press pass _revisedThis was my father’s identity card for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Through his work for NBC News, and NBC’s sustained relationship to the Olympic Games, I was a fan of the greatest sports competition in the world. I was only one years-old at the time of the Tokyo Olympic Games, and of course remember nothing of it. But come 2020, when the Summer Games return to Tokyo, I will be there.

GHQ Dai Ichi

From August, 28 1945 to April 28, 1952, Japan was not a sovereign nation; instead it was occupied by the Allied nations of the Second World War. And the Allies base of operations during the occupation was an imposing building in its time – The Dai-Ichi Insurance Building. While much of Tokyo was destroyed by American firebombing, the Imperial Palace and the central part of Tokyo were not targeted, perhaps to spare the Emperor, perhaps to leave a habitable space for a conquering military administration.

The General Arrives at Dai Ichi Building SCAP HQ
General Douglas MacArthur entering SCAP HQ, the Dai Ichi Building

Completed in 1933, across the moat of the Imperial Palace, it must have been an impressive sight. One of the largest structures in the area at the time, GHQ’s home was a solid stone block of a building with its six-story columns, the American flag flapping from the top, clearly visible from the Imperial Palace. In this building worked the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP), American commander, General Douglas MacArthur.

As wrote Russell Brines, the war correspondent and author of the 1948 book, MacArthur’s Japan, the general commanded respect.

In Tokyo, his personal and legal authority was unquestioned. His headquarters was dominated by military men, accustomed to unquestioning obedience. They echoed his moods, repeated his propaganda, tried to anticipate his wishes. His personality constantly hovered over the ornate Dai Ichi Insurance Company, and other modern buildings, where policy was made in the capital. Civilian officials who disagreed remained discreetly silent.

GHQ Presidential Office MacArthur's office
General MacArthur’s office

MacArthur’s office on the sixth floor of the Dai Ichi Insurance Building was surprisingly spartan. His desk was more like a dining table, without drawers, his table often without papers or reports. As a Dai Ichi spokesman said in explanation of the lack drawers,

MacArthur didn’t need any. He was a man who made quick decisions, not the type to pull reports out of his bureau for lengthy consideration.

MacArthur had long days in GHQ. They started around 10 am in the morning. He would then go to his residence in the American Embassy compound around 2:30 pm and return around to GHQ around 4:30. He would then continue his work until about 8:30 pm, a pattern that E. H. Freeman in this discussion board called Armchair General.com said the general did 7 days a week.

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Dai Ichi Building today

MacArthur was as close to a super hero as you can get in those days. Japanese and Americans alike would try to time his arrivals and departures from GHQ to catch a glimpse of him passing through the columns of the Dai Ichi Insurance Building – the Japanese bowing and the GI’s saluting. Bill Zettler wrote about his moment with the man on the discussion board:

In the fall of 1946 I was standing near the front entrance to the Dai Ichi building, camera in hand, hoping to see Mac as he came to work. I did not realize he would use the door behind me. I felt that photographing him at that distance would be impertinent, and so I stepped aside, held the camera behind me, and saluted. He returned that salute, and then I realized I was the only GI in his view, so I had received a PERSONAL salute from the General.

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Grave of the Fireflies 1

Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓 Hotaru no Haka) was released in 1988, in hindsight, a surprisingly sober film from Studio Ghibli, the production company that has brought the world such wondrous animated films as My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away.

I watched it for the first time this week.

Destruction in war time, no matter which side of a conflict you’re on, is hard to comprehend in times of peace, or in the security of your living room, in front of a large flatscreen TV. And yet, in Grave of the Fireflies, the director, Isao Takahata, transports us to Kobe, Japan, in the waning days of World War II – a time of routine air raids, frantic dashes to air raid shelters, and fruitless attempts to extinguish the fires of napalm bombs dropped from American B-29s.

Over 60 cities in Japan were bombed in the months leading to the war’s end on August 15, 1945, including Kobe, a port city that was a major industrial center, particularly for shipbuilding.

