American Gymnast Makoto Sakamoto and Memories of Home: Post-War Shinjuku

Shinjuku After the War
Shinjuku right after World War II


“I was born in Shinjuku, Tokyo, 1947. It was a bombed out city, and Shinjuku was a rowdy part of the city – the black market area, an area where prostitutes walked,” recollected gymnast, Makoto Sakamoto. “I remember returnee soldiers with no legs, stumps, playing the accordion, with a jar for money.”

You can see a bit of what it was like in Tokyo in this British Pathe stock film of Tokyo in 1946 – Japanese getting on with their daily lives amidst the rubble.

Sakamoto’s father moved the family to California in 1955, but in those seven years young Makoto lived in Tokyo, his home country underwent a complete overhaul. He grew up under the Allied occupation of Japan, led by General Douglas MacArthur. He could see cottage industries, roads, houses, buildings sprout up around him. He may not have realized it, but the near-dead Japanese economy began to grow at a tremendous pace as the pulse of normalcy and optimism became the steady beat of Japanese society.

He remembers watching his brothers in foot races, encouraging him to eat cheese so that he would have the power to run with them. He remembers getting cleaned up in the public baths with his mother. And he recalls their home in Shinjuku, before they moved out to a better part of Tokyo, was very near the Musashino-kan, a movie theater in that still exists in the heart of Shinjuku. The business of movie theaters were booming in Japan, and was a reflection of a growing consumer class, as well as a need to escape the stress of re-building their homes and a nation.

Years later, Sakamoto would return to Tokyo as an American citizen to compete in the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. He came back to a gleaming, modern city. The American occupation had ended in 1952. The Korean War had kickstarted the Japanese post-war economy as the American military procured a lot of materials and goods from Japan for its war effort in Korea. By the time 1964 Olympics rolled around, Japan was the pleasant surprise of the East, a land of industry, modernity and quiet cool and exoticism.

Sakamoto-khun arrives in japan
17-Year-old Makoto Sakamoto returns to Japan representing the US Men’s Gymnastics team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

Here is more British Pathe footage of Tokyo in the 1950s. It shows a rising middle class, businessmen at a restaurant, women working at a rubber boots manufacturer, children doing their morning exercises on the school grounds, as well as men and women in suits and dresses walking along wide sidewalks.

Sakamoto attended school in Los Angeles where he would emerge as America’s top gymnast. At the Tokyo Games, he finished 20th overall, best on the US team, but in no position to muscle past the great competitors from Japan, Russia and Germany. He would continue to be America’s best gymnast through 1972, and would go on to be assistant coach to the US men’s gymnastics team that finally won gold in 1984.

But in 1964, Sakamoto was back home, competing only 2 kilometers from where he was born. “I remember walking down a cobblestone road, going to the public bath with my mother,” Sakamoto told me when reminiscing about his childhood. “My mom would look up and say, ‘there are a lot of stars tonight. It will be a beautiful day tomorrow.’”