Why Was the 1964 Tokyo Olympics So Extraordinary?

Updated: Jun 14, 2019

Yoshinori Sakai, born August 6, 1945, the day of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, torchbearer at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

We had been waiting for this for a long time. From our kitchen window, we could see architect Kenzo Tange's modern vision of ancient Japanese architecture, designed to be part of the 1964 Olympics complex, rising bit by bit on the construction site in place of former Washington Heights U.S. Armed Forces military base. The Olympics was to be held in Tokyo, a city that had been fire bombed flat just nineteen years before during World War II, and Kenzo's building would be both a traditional monument to and a celebration of Japan's resilience.

Washington Heights, a residential and administrative subdivision of California-style bungalows built during the U.S. Occupation, had been a familiar sight from our hilltop home on Kamiyama-cho since childhood.

Washington Heights in Yoyogi, Tokyo, 1964

But now this incongruous reminder of Japan's defeat would be gone, both literally and figuratively, and replaced by a breathtaking structure topped with a massive free-flowing roof that gently encouraged you to look up to the sky with a mixture of amazement, appreciation, and a visceral sense that peace does prevail.

We had never seen anything like this building before, and yet it seemed to be a natural manifestation of the Japanese spirit at the time. It was a modern architectural triumph, but nothing about it surprised me. Japan had been an exceptional country all along. As an American who was born and raised in Japan after the hostilities of war had ended, I knew my adoptive country was capable of this excellence and much more. Now the rest of the world would get to witness it, because the Olympic Games were coming.

Held in October of 1964, the Olympics coincided with my thirteenth birthday. As part of my birthday present, my father managed to get us into the Olympics cafeteria where only the athletes were allowed. It was just my father and me, so we dined on hamburgers, an American treat that wasn't easy to come by in Japan in those days.

My father, a minister, was a track and field, discus, shot-put, and football sportsman in his youth. He was as starstruck as I was to be there, and he started a conversation with a U.S. athlete eating alone at one of the tables near us, announcing it was my birthday. The man stood up and walked toward me, close to seven feet tall, muscles glistening. I was shy and could not say a word. He was a benevolent giant, his smiling face towering above me.

For my birthday, I'd also received a jade ring from my father with a filigree gold leaf winding around the gem. As the athlete wished me a happy birthday, he reached out and caught my hand in a handshake so powerful that my new ring cut one of my fingers. He kept squeezing my hand for what seemed like an eternity, and it took everything I had to keep from crying out. Although I myself was an American, surrounded only by immediate family and Japanese friends most of my life, this was my first introduction to the guileless kindheartedness of American strangers. This Olympic athlete's exuberance will be forever in my mind and even, with humorous recollection, in my physical memory.

During that October, I saw many Olympics events. I felt pride for the Japanese, was a cheerleader for the USA, and came away deeply touched by all the participating nations which displayed their determination, goodnatured competitive gaming, and the universal joy of being alive in a human body.

Here we are again, getting ready for Olympics 2020 in Tokyo. How things have changed since 1964. Over half a century later, the world is so much smaller now, but it's more challenging than ever to discover true camaraderie. The noise of misinformation and shallow social media reaction to complex questions hold us apart. Would that the soothing effect of Kenzo's art be felt once again to remind us that peace always returns in the end, and that the malevolence of strife might just as well be avoided.

Finding camaraderie takes more devotion now, the kind of effort that requires patience and a willingness to step over and shake a hand, offer a smile, exchange a greeting, and expand beyond one's comfort zone. The rewards for learning and appreciating the richness of relationships in the international arena are still worth it, and the Olympics can be a beautiful occasion to recommit to making that effort.

JapanFest Atlanta on Saturday and Sunday, September 21-22, 2019, invites you to join us in a celebration of Japanese culture and the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics, right here in Georgia. Judo and Karate, Japanese taiko drumming and dance, modern and traditional Japanese music, anime, great Japanese food, and much more will all be housed in one place at the Infinite Energy Center for you to experience and enjoy.

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