Roy Tomizawa - The Powerful Legacy of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics: Three Reasons Why 1964 Is The Greatest Year in the History of Japan

Adapted from an article published in The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus.
1964 was the greatest year in the history of Japan, and here are the reasons why. But what was the greatest day in the greatest year?
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(c)Photo Kishimoto

"It's the Olympics!"

The film trilogy, Always—Sunset on Third Street, charts the lives of two families in a tight-knit neighborhood in central Tokyo from 1958 to 1964. In the third film, which took place in 1964, one of the main characters, a struggling novelist named Chagawa, is happily watching the opening ceremony of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics on his small black and white television.

But his wife convinces him that it would be better and more sociable to watch together with their neighbors, the Suzukis, on their big color TV. As they walk out into the street, they are startled by the roar of jet engines, and the spectacle appearing above their heads. Chagawa calls to his neighbors to come outside to see.

As the Suzukis come out to the street, directly above their heads in the clear blue sky are five jets forming the Olympic rings. The immediate audience for the display was the crowd of 70,000 spectators, officials and athletes at the National Stadium a few kilometers away. But this powerful integration of technology and art pierced the hearts of the tens of millions of Japanese who witnessed the spectacle on television, symbolizing for them, that indeed, the sky's the limit.

Suzuki, who has built his auto repair shop after returning from the war with nothing, chokes up at the realization that he and his family, like so many others in Japan, have overcome so much pain, have sacrificed so much and worked so hard to get to this point.

This whole area was burned out in the war. There was nothing to eat. And now...look at this. So many buildings have gone up around us. And there, rising up before our eyes: Tokyo Tower, the tallest in the world. And now, finally, it's the Olympics!

He then leads his family and friends in a barbaric yawp —proclaiming that indeed Japan is back!

Why 1964 is Japan's Greatest Year

It is hyperbole to call any year the greatest year in a country's history. But one can argue that the XVIII Olympiad held in Tokyo, Japan, in October 1964, enabled the Japanese to take a moment to breathe during their breakneck economic growth, reflect and celebrate in collective joy.

The greatest legacy of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was the feeling of pride the Japanese felt 57 years ago, because:

  • The challenge was great - At the end of World War II, only 19 years prior to the Olympics, the nation was in economic and psychological tatters.
  • The achievement was unprecedented - The Japanese were praised the world over for their efficiency, modernity and friendliness during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
  • The support for the Olympics was universal - Everyone celebrated in Japan's accomplishments, in a time when television was just bringing the world live into everyone's living room.

The Challenge was Great

In his book, Embracing Defeat, John Dower wrote of the utter destruction to Japan's physical landscape, its industrial infrastructure, and its people. According to Dower, 66 cities were firebombed, 30% were left homeless, 80% of all ships, 33% of all industrial machine tools, and 25% of all motor vehicles and trains in Japan were destroyed.

They were in need of the basics to survive: food, shelter, and medicine. And they had no assurances about the future. Will my family survive? Will Japan recover?

On August 15, 1945, in the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the Emperor's voice was heard over the radio for the first time by his Japanese subjects. The Emperor asked his people to surrender, to "bear the unbearable, and endure the unendurable."

However, only nineteen years later, the Emperor presided over the Olympics, an event symbolizing peace and unity, in a city that was unrecognizable from its bombed-out shell in 1945.

The Achievement was Unprecedented

The scenes likely evoked a wide variety of emotions - a man in white tank top with a bold red circle emblazoned across the chest. The unmistakable rising sun of Japan was blazing a trail across Asia during the torch relay leading up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

From August 21 to September 6 the torch wended its way through Eurasia, starting in Greece and then Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, India, Myanmar (then Burma), Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, before heading to Japan.

Only decades prior, Japan had military forces in some of these countries. Japan waged war in some of these countries. And yet, in 1964, Japan was celebrated as the pride of Asia.

"We were all conscious that it was the first Asian Olympics," said the captain of the 1964 gold-medal winning field hockey team from India, Charanjit Singh. "And during that period the Japanese just rose to the occasion. There was so much devastation (after the war). But instead of giving up, they built it back up themselves. The Olympics were a very good show there, and it showed the world that Asian people can do it very well, like the rest of the world."

For Robbie Brightwell, the United Kingdom athletics team captain, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was a watershed moment in Olympic history. Brightwell, who helped his 4x400-relay team to a come-from-behind silver medal running the anchor leg in the finals, said that Tokyo "internationalized the Games."

Up to Rome, 1960, the Olympics was perceived primarily as a mash between European and North American competitors. Tokyo internationalized the games. It was a historical moment for Asia, and I had the feeling that the Olympic ring that represented Asia was finally added for real.

Japan was an emerging economy in 1964. Any new goal was a new challenge, and the Japanese had no preconceptions about how to get things done. If they had a problem to solve, they tried anything and everything, leveraging what resources were available and learning from the world.

And so, even in 1964, to the surprise of visiting Olympians, Japanese products were not cheap and low quality. They were cutting edge.

Brightwell, and then fiancé (as well as two-time gold medalist at the '64 Games) Ann Packer flew to Tokyo with their fellow Olympians on British Overseas Airways Comet, the world's first commercial jet airliner. They had the opportunity to visit the cockpit and talk with the pilot. They asked about Japan, and Brightwell asked the well-travelled pilot whether he had any recommendations for things to buy there.