Takahata, based on a short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, tells the semi-autobiographical story of a brother, Seita, and his younger sister, Setsuko, who are orphaned when their mother dies from full-body burns in a air raid, and their father in the Imperial Navy perishes in the Pacific. They stay at an aunt’s home, but as the days pass, the siblings feel they are an unwelcome burden, and leave to survive on their own in an abandoned cave. Their resources dwindling, the two make do, but eventually, Setsuko, and finally, Seita, succumb to the slow death of malnutrition and starvation.

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John Dower, who wrote the book Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, wrote of the stigma and the challenges that returning soldiers, war widows, and war orphans faced, driven in part by the culture of the country.

Despite a mild Buddhist tradition of care for the weak and infirm, despite Confucian homilies about reciprocal obligations between social superiors and inferiors, and despite imperial platitudes about all Japanese being “one family” under the emperor, Japan was a harsh inhospitable place for anyone who did not fall into a “proper” social category.

In the early stages of the post-war period in mid-1946, the Ministry of Health and Welfare estimated there about 4,000 war orphans in Japan, but that number climbed to over 120,000 eighteen months later.

According to Dower, the war orphans lived by their wits doing anything they could to survive, “shining shoes, selling newspapers, stealing, recycling cigarette butts, illegally selling food coupons, begging,” with teenage girls ending up prostituting themselves to get by.

orphan children post war japan
Grave of the Fireflies powerfully brings the war orphan experience alive – a desperate experience – and one in the thoughts of the late, great film critic, Roger Ebert that speaks to the unfairness of war in its lack of precision, by showing the innocent nature of these two children, and the agonizing specifics of their circumstances.

I’ve seen a lot of war films. Many of them are exciting, or moving, or dramatic or artistically effective. And a few of them reach you at an emotional level and not just at an action level. I was amazed the first time I watched Grave of the Fireflies that I was actually moved just about to tears by this film. This film has an emotional breadth involving war, and the results of war, and two victims of war that is astonishing.

I think this movie is saying that firebombing is not a very precise way of going after the enemy. It’s a way to destroy morale, a way to break down a nation’s will to resist, but at the same time, are we really thinking about people like this little brother and his even smaller sister, when we drop these bombs. Or are we managing to objectify the Japanese as an evil race who deserve to have this happen to them.

So many decades later, in the 21st century, many around the world have little visceral understanding of the immediate post-war period, their understanding based on text books and dry historical explanations. But Grave of the Fireflies, considered one of the best animated films ever produced, brought that difficult time in history to life, a powerful reminder of what the stakes are when we go to war, and what depths Japan emerged from to get to where it is today – a nation where some of the most beautiful and touching animated works of art have been created.

homeless in postwar japan
Hundreds of Japanese jam the Ueno railway station in Northeast Tokyo, on Oct. 26, 1945, these windy autumn nights seeking shelter. Homeless, the old and the young huddle together on thin matting and old newspapers, and try to sleep. Many are starving. Police estimate there are two of three deaths nightly from starvation. (AP Photo)

At the end of World War II, in 1945, there were 9 million Japanese left homeless, primarily due to the devastation wrought by B-29s and their bombing raids for nearly a year.

With 80% of all ships destroyed, 33% of all industrial machine tools destroyed, 25% of all trains and cars destroyed, and with the allied-ruled governing body, led by General Douglas MacArthur, imposing a rule of law that prioritized dispersing of Japanese assets to allied victors, the economy was in ruins.

Hunger and malnutrition were the norm, as Japanese managed to live off of 550 to 1,100 calories per day, about 25 to 50% the minimum required to maintain health.

The years after the end of the war was a desperate time for Japanese. Historian John Dower referred to this post-war malaise in his book, Embracing Defeat, as kyodatsu, a Japanese word for the collective depression that fell on the country. After all, when the Emperor got on the radio on August 15, 1945 to announce that the war had ended, they had not only heard the voice of a divine being for the first time, after years of being told of the need to fight to the end, they were suddenly told to stop their resistance, and to continue to live and work towards Japan’s recovery.

The immediate meaning of ‘liberation’ for most Japanese was not political but psychological. Surrender – and, by association, the Allied victory, the American army of occupation itself – liberated them from death. Month after month, they had prepared for the worst; then, abruptly, the tension was broken. In an almost literal sense, they were given back their lives. Shock bordering on stupefaction was a normal response to the emperor’s announcement, usually followed quickly by an overwhelming sense of relief. But that sense of relief all too often proved ephemeral.

