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Photo: Keisuke Tanigawa Tokyo Waterfront City

15 things to know about Japan at the Olympics

Here are some interesting facts and trivia about Japan’s participation in, and its contribution to, the Olympic Games

By Kaila Imada
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After a tumultuous 2020 due to the pandemic, the postponed Tokyo Olympics are now officially underway. While we won’t be able to watch the Games in person, there are still ways to enjoy the Olympics regardless of whether you are here in Tokyo or elsewhere.

Japan has had a long history with the Olympics; the country even hosted several Summer and Winter Games prior to this year’s events. As a recap, here's a list of Olympic trivia to help you get into the sporting spirit.

RECOMMENDED: Take a peek inside the sprawling Olympic Village

Japan as the Olympic host country

Olympic Bridge Harajuku
Olympic Bridge Harajuku
Photo: Kuremo/Dreamstime

Tokyo has hosted the Summer Games not once but twice

The first Olympic Games in Tokyo took place in 1964. What’s interesting is that the Games then were held in October when the weather was more favourable compared to the July-August period when the city is notorious for its humid and searing heat.

Tokyo made history for being the first Asian city to host the Olympics

The 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo marked the very first Games held in Asia. It was followed by the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo and the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. The Tokyo 2020 Games will be the fourth Olympics held in Japan – this makes Tokyo the only Asian city to host the Summer Games twice.

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Tokyo is the first city in the world to hold the Paralympics twice

Tokyo will also play host to the Paralympic Games from August 24 to September 5, roughly two weeks after the Olympics. This makes Tokyo the first and only city to have hosted the Paralympic Games for a second time (the first was in 1964).

Tokyo was supposed to host the 1940 Olympic Games

In 1936, Tokyo was promoted as the host for the 1940 Olympics but it was rescheduled due to World War II. Helsinki was set to be the back-up host city, but those plans also fell through due to the war and the Games were ultimately abandoned.

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Skateboarding stock image
Skateboarding stock image
Photo: Izf/Pixta

Tokyo 2020 will introduce new sports

Four new Olympic sports will make their debut at the Tokyo 2020 Games: karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing. You can try out the sports for yourself at these sport centres in Tokyo. Baseball and softball, which have been absent from the Olympics since 2008, are making a comeback at this year’s Games.

The Japan National Stadium was initially set to be designed by renowned architect Zaha Hadid

The elegant Japan National Stadium is one of the many Olympic venues you should visit in Tokyo. A design by British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid was initially chosen for the stadium but her plans were scrapped for Kengo Kuma's more cost-efficient design. The stadium comes in at just under 200,000sqm in size and cost ¥157 billion to build.

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Olympic Stadium
Olympic Stadium
Photo: Japan Sport Council

The Japan National Stadium is made from wood sourced from all around Japan

In true Kengo Kuma fashion, the stadium features wood on both the exterior and interior. As an ode to Japan, the wood is sourced from all of Japan's 47 prefectures. The architect has described the structure as a 'living tree', built in a way to maximise the breeze flowing through the stadium in order to rely less on air conditioning.

Tokyo Olympic costumes
Tokyo Olympic costumes
©Tokyo 2020

The Tokyo 2020 Games is focused on sustainability

To promote sustainability, this year’s Olympics are repurposing a number of the venues used in the 1964 Games. Moreover, items such as podiums, uniforms and medals are all made from recycled materials. Even the beds at the Olympic Village are made from cardboard, which will be recycled after the Games.

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Tokyo 2020 Olympic medals
Tokyo 2020 Olympic medals
©Tokyo 2020

The 5,000 Olympic medals are made from precious metals extracted from disused electronic devices

Ahead of the Games, people in Japan were asked to donate their disused electronics such as mobile phones to contribute to the production of the Olympic and Paralympic medals. The collection drive spanned two years between April 2017 and March 2019, resulting in approximately 78,985 tonnes of old devices collected by local municipalities and around 6.21 million mobile phones collected by NTT Docomo shops.

Tokyo Olympic Torch
Tokyo Olympic Torch
©Tokyo 2020

The Tokyo Olympic torch is inspired by cherry blossoms

The stunning torch used for the Tokyo Olympic Torch Relay was designed to resemble cherry blossoms – a renowned symbol of Japan. The relay began in March this year to coincide with the cherry blossom season and has travelled all across Japan. The torch is made from a single sheet of metal for a smooth and seamless design using the same advanced technology that produces the shinkansen trains.

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Tokyo Olympic Mascots
Tokyo Olympic Mascots
©Tokyo 2020

The two Olympic mascots Miraitowa and Someity were chosen by students in Japan

The Olympic and Paralympic mascots were chosen by 16,769 elementary school children who voted on their favourite designs. The Olympic mascot, known as Miraitowa, is designed with the classic Japanese indigo blue. The Paralympic mascot, on the other hand, is known as Someity, which features the same pink as Japan's famous cherry blossoms.

Japan’s participation in the Olympic Games

Japan first participated in the Olympics in 1912

Japan’s first participation in the Olympics was the 1912 Summer Games in Stockholm, Sweden. The country sent two athletes: sprinter Yahiko Mishima and marathon runner Shizo Kanakuri. No medals were won but Mishima made the semifinal for the 400-metre run. Unfortunately, Kanakuri did not finish the marathon.

Tennis ball and racket
Tennis ball and racket
Photo: Ben Hershey/Unsplash

Japan’s first Olympic win was in tennis

Two Japanese tennis players were the first to bring home Olympic medals. Ichiya Kumagae and Seiichiro Kashio won silver in tennis doubles at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. Kumagae also won another silver in singles tennis.

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Tokyo 2020 gold medal
Tokyo 2020 gold medal
©Tokyo 2020

Japan has won 439 Olympic medals

Over the course of 22 Summer Olympics, Japan has won 439 medals, including 41 at the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Games, which was the highest medal count for the country so far. Of the 41 medals, 12 were gold, setting another record high for Japan. On the other hand, Japan has won just 58 medals in total from all previous Winter Games.

Japan seems to have a knack for judo, with a total of 39 gold won since participating in the Olympics. Judo alone has earned Japan a whopping 84 Olympic medals.

Japan’s first gold win was in triple jump

Mikio Oda was Japan’s first Olympic gold medalist. He came in first at the triple jump event during the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam. During the same Games, fellow athlete Yoshiyuki Tsuruta also won a gold in swimming.

More Olympics in Tokyo

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