The 1940 Tokyo Olympic Games and Colonial Korea

Seok Lee, PhD Candidate
University of Pennsylvania

This paper examines how colonial Korea reacted to the 1940 Olympic Games, which were awarded to Tokyo by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1936, and subsequently given up by the Japanese in 1938. The Japanese Empire hoped to host the games to deflect international criticism of its bellicosity caused by the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) and also to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of the legendary founding of the Japanese Empire by Emperor Jimmu (kigen) in 660 BCE, thereby enhancing nationalism. As a part of the Japanese Empire, colonial Korea was closely monitoring the Japanese Olympic bidding from beginning to end. Tokyo’s Olympic bid began as early as 1930, when Tokyo held a “Reconstruction Festival” to celebrate its recovery from the Kantō Earthquake of 1923. From then on, Korean mass media kept close watch on the news surrounding the 1940 Olympic bid. As soon as Tokyo won the bid, colonial Korea was quick to make the best use of the Olympics for its own sake. The Olympics were not only about sports, but also affected a variety of social concerns in colonial Korea: transportation, national security, tourism, and sports facilities, among others. The colonial government and Japanese leadership took the initiative in designing a master plan for welcoming international visitors to propagate a positive image of its colony. At the same time, Koreans were not just passive spectators but also aggressive supporters of the Games for many reasons, including expectations of income and economic development, participation in the Games as athletes and tourists, and basic curiosity.

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