He said, "Yeah, Seiko watches. They make fantastic watches. Get a movie camera. Get a tape recorder. You got to get one of those transistor radios. And a camera. Oh, I see you're wearing glasses. Go and get contact lenses." So I did see the optician one day in Tokyo. And got them the next day! The Japanese were already making gas-permeable contact lenses. They were brilliant. For my first race, I could actually see the track.

We were very impressed. We knew about Japanese engineering in heavy industry, but we didn't know anything about their use of American transistors and computers in Japan. We could see they were moving to higher-value, technologically intense products.

"Relatively speaking," said Brightwell, "we were still on steam locomotives."

The Support for the Tokyo Olympics was Universal

On Monday, October 12, 1964, a package arrived at the Olympic Village in Yoyogi, Tokyo. The package contained 4,500 little boxes, which had a small gift for all of the foreign athletes in Japan for the XVIII Olympiad. Upon opening the small cardboard gift box, the athlete found a doll in the shape of Dharma (pronounced "daruma" in Japanese), as well as a letter.

A daruma doll

The daruma doll represents for Japanese hope and luck, and because it has a rounded bottom that allows the doll to bobble and roll while remaining upright. It also represents perseverance. One usually receives a daruma doll with both eyes white and blank, and the custom is to fill in one eye with a black dot to get you started on your journey of fortune and success. And when you have fulfilled a goal, or had a landmark life event, like a graduation, marriage or a birth of a child, then you fill in the second eye.

A group of high school students who called themselves the Fuji Companion Head Office in Shizuoka Prefecture produced these papier-mâché daruma dolls and had them sent to the Olympic Village. The enclosed letter explained that "in this doll is hidden a small story of friendship and good will of all the young and grown up people from all Japan."

It was "all hands on deck" in Japan - students, corporations, government workers, volunteers, and everyday citizens - all believed they had a role in making the Olympics a success. If they could show the world that they were peace-loving, Western-like, modern and eager to contribute, they thought, then they could stand tall with the other great nations of the world.

A Night to Remember

And if there was one day, when all of Japan came together as one, it was Friday, October 23, 1964.

The Nippon Budokan was packed. But perhaps there was a sense of resignation among the Japanese. Despite the fact that three Japanese judoka had already taken gold in the first three weight classes over the previous three days, there was doubt that Akio Kaminaga could defeat Dutchman, Anton Geesink, in the open category.

Geesink shocked the judo world by becoming the first non-Japanese to win the World Championships in 1961. More relevantly, Geesink had already defeated Kaminaga in a preliminary bout. So while the Japanese, including Crown Prince Akihito and Princess Michiko who were in the Budokan, were hoping Kaminaga would exceed expectations, all they had to do was see the two judoka stand next to each other to be concerned - the 2-meter tall, 120 kg foreign giant vs the 1.8-meter tall, 102 kg Japanese.

Even though judo purists know that skill, balance and coordination are more important to winning than size, deep down many likely felt that the bigger, stronger foreigner was going to win. After all, the bigger, stronger US soldiers and their allies had defeated the Imperial forces of Japan in the Pacific War.

And so Geesink did, defeating Kaminaga handily, sending the Japanese nation into a funk.

That was late in the afternoon on October 23. About 13 kilometers southwest of the Nippon Budokan and the site of Kaminaga's defeat, the Japanese women's volleyball team was preparing for their finals at the Komazawa Indoor Stadium. They too were going up against bigger, stronger adversaries, the USSR.

In this case, however, there was a sense that their magical women of volleyball would defeat the Soviets. They had already done so at the World Championships in 1962, walking into Moscow and winning the finals. So when nearly every citizen in Japan settled in front of their televisions that Friday evening, they were gearing up to explode in celebration.

And yet, Geesink had just sunk Kaminaga, as well as Japan's hopes of sweeping gold in the only sport at the Olympics native to Japan. "Maybe we just aren't big enough, or strong enough," some may have thought.

Hirobumi Daimatsu, coach of the women's volleyball team, accepted the challenge and worked over the years to train his players to compensate for relative weaknesses in size and strength, with speed, technique and guts. And much to the relief and joy of the nation, the Japanese defeated the Soviet Union in straight sets: 15-11, 15-8 and a tantalizingly close final set, 15-13.

A team of diminutive Japanese women took down the larger Soviet women. Whatever sting from Kaminaga's loss was washed away in that moment the ball fell to the ground for the final point in that match.

The spectators in the arena exploded in joy. With booming sales of televisions, so too did viewers in living rooms across the nation. The Tokyo Olympics, on the whole, was broadcasted on multiple channels, sometimes up to five channels covering the same event. That was the case for the Opening and Closing ceremonies, as well as the women's volleyball final - when the Japanese defeated the Soviet Union to win gold. In other words, at the end of the volleyball finals, an entire country jumped for joy in unison.

Never was the nation more aligned, never was the nation prouder than in 1964—rising from the rubble to embark on the greatest Asian economic miracle of the twentieth century.

On that day, Japan was a nation reborn - young, confident, world-beaters.

Roy Tomizawa

Roy Tomizawa is a sports journalist who recently published a book, "1964 — The Greatest Year in the History of Japan: How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan's Miraculous Rise from the Ashes."
Text: Roy Tomizawa