The Olympic Village in Washington Heights: Athletes Get a Taste of Americana in Tokyo

Rock and rollers in Harajuku in 1986
Rock and rollers in Harajuku in 1986

The Olympic Village in Tokyo in 1964 was very popular. The athletes appreciated the well-manicured greenery, the ample and delicious food, the abundance of bicycles that got them around, and the light-touch security. It felt truly like a village.

Before the Pacific War, the area of the Olympic Village was a Japanese military field, where soldiers would practice and conduct parades. The US military converted the area into housing for American military families during the post-war occupation, and they called the area Washington Heights.

Washington Heights
Washington Heights

The inside of these homes, furnished with American white goods and furniture for the convenience of the American families, were a revelation to the Japanese. Emerging out of a devastated industrial and urban wasteland, the typical Japanese would look at these homes with their huge refrigerators, spacious living rooms, and modern look as a vision of a future Japan.

And what happens when you have a concentration of thousands of Americans in the middle of a highly congested Japanese metropolitan area? You get Americanization. Not far from the Washington Heights area is Omotesando, the road currently famous for being the Champs d’Elysee of Tokyo, and the entry way to Harajuku, a global mecca today for fashion-conscious youth. In its hey day, you could find hundreds of rock and rollers dancing in the street, young men and women who dressed up in fifties sock-hop fashion, playing rockabilly and Elvis.

The plans for the Olympic Village were originally planned for the US Forces Camp Drake in Asaka, Saitama. But the US government wanted the grounds returned to its original form within 60 days after the Olympic Games. Additionally, the US government could withdraw these accommodations in the case of an emergency.

Eventually, the Japanese and US governments agreed to locate the Olympic Village in the area known as Washington Heights in Tokyo, with the requirement that the Japanese government assume the cost of creating housing in other US military bases similar to those already existing at Washington Heights. In exchange, the US government would return that land to Japan. And that is what happened, the land handed over to Japan in December of 1963.

For a look at life in Tokyo in the 1960s, watch this video from the Tokyo University online course, Visualizing Postwar Tokyo.