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positions: east asia cultures critique 10.1 (2002) 7-38

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Sumptuous Re-past:
The 1964 Tokyo Olympics Arts Festival

Noriko Aso

In his well-known 1967 work The Society of the Spectacle Guy Debord suggested that “the spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”1 Without question, the spectacle of the 1964 Tokyo Olympiad offered the Japanese government a rare opportunity to revitalize its postwar image as peaceful, democratic, and unified, thereby strengthening its standing both at home and abroad. Culture—as a blanket word for such virtues—figured prominently in the Japanese government's publicity package for the Olympics, an ostensibly safe theme that nevertheless was shaped by and contributed to political forces of the time. In this essay I focus on the often overlooked ancient arts exhibition staged by the Tokyo National Museum as an integral aspect of the Olympic spectacle. The mass audience, both national and international in character, created by the Olympics placed particular pressures on the exhibit organizers. The result was a revealing window into state efforts to negotiate [End Page 7] internal and external relations, which intertwined and mutually reinforced each other. The vision of Japan represented in this exhibition—homogenizing, purportedly inclusive yet elite centered, asserting an independent stance that was nevertheless tilted toward the United States and away from Asia—served at once to strengthen mechanisms of domestic mobilization and to reaffirm the position of Japan in the international order born of the Cold War.

Democratization and the National Museums

The cultural legacy housed in the Tokyo National Museum had been administered by the Imperial Household Ministry since 1886. After defeat and Occupation, however, this institution and its treasures became reconfigured in democratic rather than imperial terms. Soon after the beginning of the U.S. Occupation of Japan in 1945, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP) placed a freeze on the assets of the imperial family, pending investigation and breakup of its vast financial holdings. Given the urgent yet somewhat delicate nature of this matter, top officials in the Japanese government and the Imperial Household conferred at length regarding the future distribution of imperial possessions. There was little debate, however, on the future of the imperial museums.2 According to the head of finances for the Imperial Household, the current budget could barely cover the salaries of museum employees. Surely, he argued, it would be in the best interests of all, and please the Americans, if another ministry took over responsibility for the museums.3 The Ministry of Education seemed like the most logical choice: the move would allow consolidation of the survey, research, conservation, and curatorial offices under one roof, hitherto divided between the Imperial Household and Education ministries. A streamlined national museum system could then assume a more dynamic role in public education.

The official transfer of the Tokyo and Nara national museums from the Imperial Household to the Ministry of Education on 3 May 1947 attracted no more than passing attention, upstaged as it was by the promulgation of the postwar Japanese constitution. Yet this bureaucratic reshuffling of cultural management took place as part of a larger postwar restructuring of relations between the emperor, the state, and the people of Japan. Labeled the [End Page 8] “democratization of the museums” (hakubutsukan no minshuka) in the Asahi newspaper, the institutions and artifacts embodying the Japanese cultural canon would henceforth be held in the name of the people, not the imperial family.4

Nevertheless, the particular form of democracy being offered the Japanese people was not free of constraints. The U.S. Occupation was characterized by a widely held belief that democracy and political stability were complementary, intertwined goals. Indeed, the U.S. decision to retain the wartime emperor as a “symbol of the State and the unity of the people” signaled from the beginning of the Occupation that a desire to preserve social order would act as a restraint on radical democratic reforms.5 Shielding the emperor from trial as a war criminal...


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