There’s currently an exhibition in London about the Tokyo Olympics — the 1964 Olympics, and it shows off the design and architecture of the games, not the sports they hosted.

And for this “interested in design and less so in sports” writer, it’s the perfect Olympic’s exhibition.

The 1964 games were firsts in many areas – the first in Asia, the first to be broadcast by satellite and in colour, and the first to have the unified event branding that we take for granted today.

It’s that side of the games that JapanHouse is showing off at a new exhibition in Kensington, so expect a room packed full of typography, design and architecture. The majority of objects in the exhibition are generously loaned from the Prince Chichibu Memorial Sports Museum & Library in Japan – many of which will be displayed for the first time in the UK.


As the exhibition explains, the games were an architectural awaking for the country, as the evolution of modernist ideas had been dominant in the rebuilding of post-war Japan, and was shown off for the Olympics. Something that’s changed though, fortunately, is that the games built massive motorways to support travellers, and although the “bullet train” and a monorail opened in time for the games, it was mainly a car driven transport model.

What’s fascinating to learn though is that for all the planning and money thrown at the physical structures, very little official planning was given to the branding of the games, until just a year before they were due to open.

That they turned out to be a design classic is largely thanks to the work of Katsumi Masaru set up an unofficial advisory organisation to work on the branding for the Olympics. It was only late in the process that his vision of a “corporate brand” was adopted by the games organisers, and some of the brand guidelines were not just being written while the signs were being printed, but in some cases, after they were printed.

Everything from colours, fonts, typography and icons all had to be designed, approved and swiftly put into use. That created the first games to have a total brand identity from the smallest object seen by hardly anyone to the largest posters that everyone would see.

The use of icons was also a first for the Olympics, and while today we’re used to graphical representations of the sports, for Tokyo it was a practical solution to showing off what was where to an audience with a vast array of languages to contend with.

The range of material that needed to be produced under a single brand is hard to imagine, and here there are not just all the obvious things like tickets and badges, but even meal coupons and luggage tags. That almost mundane paperwork offers a fascinating insight into the hidden world of the Olympics that is rarely seen by anyone outside the games.

As we know, the Olympic flame was introduced for the Germany games, but the Tokyo games were the one that introduced the idea of a relay around the country, which is now a routine prelude for the games. What was also a first, and hopefully a last, is that the flame relay took in an occupied part of the host country, as Okinawa was still under US administration when the torch relay passed through.

One of the uniforms and the Olympic torch are on display, although to modern eyes, may be looking not unlike the sort of costumes/weapons you will find in a 1970s sci-fi programme.

More modern though is upstairs where this year’s Olympic torches are on display, and you can peek over the top to see where the flame is kept alive. It’s easy to forget that bit of the exhibition as you leave, so make a mental note to wander around the shop and you’ll find the Olympic torch in a frosted glass display area.

The exhibition is packed full of ephemera from the games and the information that lead up to the games, such as the regularly printed magazines, in Japanese, English and French. Lots of travel information had to be produced, in all three primary languages, so there’s a whole case of railway goodies to look at.

A lot of the back-office stuff would not have survived, for example the meal tickets were probably used to get a meal and then binned by the canteen. Unless you went hungry, it’s a lost design.

Although the exhibition may appeal to those interested in the sports, it really is very much a design display and will excite anyone interested in that side of putting on such a huge event every four years.

The exhibition, Tokyo 1964: Designing Tomorrow is open at Japan House London on Kensington High Street until 7th November. Entry is free, but you do need to book a timed ticket first from here.


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  1. JP says:

    Another piece of the jigsaw of knowledge, thank you.

    These Olympic firsts go someway to explaining the prominence of the wonderfully mad and ebullient live animation of the pictograms in the opening ceremony.

  2. Nic Maennling says:

    Why did they not use the two letter ISO international country codes ? e.g. FR for France and DE for Germany.
    They exist for a purpose but they chose to use non-standard codes.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Lovely review. I went to see this last weekend and was totally enraptured! I am a fan of 60s and modernist design so it was totally my thing. I went on my own and ended up having a lengthy conversation with one of the staff who seemed delighted at how much time I spent in the relatively small exhibition reading everything. I’m glad to have visited Japan House for the first time too – what a gorgeous art deco building it’s in.

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