Tokyo Olympics 1964: the Games that defined Japan

As Tokyo prepares to host the delayed Summer Olympics, Christopher Harding reveals how Japan used the 1964 Games to restore its global status from postwar pariah to high-tech go-getter

Tokyo Olympics 1964: Yoshinori Sakai prepares to light the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony. Born on the day that the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima, he was a symbol of Japan’s postwar reconstruction and peace

On Friday 16 October 1964, a small section of Tokyo’s business district was treated to a meticulous cleansing. Young men in white lab coats and face masks dabbed at the pavement with cotton buds. Others scrubbed away with tiny brushes. And one man crouched down low, inspecting the results of their efforts with a magnifying glass.

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A signboard nearby bore the legend sōjichū – cleaning in progress. Photographs of the scene suggest that passers-by were happy enough with this explanation, the team’s eccentric approach to their task notwithstanding. Two words written in English on the sign explained why: “Be Clean!”

It was a familiar injunction that by then ran broad and deep in the minds of Tokyoites. Their city, and indeed their whole country, was in the midst of one of history’s fastest face-lifts, in preparation for the Tokyo Summer Olympics that month, and cleanliness was its keynote. It wasn’t just the streets that needed a scrub: the Games also provided a chance to polish Japan’s international image, so badly tarnished by the Second World War.

The first years after Japan’s surrender in the summer of 1945 had been marked by poverty, disease and a deep despair among Japanese people of ever seeing their country’s fortunes or international reputation recover. News of atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army in China and elsewhere had begun to circulate both at home and abroad.

Allied prisoners of war returned home with horrifying accounts of brutal treatment at the hands of their captors. And wartime propaganda campaigns, which caricatured Japan’s population as willing helpmates to an evil emperor, had long-lasting after-effects: for some in the west, Japanese aggression called into question not just the nation’s leadership but its very soul.

Liberated Allied prisoners of war pass former guards at the infamous Ōfuna camp in 1945. Accounts of brutal treatment in PoW camps sullied views of Japan
Liberated Allied prisoners of war pass former guards at the infamous Ōfuna camp in 1945. Accounts of brutal treatment in PoW camps sullied views of Japan (Photo by Hulton-Deutsch/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)

For the fiercest of these critics, Japan’s trajectory since opening up to global trade and diplomacy in the late 19th century looked in retrospect like a case of modernisation without civilisation, of power unrestrained by a sense of the value of human life.

All this presented a challenge for the US, which dominated the Allied occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1952, and which was determined to make of its erstwhile enemy a democratic, business-friendly and staunchly anti-communist ally. Occupation-era propaganda, alongside the International Military Tribunal for the Far East that convened in Tokyo between 1946 and 1948, sought to focus war responsibility on a handful of elites while presenting the Japanese population as a whole as their victims.

Yet this effort was only somewhat successful. US advocates for the “new Japan” failed to secure an invitation for Japanese athletes to participate in the Summer Olympics of 1948 in London, for instance. British bitterness at the behaviour of Japan’s soldiery during the war was far too fresh. Avery Brundage, then vice-president of the International Olympic Committee, reminded an associate involved in the Allied occupation of Japan that the English were still “very badly off”. The presence of Japanese (or, indeed, German) sportspeople at the London Games – parts of the infrastructure of which was built by German prisoners of war – ran the risk, he cautioned, of sparking demonstrations on the streets of the British capital.

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A new national story

Fourteen years later, in 1962, French president Charles de Gaulle made headlines when he referred to the Japanese prime minister, Ikeda Hayato, as “that transistor salesman”, reflecting the postwar boom in Japan’s electronics industry. And a piece in The Economist that same year declared an “economic miracle” in Japan: a rapid rise in economic growth and standards of living.

Commentators were well aware of the role of US aid to Japan in achieving this feat: generous terms of trade had been offered, alongside considerable financial and technological assistance – the transistor was, after all, an American invention. But in seeking explanations they also honed in on a set of putatively “Japanese” characteristics: diligence, self-sacrifice and loyalty – almost to a fault – to a group or a cause. Here, at last, was the raw material for a plausible purifying of the nation’s reputation.

