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 Tagsold 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.

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The Monster Strike mobile game ad in the Yamanote train in June, 2017.

I was on the Yamanote Line train when I looked up to see all in-car advertisements devoted to Japan’s #1 best-selling mobile game from 2016 – Monster Strike. I usually don’t care about mobile games, but the ad immediately caught my attention – animals in mid-stride racing together, on a dark black background.

It is exactly the same concept as the second of designer Yusaku Kamekura‘s poster in 1962, marketing the 1964 Tokyo Olympics to come.

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That same evening, I see a television commercial for a logistics company called Kuroneko Yamato, with nearly the exact same design concept. Kuroneko means “black cat”, so with a black cat leading five Kuroneko transportation men in a sprint, they put the bodies in action on a yellow background instead. And yet the nod to Kamekura’s poster design is unmistakable.

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Kuroneko Takkyubin Ad

After Kamekura settled on a design for their second Tokyo Olympics poster (click here to see the first design that won Kamekura the Olympic account), he assigned Osamu Hayasaki as the photographer, and Jo Murakoshi as the director of the project. The idea was to employ photography for the second photo, instead of the mainstream use of illustrations.

Their idea must have been to capture the idea of speed and power, so they arranged to have men from the US Military (from the airbase in Tachikawa as I believe someone once told me) dress in track gear, and move as if exploding from starting blocks. As this site explains, they employed four photographers to snap a shot of the runners in motion, in the dark, pressing the shutter button just as they flashed strobe lights.

It is said that it took over 80 takes to get just the right balance for that poster.

And over 50 years later, this meme lives on.

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From the 2016 Rio Olympics closing ceremony video tribute to Tokyo 2020

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The countdown to Tokyo 2020 begins!

The Rio Olympics are over, the Olympic flame extinguished. But before the final lights of the closing ceremony dimmed, Japan sent the world an invitation. After the traditional handover of the Olympic flag from the mayor of Rio to the governor of Tokyo, Japan gave the world a sneak peek, showing why everyone should be excited about coming to Tokyo in 2020, July 24 to August 9. The closing ceremony is an opportunity for the host of the next Olympics to whet the appetite of Olympians, wannabes and sports fans alike. And Japan did not disappoint.

The show at the end of the Rio Olympics closing ceremony was hippy, cutie, techie, sexy, targeting the hippocampus of youth the world over fascinated with Japan, it’s machines, its pop music, it’s kulture of kawaii.

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An introductory video took us on a jazzy tour of Tokyo, starting us off at the famed zebra crossing in Shibuya. We see the red Super Komachi bullet train which harkens back to the first bullet train introduced 9 days before the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. We see the Sky Tree, Tokyo’s newer, bigger tower, although it can never replace the iconic Tokyo Tower, built just prior to the 64 Games. We see Pacman, Doraemon and Hello Kitty, and athletes lined up in profile, reminiscent of the famous athlete posters designed by Yusaku Kamekura for the 1964 Games.

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And we see Japan Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, in a car, in a hurry to get from Tokyo to Rio. He can’t get there in seconds….unless of course, he turns in to Super Mario, who ends up taking a plunge down an animated tunnel, landing on the other side of the world in Rio. Abe likely had to be heavily convinced, or plied with much alcohol, to appear in a Super Mario costume in the middle of Maracana Stadium. But he did, figuring that if the Queen of England didn’t mind being parodied for the London Olympics opening ceremonies, then maybe he shouldn’t either.

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Yes, that’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, making sure he’s seen in a Super Mario costume for as little time as possible.

The video was the prelude to a display of art, dance and technology that was both precise and frenetic, ending in a Tokyo tableau, framed by, what else, that unmistakable silhouette of Mount Fuji. At show’s end, Prime Minister said, “See you in Tokyo!”

So, will we see you in Tokyo? We certainly hope so!

Watch the video here.