Yusaku Kamekura’s Famous First Tokyo Olympics Poster and its Impact on Japanese Nationalism

My Kamekura Yusaku original 1964 Poster

Yusaku Kamekura designed a series of four posters for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The first one was printed in 1961, a simple yet powerful construct of red circle on white, balanced in the bottom half of the poster with the Olympic logo and the words “Tokyo 1964” in gold.

I finally secured one of these vintage posters last week. It is striking in its simplicity. And it struck a chord with the Japanese as well.

While the “Hinomaru” flag has represented Japan on ships and in international events since the late 19th century, the red circle on white was only made the national flag by law in August 1999. Due to the powerful connection to the Japanese state in the war years, the occupying leadership group overseeing Japan’s occupation after the end of WWII – The Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers or SCAP – restricted display of the hinomaru significantly.

But in 1961, as Tokyo Olympic fever was beginning to rise, Kamekura released his red-circle-on-white poster on Japan. He claimed that his design had nothing to do with the Japanese flag. According to the article, Rebuilding the Japanese Nation at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Satoshi Shimizu quotes Kamekura as saying:

I drew a large red circle on top of the Olympic logo. People may have considered that this large red circle represented the hinomaru, but my actual intention was to express the sun. I wanted to create a fresh and vivid image through a balance between the large red circle and the five-ring Olympic mark. I thought that it would make the hinomaru look like a modern design.

In my view, it’s a lame explanation as the hinomaru is also a representation of the sun. To say the red circles on the poster and the flag are different is confusing. To most people, what the Kamekura’s fist ’64 Olympics poster represented was Japan’s traditional flag. In fact, as Japan continued to step out of the shadow of post-war subjugation, symbols of Japan’s past continued to make a comeback, as explained by Christian Tasgold in his article, “The Tokyo Olympics: Politics and Aftermath.”

The restoration of national pride that was staged in 1964 involved the deliberate rehabilitation of classical national symbols, especially the tennō himself (the emperor), the hinomaru (or Rising Sun) flag, the kimigayo (“His Majesty‘s Reign”) anthem, and the army. The method of their revival was to free them of their wartime associations and present them instead as symbols of peace. This was made possible by embedding them in the Olympic Games’ own narrative and by introducing new national symbols.

The power of the red-circle-on-white symbol was felt in Okinawa, a part of Japan that had been placed under American military control after the war and was still a US territory in the 1960s. The American government routinely denied requests by schools for example, to fly the hinomaru flag.

My Kamekura Yusaku original 1964 Poster 2

And yet, there was, apparently support by the Japanese public for an eventual return of the Okinawan islands to Japan. And since he Okinawa Athletic Association, was recognized as a part of the japan Athletic Association, the Torch Relay Special Committee that the torch relay should take place in all Japanese prefectures, even former ones like Okinawa., according to Shimizu. In fact, they made Okinawa the landing place for the Olympic flame after it completed its Southeast and East Asia journey.

When the Olympic flame arrived in a plane at Naha Airport in Okinawa from Taipei, the headlines claimed that the torch had arrived in Japan. Thousands of torch bearers had signed up to carry the torch for five days in Okinawa, and all of the torch bearers in Okinawa and throughout Japan would be wearing Kamekura’s design on their white tank-top shirt.

In addition, when the first runner pulled into Ounoyama Athletic Stadium after securing the flame at Naha Airport, 40,000 spectators were there to cheer him on, witness the lighting of an Olympic cauldron, the hoisting of the Hinomaru flag, and the playing of the national anthem, kimigayo.

It would take another 8 years before Okinawa was returned to Japan by the United States, but in 1964, it appears, that thanks to the power of the Tokyo Olympics, and perhaps Kamekura’s famous first poster, the hinomaru flag and kimigayo had been returned to Japan amidst the golden glow of the Olympics.