Reading these qualities back into the 1930s and 1940s it was possible to imagine, in a way that westerners had been unwilling or unable to do in the years immediately after 1945, that most Japanese had indeed been hard-working “innocents”, manoeuvred by unscrupulous leaders into supporting disastrous wars. Those wars would – should – never be forgotten, but it was possible to understand them in a new light.

If these stereotypes about the Japanese – which remained remarkably durable across the decades to come – contained one negative element, it was a lingering suspicion of soullessness. This was older than the war, dating back to the late 19th century when Japan’s rapid modernisation was said by some to rely on rather hollow mimicry of western institutions and values.

The transistor became a fresh postwar symbol of this claim, its highly profitable deployment by new companies such as Sony causing critics to claim that Japan’s new-found economic success depended on companies misappropriating, miniaturising and then marketing western innovations back to western consumers. Some commentators extended the critique to culture: one postwar BBC television documentary featured the claim that Japanese musicians had mastered the forms of jazz and pop without really feeling the music.

Among the Japanese, too, there were worries that their country was at risk of being defined by no more than balance sheets and creeping Americanisation in the spheres of fashion, film, music and social mores. These trends were particularly concerning for conservative Japanese commentators, some of whom believed that the United States had followed up on its military victory in 1945 by launching a culture war.

A broad array of Japanese symbols, social institutions and art forms had either been done away with altogether during the Allied occupation or subject to policies designed to consign them to the “bad old days” of a discredited Japanese past. Some of this activity seemed silly or naïve in retrospect: the banning of images of Mount Fuji (for its links to Japanese nationalism), for example, and the encouragement of “democratic” kissing and hand-holding at the expense of “feudal” bowing. Other initiatives appeared more subtle. Japan’s family system had been reoriented by a new emphasis on individual and women’s rights. Reform of Japanese schools had seen the old moral education swept away, while children were offered an account of recent history so wretched and guilt-inducing that it bordered on masochism.

Thus the moment was ripe, in the early 1960s, for the telling of a fresh story about Japan – one that was capable of connecting a bright future to a past that was infinitely richer than the “dark valley” of the 1930s and early 1940s. As luck would have it, the perfect opportunity was on the horizon. In October 1964, Japan would become the focus of international attention in a way that it hadn’t been since the summer of 1945: Tokyo was about to become the first Asian city to host the Summer Olympic Games.

Building the future

Large parts of the prewar Japanese capital, a city of wood and paper, had been lost to firebombing raids in 1944 and 1945. Rebuilt in rapid, ramshackle fashion, it played host now to a fresh round of reconstruction. New concrete apartments and office buildings went up, along with lavish hotels and mile upon mile of twisting, tunnelling expressway. Two new subway lines were added to the Tokyo network, and a monorail was constructed running out to Haneda airport.

Japan’s biggest Olympic boast of all was the bullet train, or shinkansen (“new trunk line”). Dreamed up in the 1930s as a means of carrying ordnance at high speed around Japan’s colonial empire, it was finally turned into a reality by engineers employing skills picked up working on Zero fighters and navy signals intelligence during the war. When the first railway line between Tokyo and Osaka had opened back in 1889, the journey had taken 16 and a half hours. The “airplane that runs on rails”, as the Japanese media loved to describe the new train, would complete that trip in just four.

The first shinkansen high-speed 'bullet train' line, which shrank the journey time between Tokyo and Osaka, is opened on 1 October 1964, days before the start of the Olympics
The first shinkansen high-speed ‘bullet train’ line, which shrank the journey time between Tokyo and Osaka, is opened on 1 October 1964, days before the start of the Olympics (Photo by Sankei Archive/Getty Images)

Preparations did not go entirely to plan, however. Enthusiasm for the Games in some quarters was focused primarily on their pocket-lining potential. Speculators were quick to buy up land along the planned routes of expressways and shinkansen lines, holding up construction and pushing up costs as they haggled with their leaders – in appropriately democratic postwar fashion – over the prices at which they might sell. Some projects had to be scaled back as a result, though elsewhere innovation was given a useful nudge. The simple single-unit moulded bathrooms – toilet, sink, bath – that later generations of tourists would come to associate with Japanese hotels were a product of this period, designed so that they could be built elsewhere and then lifted by crane into hotel rooms while still under construction.

