began to put ideas together and lobbied influential people with a plea to nationalism by citing what he said was historical fact – that 1940 happened to be the 2600th anniversary of the year that Japan’s first emperor founded the country. And what better way to honor the creation of the nation, and to reveal to the world Japan’s inherent greatness than to hold the Olympics.

“[1940] would be an occasion,” wrote Checkaway, “to celebrate the glorious past and speak loudly of the Empire’s strength, but Hidejiro Nagata-san idea was to take the 1940 celebration even further: simultaneous with the anniversary, Tokyo could host the Twelfth Olympiad, and demonstrate not just to itself but to the world the millions of miles it had traveled into modernity.”

But the 1940 Olympics never were. Tokyo did indeed win the bid. But as international conflict deepened in the late 1930s, and with Japan’s increasing pre-occupation with its colonies and conflicts in Asia, the Japanese government decided to decline its hosting responsibilities. The IOC made a quick switch to Helsinki, Finland, but the war came to the world, and the Olympics would be cancelled, not returning until 1948.