Malnutrition poster 1946_Dower

From John Dower’s Embracing Defeat.

On top of all that, the post-war period saw the return of countrymen and women who served in other parts of Asia in the military or as civilians working in Japanese organizations. From October 1, 1945 to December 31, 1946, about 5.1 million repatriated back to Japan, adding to the misery of Japan that already had too few jobs and too little food for those already in the country.

An early first-hand account was written by AP journalist, Russell Brines, in his book, MacArthur’s Japan, who described a Japan unrecognizable today. Here’s how he described the repatriation of Japanese soldiers and civilians from abroad.

Men, women and children – tired and dirty – plodded off the ship, wound past the American sentry and pushed up a hill toward a weather beaten building. They stood like cattle while doctors deloused them, then walked to the railroad station. As they waited for trains, gloomy and apprehensive, commuters eyed them stiffly before hurrying away. Only relatives gave them a smile or a soft word. They soon learned the rest of Japan was too busy – or just unconcerned – to give them much thought to the cycle of fate that had deposited them like rubbish on their nation’s doorstep.

Jammed, filthy trains took them to all parts of the homeland. Some had been away as long as eight years. They returned to blowsy cities, tiny villages or drab farms; to the narrow, contained life they had left for conquest. Many found stony neighbors, silently condemning them for sharing in defeat or for failing to die, as custom decreed. Others encountered resentment from people miserly over food and patched clothing. Some located only ashes where their homes had been and only vagueness when they searched for missing relatives.

The sifting of lives continues, day by day, behind paper-curtained little homes. Men returned to find their “widows” remarried. Some wives had become streetwalkers, through necessity or restlessness. Women had lost some of their obedience and most of their patience. The fabric of prearranged, loveless marriages was too weak in many cases to survive long separation and irritable reconciliation. For the first time, women became complainants in divorce suits; including one whose husband brought back a native wife and two children from Borneo.

Jobs were scarce, money useless and the new life confusing. Those who returned swaggering, found no one willing to cringe before them, as had subject peoples. Those who came back ashamed and penitent found no pity. Only the opportunists profited, the men who had kept their eyes open to all the sharp practices they saw abroad.

 

Tokyo firebombed 1945
Aerial view of Tokyo September 10, 1945

 

On October 10, 1964, Japan welcomed the world to Tokyo, a bustling, clean and modern city.

But only 19 years before, when the Pacific War ended on August 15, 1945, Tokyo was a flattened devastated city. The war had taken its toll on the Japanese.

An estimated 3 million Japanese died during the war in both Japan and he war zones of Asia, including upwards of 800,000 civilians. And while the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were horrific moments at war’s end, much of the devastation in Japan was due to continuous air raids by American bombers. After the American Navy’s victories over Japan’s Imperial Navy in the Mariana and Palau Islands, the American military built airfields on Saipan and Tinian. These islands were some 2,400 kilometers away from Japan, close enough for B-29 bombers to make routine sorties over Japan and return without refueling.

And from November, 1944, the bombing raids over Japan was relentless. And the destruction immense.

  • 66: major cities heavily bombed
  • 40: percentage of all urban areas in Japan destroyed by bombing
  • 100,000: civilian deaths in Tokyo alone

In the powerful documentary, The Fog of War, director Errol Morris interviews Robert McNamara, who was secretary of defense for American presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. During World War II, he was also a captain in the US Army Air Force whose job was to analyze the efficiency and effectiveness of American bombers. Intimately familiar with the incendiary bombing raids on Japan during World War II, commanded by General Curtis LeMay, McNamara describes the results of American bombers in Japan with hard cold facts.

50 square miles of Tokyo were burned. Tokyo was a wooden city so when we dropped these firebombs they just burned it.

In order to win a war should you kill a hundred thousand people in one night, by firebombing or any other way? LeMay’s answer would be clearly ‘yes’. McNamara, do you mean to say that instead of killing a hundred thousand – burning to death a hundred thousand Japanese civilians in that one night, we should have burned to death a lesser number, or none? And then have our soldiers cross the beaches of Tokyo and be slaughtered in the tens of thousands? Is that what you are proposing?