Some Japanese baulked at the cost of the Games, while others worried about their leaders’ bread-and-circuses approach to controlling the population. The men seen meticulously cleaning the Tokyo pavement that Saturday in October 1964 were members of the avant-garde art collective Hi-Red Center.

Another of its works was Shelter Plan, in which volunteers – including a young Yoko Ono – were measured up for their own personal atomic bomb shelters, the resulting product looking very much like a coffin. Their message: the Japanese were too ready to take prosperity in exchange for meaningful political control, sacrificing the early democratic promise of the Allied occupation in favour of political and cultural conservatism, closely aligned with Cold War US interests.

As the date of the opening ceremony – 10 October – neared, Tokyoites took to wearing earplugs at night, seeking respite from the sound of piledrivers that operated 24/7. By day they were subjected to the government hammering away at their behaviour, so that foreign visitors might form the desired opinion of the Japanese.

Men were enjoined not to urinate in public (mobile toilets were hurriedly ordered to help facilitate the request), while taxi drivers were told to cut down on their horn-honking. Sex workers, beggars, pickpockets and homeless people were cleared out of the city, as was much of the criminal element.

One advantage of close links between the city’s underworld and some of Japan’s politicians was that the latter could persuade gang bosses to send some of their more threatening-looking men to the countryside or seaside for “spiritual training” while the world was in town for the Olympics. Completing the cleansing of Tokyo were rain showers on 9 October, ending an unusually long dry patch and helping to clear away some of the air pollution created by the non-stop preparation efforts of recent weeks.

Ceremony and hospitality

When 75,000 visitors gathered in the National Stadium for the opening ceremony, everything seemed to come together. They had arrived via shiny new methods of transport, helped through the immaculately clean streets of Tokyo by locals pre-drilled in how to offer directions in excessively polite English. And they were witnesses to easily the most expensive opening ceremony in the history of the Games thus far, blending cutting-edge innovation with a revamped Japanese traditionalism.

There was live broadcasting for the first time (and in full colour, too), the recording of results on computers, and “photo finish” technology. There were kimonos, cherry blossoms, chrysanthemum perfume pumped in from dugouts, and an exhibition of traditional art and crafts nearby. Thanks to the Ministry of Education, there was also a carefully choreographed comeback for four major Japanese symbols, tainted just a generation before by colonialism and war.

The first of these symbols was the emperor. Compelled under the occupation to renounce his divinity, in the postwar constitution the rather ill-defined status of Japan’s emperor – “symbol of the state” – left everyone unsure whether or not Japan actually possessed a head of state any longer. The opening ceremony answered that question with an implied “yes”, by positioning Hirohito as sponsor of the Games and allowing him to stand up and speak at the opening ceremony. Gone was the fearsome focal point of Allied wartime propaganda, replaced by a slightly awkward man in an ill-fitting suit – the work, it was said, of a tailor forbidden from touching his exalted client.

The Hinomaru national flag – a red disc on a white background – and national anthem, Kimigayo, had likewise lost their status after the war. Here again the Games came to the rescue. The Hinomaru was one of the national flags of competing nations displayed around Tokyo, while also forming part of the official logo for the 1964 Games, placed above the five Olympic rings. That logo was pinned proudly to the chest of the young athlete who carried the Olympic torch up the 160 steps to light the cauldron at the start of the Games. Yoshinori Sakai, it was made widely known, had been born on the day when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, his role an artful combination of sport, pacifism, regeneration and the suggestion that the Japanese had been victims in that terrible war. The anthem Kimigayo rang out around the stadium, accompanying the release of “doves of peace”.

Last but not least, the opening ceremony crowd in Tokyo, and of course viewers around the world, were treated to a display of Japanese air power. This took the form not of bombing or strafing but, rather, the tracing of the Olympic rings by an aerobatic display team whose most threatening aspect was its slightly risqué name: Blue Impulse.

