Legacy of 1964: how the first Tokyo Olympics changed Japan for ever

The 1964 Games helped Japan shed its pariah status after the second world war.
The 1964 Games helped Japan shed its pariah status after the second world war. Photograph: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

Hosting the Games 57 years ago helped transform Tokyo from ‘a polluted, fetid mess’ – this year’s contrast could not be greater

Justin McCurry

Justin McCurry in TokyoSat 17 Jul 2021 08.00 BST

The Covid-19 legacy of Tokyo 2020 should be apparent in a matter of weeks. Some will seize on a modest, and expected, rise in cases to justify the decision to push ahead with the Olympics in the face of opposition from the Japanese people.

But any evidence that a sports festival has doubled as a virus super-spreader will see the Games associated with the Olympic movement’s rush to secure a colossal payday in the midst of a public health crisis.

Japan’s association with the Olympics has not always been this fraught, as it proved 20 years after the end of the second world war.

Fukushima Azuma baseball stadium

The Tokyo 1964 Games were intended to complete Japan’s transformation from militarist pariah to fully-fledged member of the international community. As an Agence France-Presse report put it days before the opening ceremony in October that year: “An historic week is beginning for Japan. Never before has it wanted to welcome so many foreigners.”Advertisement

Geopolitical symbolism aside, Asia’s first Olympics were the catalyst for dramatic changes in the host city, which had escaped the nuclear annihilation visited on Hiroshima and Nagasaki but not devastation at the hands of conventional air raids by US bombers.

Pre-Olympic Tokyo was “a polluted, fetid mess few people wanted to visit,” says Robert Whiting, an American writer whose memoir, Tokyo Junkie, was published in April. Locals, he said, kept asking themselves a question that has become something of a mantra before every subsequent Games: “How in the world will the city ever be ready on time?”

A round-the-clock frenzy of construction that one observer called the greatest urban transformation in history enabled Tokyo to greet the world with a sense of pride and accomplishment few believed would have been possible just years earlier.

As Whiting recounts, by the time the games began, Tokyo boasted 10,000 new buildings, including several five-star hotels, eight overhead expressways, two new subway lines, and a monorail running linking Haneda airport with the city centre.

A shinkansen bullet train runs toward Tokyo Station past Shiodome Freight Terminal during a test run on in July 1964.
A shinkansen bullet train runs towards Tokyo station past Shiodome Freight Terminal during a test run in July 1964. Photograph: The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

Improvements were made to water quality, and traditional squat toilets were joined by Western-style flush versions. Apartment blocks replaced old wooden houses, and Yoyogi park, located next to the new national gymnasium, offered Tokyoites a transient escape from the concrete megalopolis rising before their eyes.Advertisement

Nine days before the opening ceremony Japan’s wartime emperor, Hirohito, unveiled Japan’s first shinkansen bullet train before it made its inaugural high-speed journey from the capital to Osaka, 250 miles away, in just three hours.

New sports venues included Kenzo Tange’s national gymnasium, which won the Pritzker Prize for architecture, and the Nippon Budokan, built to host the judo competition – a Japanese sport making its Olympic debut.

Team GB skateboarder Sky Brown in action.

Overseas visitors expecting to encounter a scarred urban landscape made barely tolerable by a handful of Games-related architectural jewels instead found a city freeing itself from the physical and psychological shackles of war. Japan, it seemed, had taken the Olympic motto – faster, higher, stronger – and applied it to its capital in triumphant fashion.

But the legacy of the 1964 Games has its dark side. Residents near the site of the new national stadium were forced out of their homes, and fishermen lost the source of their livelihoods to landfill and concrete. Many residents considered the overhead highways eyesores that ruined the charm of the old neighbourhoods below. Construction worsened the pollution of the city’s waterways, and tens of thousands of stray cats and dogs were slaughtered in the 12 months leading up to the Games. up for our Tokyo 2020 briefing with all the news, views and previews for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

As sports fans contemplate the 2020 version taking place in near-empty venues, the contrast with Tokyo’s first Olympic outing couldn’t be greater. “The opening ceremony, broadcast live and in colour around the world, was conducted under clear blue skies thanks to a sudden rainstorm that washed the pollution away,” says Whiting, who arrived in the city in 1962 as an American GI. “It signified Japan’s re-entry into the world after crushing defeat in war, and brought tears to the eyes of many Japanese.”

Two years after the Games, and still basking in the Olympic afterglow, Tokyo’s entry into the the global cultural mainstream was complete when Sean Connery and a film crew arrived to begin work on You Only Live Twice.

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