Opinion: It’s painful to compare today’s tragicomedy with 1964 Tokyo Olympics

Opinion: It’s painful to compare today’s tragicomedy with 1964 Tokyo Olympics
If ever the Games lived up to the Olympic ideal of ‘building a peaceful and better world’, it was in Japan in 1964

Asia’s most vibrant city is ready and waiting. The Olympic torch, touching down first in Okinawa, genuflecting before the skeleton of the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, winding through terraces of paddy and villages of black-roofed farmhouses, then under the perfect volcanic cone of Mt Fuji, finally makes it to the national stadium in Tokyo and runner Yoshinori Sakai jogs up the long flight of steps to light the flame before 83,000 cheering spectators. For Asia’s funkiest, most mind-boggling megalopolis – it’s party time!

That of course was then. And as the weirdest Olympiad of modern times gets under way tomorrow in the teeth of a Covid epidemic again raging out of control (though with numbers that are trifling compared to Britain’s), there can be nothing more painful for the Japanese than to compare today’s tragicomedy with the 18th Olympiad, inaugurated in the Japanese capital on 10 October 1964.

That day had been a long time coming. The Olympiad was first scheduled for the city back in 1940, when this was already much the most modern city in Asia. But the shadow of war forced its cancellation, and Japan’s war crimes caused it to be barred from the 1948 Games in London. So when on that day of bright autumn sunshine Emperor Hirohito solemnly declared the Games open, “celebrating the 18th Olympiad of the modern era”, Japan was well and truly prepared.

Kon Ichikawa, one of Japan’s great film directors, recorded the whole story in a documentary which displeased the bureaucrats who commissioned it but which is now recognised as one of the greatest films ever made of a sporting event (available on YouTube). As the film graphically shows, if ever the Games lived up to the Olympic ideal of “building a peaceful and better world”, it was here.

A century had passed since the menaces of the US and Britain had forced the world’s most insular large nation to open up, igniting a fever of change which within a few decades made it the first Asian power to claim parity with the West. When Japan defeated imperial Russia in war in 1905, the colonial powers were stunned.

But beneath its harsh modern façade, Japan remained right through the disasters of World War Two an introverted, self-absorbed society with values that owed far more to samurai and shogun than to the West. That self-absorption was reflected in its demography: Japan was populated entirely and only by Japanese. So while the 18th Olympics prompted the IOC to declare that “the Olympic Games are at last in the Orient, proving that they belong to the entire world”, for Japan they had a very particular meaning: they were the nation’s first ever opportunity to meet the rest of the world peaceably, face to face, and at home.

Ichikawa’s film captures the novelty and excitement of the experience: the jets at Haneda airport discharging planeload after planeload of blonde, blue-eyed Europeans, chisel-jawed Russians, Africans in national costume… athletes from 94 countries, most of which the Japanese had barely heard of. The visitors meanwhile found themselves in a city made anew since American incendiary bombs had burned it to the ground 20 years before; a city from which practically all the images of traditional Japan, the orientalist clichés by which this society was known to the world, had been purged.

Tokyo was a vast, deafening, baffling, appallingly polluted city, the most populous in the world, and defined itself by expressways snaking above ferroconcrete business towers, Olympic stadiums that rewrote the pecking order of modern architecture (the best, by the way, the gymnasium in Yoyogi Park, is in use this year and still a stunning building), a monorail that swept passengers in from the airport and the world’s first bullet train, the Shinkansen, speeding the 515 kilometres to Osaka in four hours, inaugurated nine days before the Olympics got under way.

As I wrote in my book on Tokyo, re-issued this week, 1964 was “the crucial year of Japan’s postwar history… The economy was beginning its long boom and ordinary people had money in their pockets. The first Olympics ever to be held in Asia was like Japan getting married to the world.” That fusion set in train the Tokyo that emerged in the 1980s boom years, “a piece of machinery unrivalled in history for size, complexity, precision”, I wrote, “of a scale that beggars analogy: far more stupendous than any beehive or termite’s colony, any factory”.

Those first Tokyo Olympics were seen by many as the moment Japan attained critical mass, making of itself something both quintessentially Japanese and quintessentially modern – a version it could offer the world without shame. It was a kind of perfection. But of course, history goes on and on. Japan’s long boom ended in bust; across Asia dozens of other megacities, from Beijing and Shanghai to Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, forged their own versions of Tokyo.

Tomorrow, Emperor Hirohito’s grandson Naruhito, himself said to be dubious about the Games, will declare them open while replacing the word “celebrating” with “commemorating”. And while there is plenty for Japan to look back on with pride, there will be little to celebrate.

Tokyo: the City at the End of the World’ by Peter Popham is published by Camphor Press

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