Japan's Rebirth at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics

Japan's Rebirth at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics


The 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics represented a reacceptance to the world community and the end of a long, bleak period for many Japanese. It was a moment to recognize and celebrate Japan's progress and reemergence. This Japan was new and different from the old; it was no longer a wartime enemy, but a peaceful country that threatened no one. The transformation from devastated enemy to rebuilt friend was accomplished in less than 20 years, a remarkably short time. Japan had already joined the United Nations and several other international organizations, but nothing matches the spectacle and grandeur of an Olympics. The whole world would be coming to Japan, and those that couldn't come would be watching live and in color for the first time. It was also the first Olympiad to be hosted in a non-white, non-Western country, a point of pride for both Japan and the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Tokyo had originally won the right to host the 1940 Olympics. However, the city relinquished this right due to rising world tensions, British Empire threats of a boycott due to Japanese advances in China and growing domestic opposition over the cost during a time of war. The United States led Allied Occupation following the Pacific War ended in 1952 with the San Francisco Peace Treaty. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government immediately voted to reapply to host the Summer Olympics—shooting for 1960. However, this effort ended in failure due to concerns over Tokyo's physical condition following the war and Western resistance to a second Olympics on the far side of the globe in a row (Melbourne, Australia hosted the 1956 Olympics). Tokyo reapplied for the 1964 Summer Games and won on the IOC’s first vote in 1958. Domestically, the result was met with mixed feelings. While those involved with the effort, sports and government were very enthusiastic, many were concerned about the cost of hosting the Olympics so soon after the devastation of the war—Tokyo had, after all, been razed to the ground like most major Japanese cities by US fire bombings and Japan's economy had been reduced to rubble. Public opinion, according to opinion polls at the time, was mixed at best, although this improved over time.

Yoshinori Sakai lighting the Olympic Flame

The challenges in preparing for the Games were enormous. Tokyo's infrastructure needed to be modernized in time for large numbers of expected tourists (although initial estimates proved to be overly optimistic). Multiple train and subway lines were completed, as was a large highway building project crisscrossing the metropolitan area. Haneda International Airport in Tokyo was also modernized to accommodate the new jet airliners and especially to welcome foreign travelers. The final and most famous project was the shinkansen, more commonly known in English as the bullet train. The project had started in the 1930s as the first part of a large network that would eventually connect the Japanese islands to its empire on the Asian continent. However, it had been abandoned due to a lack of resources during the war. It was revived in the postwar, in no small part due to the Olympics, and timed to be completed before October and the start of the Games. It was the fastest train in the world and demonstrated Japan's reemergence as a technological leader.

Japan as a technological leader was a central theme of the Games. In addition to the shinkansen, Japan had also developed its own commercial passenger jet, the YS-11, which was used to transport the Olympic Flame within Japan. Beyond the transistor radios and cameras that became popular during the 1950s and 1960s, the Tokyo Olympics also saw the introduction of new Japanese sports timing devices--variations of which are still used today. For swimming, a new system was used that started the clock by the sound of the starter gun and ended with touchpads that sent electrical signals to a computer. This replaced the use of judges who had to eye the results, a difficult task at best. In addition, the photo finish using a photograph with lines on it to determine the results of sprints was also introduced. The Tokyo Olympics were also the first to be broadcast not only in color, but also live across the globe by satellite, the result of a joint Japan-US project. These were the first Games where the whole world could experience the results at the same time. In some ways, these projects were also statements to the world. For the Western audience, they demonstrated that Japan was their equal and a member of the first world. For the non-West, Japan could serve as an example of how to modernize and they could look to Japan for advice and help.

Japanese were also determined to show the world that they had reformed and were now a peaceful people. The Olympics, which claim to be apolitical and about individuals joining together in peaceful competition, were perfect for demonstrating this new identity based on Japan's constitution that renounced war as a tool of the state and its status as the only country to suffer from an atomic bombing. Of course, this also required a selective amnesia that either forgot the war or focused on domestic suffering during the war rather than the suffering Japanese caused across Asia and the Pacific during the 17 years of warfare. This was most clearly seen at the various art and cultural exhibits that carefully excluded all images and arts related to the Empire. As the Japanese government was largely forbidden the use of the military or military traditions, the Olympics were also a safe way to foster patriotism and nationalism. International sporting events, after all, are one of the few acceptable places to be nationalistic as people cheer on the athletes—representatives of and surrogates for states and nations—as they compete against each other in (mostly) bloodless combat. The importance of state medal counts, all unofficial and not recognized by the IOC, are one measure of this.

Of course, at the center of any Olympics are the sports themselves. Japan launched a program to strengthen its athletes in an attempt to win the most medals in its Olympic history. The sports authorities brought in the best experts and athletes from across the globe to learn the newest training techniques. Top athletes, both foreign and domestic, were sometimes hooked up to the newest medical technology in order to determine what made them winners. In order to boost their medal count, and also to accomplish some long hoped for international recognition, Japan also pressed to have two new sports added to the Olympics. The first was women's volleyball—at the time, only men's volleyball was an Olympic sport. The world champion Japanese team, often referred to as the "Oriental Witches" in the press, dominated the world stage. In addition, judo was added with four classes--three weighted and one open. This added four possible gold medals that Japan expected to win, although in the end they only won three when the reigning world judo champion, Dutchman Anthonius Geesink, won the open weight class. The end result was a nearly unqualified success for Japanese athletes. They won 16 gold (3rd most), 5 silver and 8 bronze medals, which was an unprecedented sum for Japan.

Although public opinion had initially been split on the Olympics, by the time they actually began, almost everyone was solidly behind them. The broadcast of the Opening Ceremony garnered over 70% of the viewing public and the women's volleyball team's gold medal match against their archrivals, the Soviets, was over 80%. Given that schools, private after school cram schools and some towns set up communal televisions (especially the new color ones), the actual viewership was undoubtedly higher.

The 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics were Japan's chance to show the world they had rebuilt and were now a peaceful partner in the world, while also announcing their status as a first world economic power and technological leader. The final torch runner, Yoshinori Sakai, was the embodiment of this. Sakai, sometimes referred to in the press as "Atomic Bomb Boy," was born just outside of Hiroshima on August 6th, the day atomic bomb was dropped there. Sakai himself was a star track athlete and just barely missed making the Olympic team in 1964. As Sakai climbed the stairs at the National Stadium to light the torch, his strong, healthy body, born in the atomic ashes of war, represented Japan, also recovered and renewed, looking forward to a bright future.