1940 Tokyo Olympics: The Games That Never Were

After the announcement that Tokyo would be hosting the Olympic Games again in 2010, the celebrations have calmed down a little and now the detailed planning stage begins. Previously on PingMag we used the occasion of the 2020 decision to take a look at the 1964 Olympic Games, in particular their contribution to the design world, and now we want to go back even further.

1964 wasn’t supposed to be the first Tokyo Summer Olympics. There was to be an earlier one but it got lost in the vicissitudes of the period.


More likely than not, people haven’t even heard of the 1940 Tokyo Olympics and just think that the 1964 Games were Japan’s first. Well, they are right. The 1940 Games were never held.

In 1931 Tokyo was put forward as a candidate for the Olympic Games and, since 1940 marked 2,600 years since the first Japanese Emperor ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne, the city worked hard to campaign for the Games in that year. The IOC selected Tokyo in 1936 and preparations began right away for the Games, but history had other plans.

The Marco Polo Bridge Incident took place in 1937 and triggered the Second Sino-Japanese War. Japan faced intensive international criticism, while at home jingoistic feelings grew stronger and stronger. This was hardly the right kind of situation to be holding the Olympic Games, and following the opposition both in and outside the country, coupled with a shortage of construction supplies and general fiscal problems due to the war, in 1938, the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee was decided to forgo Tokyo’s status as the host city. Although preparations were already underway, from the construction of vast sports grounds to the poster design, nothing ever saw the light of day.

We’ve been perusing some of the materials and resources that remain from the Japanese Olympics-That-Never-Were…


tokyo-olympics-1940-02Venue plan

The plan was to construct the main venue in Komazawa, which at the time was a golf ground. The site was also used in the 1964 Olympics, so though it took twenty years, the original plan did come about in the end. It was also planned to construct a cycling stadium in Shibaura and an equestrian venue in Yoga in Setagaya. In a contrast to the compact 2020 plan, the 1940 Games were to be over quite a wide area. For example, the boating was to be Saitama and the yachting in Yokohama.

tokyo-olympics-1940-03Golf course in Komazawa

tokyo-olympics-1940-04This is what the main venue would have looked like.

tokyo-olympics-1940-05It was also planned to use the Ryougoku Sumo Hall.


tokyo-olympics-1940-07Magazine articles about the preparations. Not just plans, actual construction had also already started.


Symbol and seals designs were submitted by the general public and then the best were selected from the entries. The designs are pretty sophisticated and don’t feel so dated even today. However, saying that, they don’t really compare to Yusaku Kamekura’s design for the 1964 Games logo.

tokyo-olympics-1940-08The designs for the Olympic seals were selected by competition. Number one was the design in the center.

tokyo-olympics-1940-09More seal designs. During this time, the Winter and Summer Games were held in the same year, usually by the same country. Sapporo was to host the Winter Games in 1940.

Pamphlets, Posters

Pamphlets and posters were also made, and we are able today to see some of the designs. They were also mostly selected through competitions that drew many entries. We’re not sure if it’s intentional or just because they are rather old, but though the designs feature very “Japanese” motifs, they don’t actually feel the same as the “Japanese”-style designs you might find today.

tokyo-olympics-1940-10The poster designs were also selected by a competition. The one in the top left featuring a haniwa is fantastic.

tokyo-olympics-1940-11This poster was made by the national railway (now JR).

tokyo-olympics-1940-12A pamphlet for visitors coming from overseas.


Postcards, stamps and other merchandise were made and had already gone on sale in Japan. The postcards, in particular, have a very Japanese feel to them.

tokyo-olympics-1940-13It’s not clear if these were official or not, but New Year’s Cards from the time also featured the upcoming Olympic Games. Images: http://www.olympic-museum.de/

  • kumo

    Interesting read. Talking about the “jingoistic” agenda of these days, “1940 marking 2,600 years since the first Japanese Emperor ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne” is well known to be a completely made-up date. There never was an emperor in 660BC in Japan. Actually, the first historical Japanese emperor popped into existence more than 1000 years later. And while the fact has been obvious to archaeologists for more than a century, it only came to be inconspicuously accepted by the Imperial Household Agency in 2006.