Why was it necessary to drop the nuclear bomb if LeMay was burning up Japan? And he went on from Tokyo to firebomb other cities. 58% of Yokohama – Yokohama is roughly the size of Cleveland – so 58% of Cleveland destroyed. Tokyo is roughly the size of New York. 51% of New York destroyed. 99% of the equivalent of Chattanooga, which was Toyama. 40% of the equivalent of Los Angeles, which was Nagoya.

According to McNamara’s rational mind, this was overkill. And yet, in the end, the desire for the American government to end the war as quickly as possible was the overriding objective.

This was all done before the dropping of the nuclear bomb, which by the way, was dropped by LeMay’s command. Proportionality should be a guideline of war. Killing 50-90% of the people of 67 Japanese cities, and then bombing them with two nuclear bombs, is not proportional in the minds of some people.”

I don’t fault Truman for dropping the nuclear bombs. The US-Japanese war was one of the most brutal wars in all of human history. Kamikaze pilots, suicide – unbelievable. What one could criticize is that the human race prior to that time, and today, has not really grappled with what are the rules of war. Was there a rule that you shouldn’t bomb, shouldn’t kill, burn to death a hundred thousand civilians in a night?

McNamara grappled a bit with the moral dilemma of the bombings of Japan. And perhaps McNamara maintained a lingering sense of guilt over the destruction in Japan.

LeMay said if we lost the war we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals. And I think he’s right! He and I’d say I were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. What makes it immoral if you lose and moral if you win?

 

Virachai Tanasugarn in Yokohama
Virachai Tanasugarn in Yokohama

 

The Indonesians and the North Koreans were in Tokyo. They were only one day away from setting foot in the National Stadium and parading before 70,000 cheering spectators at the opening ceremonies of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics on Saturday, October 10, 1964. But on Friday, October 9, the national teams of those countries, hundreds of athletes, coaches and administrators, abruptly turned around and went home. Many cried as they waited to board the trains away from Tokyo, and their chance at competing at the highest level.

Virachai Tanasugarn was on the Thai national Olympic team, a guard on his country’s basketball team. He was in Tokyo to play in a qualifying tournament with nine other national teams, with the chance to play in the beautiful Kenzo Tange Gymnasium Annex, and the hope of competing in the Olympics. And like the Indonesians and the North Koreans, he did not stay in Tokyo long enough to participate in the Games. But unlike the Indonesians and the North Koreans, he left with a sense of adventure and excitement.

Thai basketball team in Yokohama
National Thai basketball team in Yokohama; Tanasugarn is #13.

From September 25 to October 4, ten teams vied in the qualifying round for four spots, in order to be a part of the 18 national teams to play in the Tokyo Olympics. Tanasugarn was on the Thai team, a spot player on the bench, who was simply excited to be in Japan. Despite starting off well, defeating Indonesia convincingly 85-50, the team proceeded to win only 3 of their 9 matches.

Tanasugarn, like his teammates, did not expect to make the cut. They were there to get experience, like so many of the other athletes from Southeast Asia. This was actually Tanasugarn’s second Olympic qualifier as a basketball player. When he was in Rome with hopes of helping the Thai team make the Olympics, he remembered looking at the spaghetti, cheese and ketchup and having no idea what they were or how to eat them. But when they came to Japan, they were happy to see more familiar food. They walked around Yokohama, went to Kamakura to visit the Big Buddha, and played lots of basketball against much better teams.

Tanasugarn was so confident that the Thai team would not qualify that he had already bought an airplane ticket for California to leave before opening ceremonies. After graduating from Thammasat University, he was encouraged to go to the United States by a cousin who graduated from the University of California Berkley, and was practicing as a medical doctor in California.

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(TOP) Tamarine Tanasugarn, Virachai Tanasugarn, Monica Seles, (BOTTOM) Rose Tanasugarn, the mother of Monica Seles

So unlike the Indonesians and North Koreans, Tanasugarn was excited to be leaving Japan just prior to the start of the Games. At the age of 26, with essentially no English ability, he was embarking on a new life in a new world. He went to a high school in San Francisco that had an adult education program where he learned English, and met his wife to be. He got his JD at the University of West Los Angeles School of Law, but could not find work in the legal field. Eventually, with his wife and mother, he opened up a Thai restaurant in Hollywood named Thai House, which he ran for 8 years.

