How the Tokyo 1964 Olympics sparked a design renaissance in Japan

A new exhibition at Japan House London explores the design history of an historic Olympics, and its impact on the future of the country – and the world.

On 1 October 1964, Japan’s Shinkansen – colloquially known as the bullet train in English – opened for service between Tokyo and Osaka, shortening a six-hour trip to around just four. Less than two weeks later, visitors arrived in the country for the most international-facing Olympics in history. This impressive (though admittedly tight) turnaround is emblematic of the “new Japan” presented at the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games, according to Japan House London director of programming Simon Wright.

The venue is next month hosting an exhibition which explores the creative break-throughs prompted by that year’s games, and its effects not only on Japan but also the world. It is a timely exploration. Tokyo 1964: Designing Tomorrow will open mid-way through the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Olympics. And though all eyes are currently on the troubled event and how it will nagivate pandemic-related complications, the 1964 predecessor had its own set of concerns.

They were not only the first Olympics held in Asia but also the first to be telecast internationally (to America, via satellite). Alongside these firsts was Japan’s internal politics. There was still hurt from the Tokyo 1940 Olympics (cancelled thanks to the outbreak of World War II) and the country’s participation in the war itself, according to Wright. “There was a lot that Japan had to prove on the world stage that Melbourne didn’t have to in ’56 or Rome didn’t in ’60,” Wright adds. “Tokyo was very much something out of the ashes.”

Presenting a “new Japan”

An art exhibition poster for the games, designed by Hara Hiromu

The ambitions were underpinned by a newfound organisation. A design committee, led by Yūsaku Kamekura and comprising a team of up-and-coming Japanese designers, worked to create a cohesive look for the games, Wright explains. Kamekura designed the symbol and logotype for the games, which features the instantly recognisable Hinomaru red sun motif (though the designer disputed it was inspired by the Japanese flag). It is often listed as a favourite by designers.

Kamekura crafted the design as part of an Olympic competition, where his work “stood out a mile for its simplicity and easy of communication”, says Wright. Kamekura also devised the accompanying visual campaign, on display at the exhibition, which marked the first time photography was used in Olympics poster design. The Bauhaus-inspired series, which depicts runners, swimmers and the torch relay, had strict rules about how and where it was displayed, according to Wright.

A model of the Yoyogi National Gymnasium

The committee also produced a design guide which instructed how branding should be applied, from typeface (Helvetica) to colourways. It was an Olympic first and likely “cobbled along” during the process and finalised just before the games went live, Wright says. One of the most influential elements was the introduction of the Olympic pictograms, designed by Yoshiro Yamashita and on display at the exhibition.

They were designed out of necessity. The games marked the biggest influx of foreign visitors to Japan in history, and they wouldn’t be able to understand the native language. “It was creating a visual language for people,” Wright says. “Pictograms appeared on maps for venues so you knew where to go without having to understand the word,” he explains. Symbols were designed for general information (such as bathrooms and first aid) as well as for specific sports. Though subsequent games have stylised them differently, they have become an Olympic standard. “It was very much a Japanese collective idea to promote this new Japan through an international idea of modernism,” says Wright.

“A very well-considered promotional activity”

Poster design for a folk art festival in 1964

The 1964 games marked another first in wider Olympics branding, as it was the first time the Olympic torch was toured throughout the entire country (it also made stops in other Asian countries). Previously, it had made its way from Athens direct to the host city. “It was a very well-considered promotional activity to go around the whole country with everyone wearing the same outfit,” Wright says. That promotion worked, at least internally – the opening and closing ceremony were vastly oversubscribed.

Elsewhere the exhibition draws attention to the technical advancements of Tokyo’s 1964 games. These were the first games not to rely on Swiss timekeeping, for example. Japanese brand Seiko replaced Omega as the event’s official timekeeper. Wright explains how the director of Seiko had sent employees to the Rome 1960 Olympics to research how the timepieces were made. Seiko then developed a quartz digital timer that was able to capture timing to split seconds. “This technology would go onto become a standard in design in wristwatches,” Wright says. “That was all developed as a result of the games.”

Unisex Olympic uniform for the ’64 games

Other developments featured in the exhibition include nationwide architecture, transportation and uniform designs, such as a kimono worn by those presenting medals at the award ceremonies. All of these helped to present an image that “Japan was hugely technologically advancing”, Wright adds.

Olympics can be mixed blessings for host cities. Though they are often accompanied by widespread celebration, legacies can vary thanks to the exorbitant expense. It is not uncommon for flashy Olympic venues to be left unused. The creative legacy of the Tokyo 1964 Olympics is clearer. Its design committee, many of whom were young at the time, all became successful graphic designers in their own right, according to Wright. “It was such an iconic shift in the way that Japan was perceived, and in the way that Japan wanted to show itself on the world stage,” he says. “And it chose to show this through modernism, in graphic design and in architecture.”

Tokyo 1964: Designing Tomorrow opens 5 August 2021 at Japan House London. For more information, including ticket prices, you can visit the centre’s website.

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  • Neil Littman July 7, 2021 at 10:41 am

    Interesting article but think an omission not mentioning the influence of the pictograms and graphic symbols used to give participants and visitors information without a language barrier. The first symbols first appeared in 1948 at the London Olympics but also worth seeing the update from 1964 which was an influence on many graphic designers like myself:

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