In 1936, Japan won the right to host the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo. In 1938, Japan forfeited that right. While it would have been an honor being the first nation to host an Olympic Games, the Japanese government came to the conclusion they had other priorities.
Since the “Mukden Incident” (in Japan) or the “Liutiaohu Incident” (in China), relations between Japan and China continued to worsen. In September, 1931, the Japanese military blew up a Japanese railway in South Manchuria. The explosion did very little damage, but provided the pretext for the Imperial Japanese Army to invade China in an attempt to find the “terrorists”. The years of occupation culminated in the Second Sino-Japanese War, a conflict that resulted in millions if not tens of millions of deaths from 1937 to 1945.
But prior to Japan’s invasion of China, the organizing committee for the 1940 Tokyo Olympics began its preparations. And one of the first things they did was to hold a contest for the best poster depicting the pride and excitement of the upcoming Olympic Games in Japan. One could surmise, based on past posters of Olympic Games in Berlin, Los Angeles, and Amsterdam, and Paris, that the imagery would be a celebration of the Classic human body – Greek-like and beautiful.
Japan’s Olympic art for the 1940 Games took more of a historical bent.
There were two second prizes awarded, one to the designer of a poster that used the Haniwa as the main object. (The designer of the poster is either Ayao Yamana or Kiichi Akabane.) The Haniwa are clay figures that were buried with the dead in the 3rd to 6th centuries in Japan – otherwise known as the Kofun Period. As Wikipedia explains, this was an era when “a highly aristocratic society with militaristic rulers” thrived.
First prize went to Norio Kuroda, who designed a poster featuring Emperor Jinmu. Jinmu was said to be the first emperor, the one who had created Japan. And since 1940 was reported to be the 2600th anniversary of the founding of Japan by Emperor Jinmu, his image was certainly a fitting symbol for Japanese pride.
Having said that, the organizing committee for the 1940 Tokyo Olympics decided to take a pass on that according to an article called “Tokyo’s 1964 Olympic Design” by Jilly Traganou. She went on to say that the organizers decided to forgo Kuroda’s work and commission designer, Wada Senzo, “who had studied Western-style painting in Japan and Europe. Wada’s poster superimposed the figure of a heroic, almost militant-looking athlete onto the figure of Nioh, the Benevolent King, familiar to the Japanese as the Buddhist temple gatekeeper, who was known to ward off evil spirits.”
You’ve seen Nioh, if you’ve been to a large Japanese temple. Nioh would be one of two intimidating-looking dudes. He partners with fellow guardian, Kongorikishi, who stand guard over the Buddha.
But alas, for all their power, Nio and Kongorikishi, could not thwart the brewing storm of war in China, and indeed, in the rest of Asia, Africa, the US and Europe, nor the cancellation of the 1940 Olympics.
But at least we have a few cool-looking posters.