Through a friend’s introduction, Tanasugarn was able to put his first daughter, Rose, in the Jack Kramer Club, where some of the best tennis talent was being groomed: Tracy Austin, Lindsey Davenport and Pete Sampras. Their coach was Robert Lansdorp, and Rose showed progress as a tennis player. However, after 6 years Rose decided she did not want tennis to be the primary focus in her life, and left competitive play.

While in the United States, Tanasugarn had divorced and re-married, having a daughter with his second wife that they named Tamarine. In 1982, he returned to Bangkok with Tamarine, then just 5-years-old. Tamarine began to focus on her tennis with her father as coach until she was 20, and then proceeded with professional coaches and increasingly competitive tournaments.

Tamarine would go on to become Thailand’s most successful female tennis player ever, reaching the quarter-finals in Wimbledon in 2008 and the Wimbledon doubles semifinals in 2011, climbing as high as #19 in the world, and competing in four Olympics, from 1996 to 2008.

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The writer and Virachai Tanasugarn at Rama Garden Hotel

Her father, Virachai, utilizing all the wisdom and insight he learned from observing Lansdorp and some of the best up-and-coming talent in the world at the Jack Kramer School in the 1970s, and watching first hand his daughter Tamarine rise to world-class levels, embarked on a career of tennis coach. At the Rama Gardens Hotel in Bangkok, he continues to coach tennis at the age of 80.

Little did he know in Tokyo what future lay before him as he embarked the Pan Am flight for America in October, 1964.

He looks at the tennis courts with pride, knowing that his daughter Tamarine, and the success she had, helped build the foundation for tennis in Thailand today.

Four Walls at IFSC Tournament

Preparing for the Tokyo Olympics can make you climb the walls.

For Akiyo Noguchi, it’s been well worth it. The 29-year-old professional rock climber won the IFSC Climbing Worldcup in the discipline of bouldering on Sunday, June 3, 2018 in front of a energetic crowd at Esforta Arena in Hachioji, Tokyo.

Akiyo Noguchi wins

Competing for well over a decade, Noguchi has a chance to compete in sports climbing at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, a sport that was officially selected only two years ago in 2016.

Bouldering consists of climbs up a series of four walls, each with different designs of shapes that offer the slightest of hand and foot holds. The competitors are kept in an isolation room without access to their smartphones, and brought out to examine the designs of the walls for a couple of minutes before they are shuttled back into the isolation room.

Studying the wall

Then they are brought out in groups (as in the qualification rounds) or individually (as in the finals), and have 4 minutes to climb a wall, and touch a specified target hold at the top of the wall. Watching the video will make this easier to understand.

 

When sports climbing debuts, it will be a combined event, with men and women competing in three events – lead climbing, speed climbing and bouldering – the scores of each event tallied together to produce the winners.

Sports climbing is becoming hugely popular in Japan – neighborhood businesses with climbing walls are sprouting up all over Japan. In fact, Esforta was filled with kids for the IFSC Climbing Worldcup cheering on some of the best bouldering talent in the world from Japan.

Sports Climbing at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics may be a ton of fun.

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The Olympians is three years old! Thank you all for your support!

I was happy to attend the Olympics for the first time at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. And what an amazing time I had. I felt like a newspaper reporter again, and generated close to 30 articles while I was there from February 8 to 18. I hope you like these select articles from 2018.

USA House 24_Michelle Kwan
Michelle Kwan at USA House.

North and South Korean leaders are talking. The momentum today is in part due to the opportunity the PyeongChang Olympics presented to the Koreans. Fingers are crossed for future talks of peace.

Chance Meeting with the North Korean Cheering Squad
Chance meeting with the North Korean Cheering Squad at the end of the Opening Ceremonies

And of course, it’s all about the athletes.

Savchenko and Massot 4
Massot and Savchenko in their amazing long skate to win gold