Japan hoped for a second Olympic rebirth with the Tokyo Summer Games. But in 1964 it was different.


Tokyo – Blogger and author Roy Tomizawa is from Queens, N.Y., but his spiritual home is Komazawa Olympic Park in western Tokyo. It is the site of a remarkable chapter in Japanese history: the original Tokyo Olympics 57 years ago.

Komazawa Park now serves as a green oasis for weekend warriors, but it was once full of the spectacles of history, and Tomizawa is a walking compendium of some of its darkest and most amusing arcana.

In his book 1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan, a compilation of athletes’ memoirs and trivia, he recalled how residents of at least one Tokyo community were asked to shut down their sanitary facilities in the highly unlikely event of a foreign visitor modernize ended up in need on their doorstep. Learn English – or at least a few key phrases like “How can I help you?” was almost seen as a bourgeois imperative.

A general view of the Olympic Games stadium with the national delegations parading during the opening ceremony on October 10, 1964 at the start of the Tokyo Summer Olympics.

AFP / Getty

“I don’t think anyone expected to speak English in such a short time,” said Tomizawa as he showed a CBS News crew some of the old Olympic venues. “I think it was just a feeling of wonder and awe that the world would return to Japan.”

Come back, that is, a short 19 years after Japan’s total defeat in World War II.

The seeds of this year’s Olympic Games were probably launched in 1964 when the challenge, the XVIII. Hosting the Olympics brought together the collective enthusiasm and efforts of the nation from the emperor down. All the Japanese seemed to be on the same team – excited to welcome the 5,151 mostly male athletes (then only 13% of the contestants were women) and other contestants to the Games, and determined to create a perfect Olympics. In fact, the event would be referred to as the “Happy Olympics”.

“I don’t think I can imagine a time when Japan would be more focused on its mission to get the country back on its feet and make sure the Olympics were a fantastic show that impressed the rest of the world It was a unique mission, extending to children across the country, “said Tomizawa, who was born exactly one year before the Tokyo Olympics opened on October 10, 1964.

One of the standout stories of ’64 was the Japanese women’s volleyball team. After they were thoroughly defeated by the Japanese women, the much stronger Soviet team called them the “oriental witches”.

It was a title that the Japanese embraced. “Basically everyone was watching the championship,” said Tomizawa. “And when they won, basically a whole nation was cheering at the same time.”

Tomizawa said that the then 100 million strong nation of aspirants itself seemed to have completely absorbed and embodied the Olympic motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” – faster, higher, stronger. Olympians who expected a war-torn landscape and shops selling cheap toys, instead awaited brand new superhighways, one of the world’s few monorails, and the world’s fastest train.

In Tomizawa’s book, British athlete Robbie Brightwell recalls landing in Tokyo and, on the advice of his pilot, going straight to an ophthalmologist for gas permeable contact lenses. “And he said, ‘For the first time I could actually see the tracks on the track,'” recalls Tomizawa. “People were surprised at how progressive Japan was back then.”

The watch company Seiko has ousted the usual Swiss companies that recorded Olympic times – Omega and Longines – to get the contract to supply timepieces, despite having no experience in the field. His invention – a device that measures and prints the results – ultimately decided the winners of the women’s 80-meter hurdles final.

But the overwhelming success of 1964 is proving difficult to follow and casting a long shadow over this year’s Summer Olympics. Observers say it helps explain why Japan is like this so determined to keep going with the games despite widespread public opposition amid the global pandemic.

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“When Japan first hosted the Summer Games in 1964, it marked a cultural and economic revival for Japan – Japan’s re-entry into global society after World War II,” said Jack Anderson, who teaches sports law at the University of Melbourne in Australia teach CBS- News. The first Tokyo Olympics were “a very important moment for many of the generation who now have political control over Japan”.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who led the campaign for Tokyo to host the then 2020 Summer Games, remembered the first Olympics as a 10-year-old boy; his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi was Japan’s Prime Minister in 1964.

Still fighting with that 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Fukushimaush, and ongoing economic malaise, Japan has launched its bid for the 2020 Games in hopes of another Olympic overhaul, Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist told CBS News.

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“What 1964 represented was Japan’s re-entry into the Western world as an accepted partner, as a country with enormous economic potential and opportunity,” Zimbalist said, calling it “a real victory, at least psychologically, in terms of world politics and world trade.”

The 2020 Games, he said, were positioned “like 1964 again … those Games were touted as’ now Japan is coming back. We are ready to be full participants and successful participants in world politics and world trade ‘. just like they said in 1964.

“So this shouldn’t just be the normal Olympic Games, it’s a very special historical event for Japan. And in that sense, too, there is an enormous loss, I think, “Zimbalist said, calling it” one of the reasons it would be harder for the Japanese government to step down and say, ‘Okay, we lost – we have all of them given up on great things we talked about, they won’t happen. ‘”

This time, however, the Olympics divided the country, not unified it … and recapturing that ancient Olympic magic has never seemed so difficult to pin down.

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