As I write this, the 2016 Olympics are currently underway in Rio de Janeiro - Brazil, so I thought it might be both timely and interesting to reflect on Japan's Olympic history and how a small part of that was illustrated on needle tins that Japan produced throughout the 1930's, at the height of the gramophone boom.
The modern Summer Olympics as we now know them began in 1912 and Japan has competed in almost every Olympics since. To date, Japan has won 398 Summer Olympic medals including 130 gold, most of which have been in the sports of judo, gymnastics, wrestling and swimming.
Japan's first Olympic team in 1912 (Stockholm, Sweden) had just two athletes.
The bidding for the Games of the XII Olympiad began in 1932 but it was not until 1936 that Japan was awarded the 1940 summer games in a surprise decision. At the time, Tokyo was to be the first non-western city to ever host the games so it's easy to imagine how this would have invoked the patriotic spirit of the Japanese people. To this day Japan holds the record for being the county awarded the most Olympic games, both summer and winter combined.
The poster shown on the right was chosen as the official design for the games and illustrates the strong combination of patriotic and military sentiment of the day.
A vast range of commemorative items, including gramophone needle tins, were produced years in advance which reflected the Olympic spirit and all it embodied. Gramophone retailers were able to cash in on the excitement of the forthcoming games.
Two examples of commemorative needle tins are shown below. The DIK tin is specifically marked on the rear as a celebration tin. Note the 'OLIMPIC' spelling on the tin to the right and its reference to the 2,600th anniversary of the foundation of Imperial Japan. This was to coincide with the hosting of the 1940 games so it would have been a very significant and symbolic year for Japan in many ways.
In 1937 the second Sino-Japanese war broke out, and the Japanese were confident they could wrap up the war quickly and still be able to host the 1940 games. There was however, a great deal of uncertainty and worry from elements within the Japanese government and many countries around the world. The war dragged on and in July 1938 the Japanese, under great pressure from the IOC, reluctantly forfeited the games which were then hastily awarded to Helsinki, Finland. When World War 2 broke out in early 1940 the games were suspended indefinitely and have since been often referred to as 'The Missing Olympics'.
This would have obviously brought the production of commemorative items to an abrupt halt but prior to this, other more generic tins were made when all things Olympic would have still been wildly popular in Japan. A selection of these are shown below. The first tin has the Japanese cherry blossom (sakura) design set as its background. You will see that 'OLIMPIC' is again spelt differently to what we might expect but this was not a spelling error, rather the result of the romanization of the word from the way it was traditionally written in Japanese kanji. In the same way, Tokyo was sometimes written at Tokio or Tokiyo. It is also interesting to note that whilst all the tins depict the famous five Olympic rings, only the first one is correct in terms of colour and order. I particularly like the abbreviation of the word gramophone to 'GRAMPHNE' where the designer obviously ran out of space and couldn't come up with any better solution.
In 1948 the Japanese, along with the Germans, were not invited to participate in the XIV Olympics in London because of their roles as aggressors in WW2. Japan had to wait until 1964 to finally have their opportunity to host their first Summer Olympics and restore the Japanese pride.
Whilst the tradition of the Olympic flame being carried by runners was reintroduced during the 1928 Games, the modern convention of moving the Olympic flame via a relay system from Greece to the Olympic venue began in 1936 in Germany. That would have been continued by Japan, had the 1940 games taken place as first planned.
Over the years the people who lit the Olympic cauldron in the various stadiums were not always famous, but nevertheless symbolized Olympic ideals. Japanese runner Yoshinori Sakai was born in Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, the day the American nuclear bomb destroyed that city. In many ways he symbolised the rebirth of Japan after the Second World War when he opened the 1964 Tokyo Games.
As Olympic history repeats itself, long after the demise of gramophone needles, there is some irony today that it will once again be Tokyo who hosts the next Summer Olympics in 2020.