The pilots were members of Japan’s new Self-Defence Forces, which were working to earn trust at home and abroad during the Olympics by helping out with security; an entire platoon was sent out to look for a tobacco pouch dropped by a European prince at an equestrian event. Here was just one, albeit rather outlandish, example of a broader deployment at the Games of Japanese omotenashi – a kind of hospitality on steroids: nothing was too much trouble in helping visitors to enjoy the gleaming new city.

Opinion polls and television ratings in Japan suggested that the enormous effort that went into Tokyo 1964 paid off handsomely. The opening and closing ceremonies, along with the stunning success of the women’s volleyball team – which vanquished the Soviet Union to take Olympic gold – attracted record ratings, and remained uppermost in people’s minds when questioned about this entire era in later years. Foreign reaction was just as warm. British former Olympic athlete and sports journalist Chris Brasher praised the “hard work, humility and charm” of his hosts, and described the opening ceremony as “the most brilliantly organised spectacle ever held in international sport”.

All of this sets a high bar for the 2020 Olympics. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, there were those who wondered whether Japan now has a story to tell that can match that of 1964 for timeliness and coherence. First it was going to be recovery from the “triple disasters” of 2011: earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown. That was later modified to include a recovery from Covid that has proven more elusive than hoped.

In truth, Japan no longer needs an Olympic makeover in the way it did in 1964. For a society as successful and complex as Japan, which now speaks to the world in so many varied ways – fashion and food, science and pop culture, diplomacy and overseas aid – attempting to boil itself down would feel like a backward step. However the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 unfolds, Japan will survive – and we’ll always have 1964.

Competing ideologies and the Olympic Games: the other nations whose experience of the 1964 Olympics was shaped by politics

China withdraws

The People’s Republic of China was notably absent from the 1964 Games, having withdrawn after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) placed a ban on athletes who had participated in a rival event the previous year – the Games of the New Emerging Forces (GANEFO), created by Indonesia’s President Sukarno and held in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.

While Japan used the 1964 Games to stake a new claim in the international order, Sukarno was intent on establishing an alternative order rooted in Asian and African neutralism and anti-colonialism; GANEFO was effectively the athletics counterpart to the Bandung (or Asian-African) Conference of 1955.

Indonesia and North Korea also withdrew from Tokyo 1964 because of the IOC ban. Japan had allowed its athletes to attend GANEFO, but only those of non-Olympic standard.

Germany unites

Coming fourth in the medals table in 1964, after the United States, the Soviet Union and Japan, was the United Team of Germany. This was a team of athletes from West and East Germany, which competed together at the Olympics in 1956, 1960 and 1964.

Some of the difficulties in establishing the team mirrored those experienced by Japan in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics. To the question of which of the countries’ national anthems would be used, the answer was, eventually, neither; the “Ode to Joy”, from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, was chosen instead. And to the question of which flag to use, the solution – thanks in part to IOC intervention – was to overlay the five Olympic rings onto the horizontal black, red and gold stripes of the flag of the Weimar Republic (1919–33).

The United Team came to an end with the granting to East Germany of its own Olympic Committee in 1965. Germany once again became a single force at the Olympics in 1992 at Barcelona, two years after reunification.

South Africa is excluded

South Africa was excluded from the 1964 Games after its government refused to modify its apartheid policies. The country was also barred from the subsequent Summer Games, in Mexico City in 1968, and was expelled from the Olympic Movement altogether in 1970.

South African apartheid had a direct impact on sport: it included an official ban on the participation in international competitions of mixed white and non-white teams, with the result that few non-white South Africans were able to compete abroad.

South Africa finally made it back into Olympic competition in 1992, at the Barcelona Games, two years after the release from prison of Nelson Mandela. One of the enduring images of the Barcelona Olympics was of the Ethiopian runner Derartu Tulu, the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal, holding hands with the white South African runner Elana Meyer during her victory lap.

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Christopher Harding is senior lecturer in history at the University of Edinburgh. His new BBC Radio 3 series, Japan in Five Lives, airs from 19 July