When the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was only the fourth time that international events prevented the games from going forward. Perhaps surprisingly, this was the second time for Tokyo, although 2020 was ultimately postponed a year rather than canceled.
The 1940 Tokyo Summer Olympics, which disappeared like a fantasy to its Japanese supporters, are sometimes referred to as the “Phantom Olympics.” They were to be the first games hosted by a non-Western country and the culmination of years of advocacy, beginning in 1930, by Japanese officials. Along with the 1916 and 1944 Olympiads, the 1940 games are one of only three canceled Olympiads, all due to war. While the 1940 Olympics were ultimately canceled, and the 1940 Tokyo Olympics are described as “canceled,” this is not technically true. The Tokyo games were forfeited when the city, because of issues impacting Japan, voluntarily relinquished its right to host the games. This decision was the product of both conflicting ideological impulses—between nationalism and internationalism—at the core of Tokyo’s bid for the games and material needs related to Japan’s war in China.
Hosting the games in 1940 was as much an ideological project as it was a major sporting event. Domestically, 1940 was an important year for Japan. Large-scale celebrations were planned to mark the 2600th anniversary of the accession of Emperor Jimmu as Japan’s first emperor and the mythological start of the Japanese nation-state. On one hand, these celebrations served to unite the Japanese people through nationalism and loyalty to the state at a time when conflict spread across East Asia. This was especially critical in the years following the 1931 Manchurian Incident, a false flag operation that marked Japan’s seizure of Manchuria, and Japan’s withdrawal from the League of Nations a year later. On the other hand, as historian Sandra Collins has argued, Japanese organizers also saw hosting the Tokyo Olympics as a way to conduct “people’s diplomacy” and “sports diplomacy.” These diplomacies were a valuable part of the games, given growing international criticism of Japan’s actions in Manchuria and increasing isolation from more formal diplomatic venues. They hoped “people’s diplomacy,” which the Olympics proclaim to practice on a person-to-person basis through sports, would show the “real” Japan to Westerners and reduce tensions. As either a nationalist or internationalist project, the Olympics became tied to nationalistic beliefs about the strength and superiority of the Japanese nation.
Tying the Olympics to the anniversary of the Japanese nation, as the games’ advocates did, created tension that was difficult to resolve. Japanese representatives increasingly argued that Japan represented a uniquely modern, yet ancient society, an ongoing trope in Japanese national identity that would also be evident in the nation’s successful bid for the 1964 Summer Olympics. In so doing, they appealed to both Japanese nationalism and Western Orientalism. While the former created increasing tensions with the global community, the latter worked in Japan’s favor.