Olympics and Nationalism in Prewar Japan


A review of Senzenki nihon ni okeru orinpikku: Media ga tsukuridashita kokusai supōtsu ibento to nashonarizumu (The Olympic Games in Prewar Japan: Nationalism and the Mediated International Sporting Event), by Sachie Hamada.

Can the identity of a nation-state be constructed without its neighbors? The answer of recent scholars to this question is no. As those such as Dennis Frost have pointed out, the identity of a community is co-constituted with those of its “others,” its super-ordinate categories, or parts. Sachie Hamada’s dissertation joins this scholarship by tying Japan’s participation in international sporting events to the construction of national identity.  She does so through an impressive empirical analysis of the evolution of Japan’s mass media. Hamada understands the mass media as a platform where national identity was shaped and reshaped, and she describes mass interest in sport as the hidden driving force in the rise of Japanese nationalism.

Hamada outlines her analytical framework in Chapter 1. By analyzing both the evolution of the Japanese media in the 1930s and media coverage of the Olympics, Hamada characterizes the 1930s Olympics as a media event of “popular leisure” (taishū goraku) that fostered both nationalism and internationalism. Hamada makes two critical contributions to the literature. First, she traces the historical evolution of the mass media in Japan. Second, she challenges the prevailing one-state narratives of Japanese sports and mass media through coverage of international sporting events.

Chapter 2 highlights the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games. First, Hamada reveals the institutional and technological innovations that enabled the birth of a media-event—dispatching newspaper correspondents, increasing visual presentations, creating NHK live broadcast through the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and crafting corporate advertisements featuring Olympic athletes. These innovations, Hamada notes, supported both a distinct national identity and international image. In this media-space, Hamada argues, newspapers, broadcasters, sports administrators, and the state visualized Japan as a member of the international community, while evoking the national symbols of the emperor, hinomaru (the national flag), and kimigayo (the national anthem). Olympic coverage also helped fashion local identity in the pages of local newspapers. What differentiates Hamada’s argument from previous literature is her identification of commercial interests, not the state, as the driving force of national and local identity. According to Hamada, nationalism arose from a synergistic relationship between internationalism and business acumen, which were hardly subordinate to either the military or the emperor.

Chapter 3 discusses the transformation of this media space during the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Hamada focuses in this chapter on the technical and qualitative development of mass media. First, she offers an in-depth analysis of the unprecedented financial and human investment by the government, NHK, and corporations. She details the advent of telephoto technology, the dissemination of radio, and the rise of the National News Agency (dōmei tsūshinsha), a unified channel of information distribution for newspapers. At the same time, Hamada notes the qualitative evolution of media content. By 1936, mass media coverage was more nationalist than in 1932, implying a tension between nationalist and internationalist aims. By 1936, the media characterized Olympic events less as competition among individuals than among states. Coverage of foreign athletes dramatically decreased. Local and national identity continued to complement each other as local athletes became national heroes in the pages of local newspapers. But business interests continued to drive the agenda, perpetuating the rhetoric of peace and international cooperation. Strengthening nationalist sentiment in the media, in other words, did not fundamentally change the synergy between nationalism and internationalism in the mass media.

Chapter 4 examines a unique opportunity for a mass media created sporting event, the aborted plan for a Tokyo Olympics. As Japan tried to host this event, nationalist and internationalist impetuses converged. Hamada describes the plan not only as a nationalist project to celebrate the 2600-year anniversary of the Japanese nation but as an event initiated by Japanese IOC members, “diplomats, and corporate leaders with an international network” (p. 245) in pursuit of “international cooperation,” (p. 256) and the legitimatization of the Japanese empire. Japanese sports leaders and the state inherited the idea of the Olympics as a nationalist project from the previous host, Nazi Germany. In preparation for the event, the mass media served more dramatically as a platform for image-making, producing positive images of Japan and trying to make Japanese look better to foreigners.

Images of Japan produced in the mass media eventually took root as a collective but evolving memory, which Hamada explores in Chapter 5. The symbols of the Olympics, the torch and its relay, were initially produced for the Berlin Olympics.  They were adopted, however, for the Meiji Shrine Games—a domestic sporting event in wartime Japan—as a tool of wartime propaganda. This collective memory of the Olympics evolved after 1945 as the mass media selectively reconstituted the Olympics as a festival for international cooperation and peace. Hamada introduces the “beautiful stories (bidan)” of Japanese Olympic athletes that graced Japanese textbooks and media after the war.

In sum, Sachie Hamada’s dissertation deepens our understanding of the nature of the mass media and nationalism in wartime Japan. The state is resituated as a player in the arena of a media event, while the “joy of modern urban life” that the masses enjoyed becomes the hidden driving force of Japanese nationalism (p. 271). By historicizing the mutual development of Japanese nationalism and internationalism, Hamada effectively demonstrates that competing visions for Japan’s national identity coexisted in the 1930s and that those visions were selectively reconstituted in response to political change in transwar Japan.

Jamyung Choi
Department of History
University of Pennsylvania

Primary Sources

Newspapers (Tokyo asahi shinbun, Tokyo nichinichi shinbun, Yomiuri shinbun etc.)
Magazines (Kingu, Shūkan asahi, Shufu no tomo, Fujin kurabu etc.)

Dissertation Information

Tōkyō Keizai Daigaku (Japan). 2012. 379pp. Primary Advisor: Ariyama Teruo.

Image: The opening ceremony of the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Kôbunsha (ed.) Orinpikku gah­ô, vol. 10. (Tôkyô: Kôbunsha, 1932).
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