My father was a member of the NBC News Team that covered the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He’s far left, and that’s Rafer Johnson, Rome decathlete champion, seated, also a member of the news crew. The crew are wearing protective masks, being cheeky. They probably saw a lot of Japanese wearing these masks in and around town.
In modern-day Tokyo, men and women routinely wear masks during hay fever season to avoid the pollen, or during the fall and winter months to avoid giving others their colds. But I now realize that in 1964, the reason for wearing the masks was different – the air back then was filthy. Routinely in these crisp winter days, we have perfect views of Mt Fuji. Back then you couldn’t see it for the pollution. In the 1960s, Tokyo was a year-round cloud of dust. Here’s how writer, Robert Whiting described it in the Japan Times: “Tokyoites dwelled under a constant cloud of noise, dust and pollution as the city struggled to rebuild itself from the wreckage of the American B-29 Superfortress bombings.”
The dust, the noise, the smells, the ever-changing skyline and the disorientation with unprecedented change – for many, the transformation of Tokyo was overwhelming. What took the West a couple of generations to do – moving from agriculture to manufacturing – Japan was trying to do much faster. While the pace of change was exciting to many, giving them hope after post-war desperation, the 1960s was also a period of confusion and alienation for those coping with life in the most crowded city in the world.
I took an EdX MOOC course called Visualizing Postwar Tokyo under Professor Shunya Yoshimi of The University of Tokyo in which he highlighted the stress people in Tokyo were under due to this change. He shared the opening minutes of this NHK documentary called “Tokyo”, by director Naoya Yoshida, which shows the crowds, the noise, the traffic and the construction through the eyes of a woman whose father was killed in the Tokyo firebombings and mother who ran away from home.
As the woman says in the documentary, “Tokyo, unplanned and full of constructions sites, is no place for a human being to live. Only a robot with no sense could live in this rough, coarse, harsh and dusty city that doesn’t have any blue skies. Many people complain like this. But I disagree. I think this city is just desperately hanging along, just like me.”
As Professor Yoshimi said, “the woman in this film is a symbol of the isolation in the big cities.”
But again, rest assured. Tokyo is one of the biggest cities in the world, and today, is arguably, the cleanest.