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.

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.”


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.

Here are links to the entire series on 1940:

Soichi Sakamoto, founder of the Three Year Swim Club in Maui and coach of champions
Soichi Sakamoto, founder of the Three Year Swim Club in Maui and coach of champions

“He made you believe that if you set your goals high enough, you could achieve anything,” said Olympian Bill Smith of his coach and mentor.

Said John Tsukano, “We were kids from this small town in Maui, so we believed anything was possible. We would tell all the other teachers and our friends that we were going to make it to the Olympics. They would just laugh.”

Soichi Sakamoto was not a swimmer. He was a learner and a teacher, who asked the simple question “What makes a swimmer go fast?” When Sakamoto passed away in August, 1997, it was clear he knew that answer better than most, as he personally coached five Olympic champions, making Hawaii a swimming hotbed.

Sakamoto was a grade school teacher and a Boy Scout scoutmaster on Maui who knew only basic survival swimming techniques. The school where he taught was near the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company, a sugar plantation that utilized miles of irrigation ditches to water the canes. In the Hawaiian heat, the schoolkids would often cool off in the ditches. The management of the plantation were concerned for the safety of the children so they asked Sakamoto to supervise them. And when Sakamoto watched the kids swim in the ditches, he asked himself that question.

Training in the irrigation ditches of the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company
Training in the irrigation ditches of the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company

“I didn’t know anything about swimming, but I realized that, if I put them in the water and watched their progress, maybe I’d learn something,” Sakamoto explained in this article. “So I watched their progress and tried to eliminate haphazard movement. It was common sense.”

The ditches were 8-feet wide and 4-feet deep. While similar to the size of a swimming lane in a pool, this lane had a current. It occurred to Sakamoto that swimming against the current of the irrigation ditch in the most efficient manner could help develop a swimmer into a very fast swimmer. He marked off distances of 50, 100, 150 and 200 meters, and developed an interval training system that helped build up the form, strength and speed of his students.

“In that ditch, the current coming down offered them natural resistance, and when they swam up they were developing a stroke that was very efficient and practical,” explained Sakamoto. “If they had done it in entirely still water, I don’t think it would have developed. Drifting