We followed the story of the Diamond Princess as if we were binge watching a Stephen King adaptation on Netflix – with fascination and fear.
The two-week quarantine of the 3,711 passengers and crew on the British grand-class cruise ship docked at Yokohama harbor was a constant reminder to the Japanese of how close the coronavirus outbreak has come to Japanese shores. The death of two elderly passengers on board the Diamond Princess on February 20 at the end of the quarantine intensified the concern over the Japanese government’s decision to release hundreds of passengers who tested negative for the virus.
Yashiro Mori, former Japan prime minister and current president of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games pointed at the elephant in the room and said:
I would like to make it clear again that we are not considering a cancellation or postponement of the games. Let me make that clear.
That was February 13, just before the cases of coronavirus began to crisscross the country.
Dr. Hitoshi Oshitani, a Japanese virologist, said on February 19 that the Olympics could not take place today.
“I’m not sure [of] the situation in Japan at the end of July,” he said at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan on Wednesday, as per The Associated Press. “We need to find the best way to have a safe Olympics. Right now we don’t have an effective strategy, and I think it may be difficult to have the Olympics [now]. But by the end of July we may be in a different situation.”
Or we may not be.
We have no cure for coronavirus right now. We understand so little about the latest virus outbreak. And in the absence of clear facts, what often fills the void is doubt, speculation and fear.
Am I safe? Will a cure be found in time? Will the virus burn out as the temperature climbs?
Will the Olympics be cancelled, its sunk cost like an albatross around the necks of the country, the IOC and the massive number of organizations and businesses that have invested in these Games?
Or will the Olympics rise like a Phoenix, overcoming crisis, sending our spirits aloft?
Note: This article was written on February 22, in the midst of daily changes and updates regarding the coronavirus in Japan.
For all of us who fly, it’s a sinking feeling when you arrive in a foreign land and your luggage hasn’t arrived with you. Imagine if you’re an Olympic athlete, and you land without your official uniform, training gear, and other personal belongings. “I was numb with distress,” said Diana Yorgova, a long jumper from Bulgaria. Fortunately, among the Japanese welcoming the Olympians at Haneda Airport were two legendary athletes, Mikio Oda, Japan’s first ever gold medalist, who won the triple jump competition at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, and Chuhei Nambu, who also took gold in the triple jump at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.
Nambu came up to Yorgova to comfort her, and told her that it would be OK, that in fact, he too had landed in Los Angeles without his luggage, and had make his first jump barefoot! She understood. But she was still unsettled. That feeling disappeared the next day.
After a sleepless night of worry and jet lag, the new day offered me a pleasant surprise: a huge parcel addressed to me containing a brand new outfit, absolutely my size from spikes and runners to training suit and, moreover, amazingly, a T-shirt with the national state emblem embroidered on it. I was stunned, deeply touched and full of admiration. I wanted to fly with joy because I knew now I was going to participate! In my thoughts I sent thousands of thanks to those Japanese who brought back my self-confidence and dignity and whom I not only didn’t even know but had unwittingly disturbed.
Yorgova would place a respectable sixth in the women’s long jump competition, her medal to come later with a second-placed finish at the 1972 Munich Games. To celebrate her strong performance in her first Olympics, Yorgova and her fiancé, Bulgarian gymnast Nikola Prodanov decided to do some very special shopping: wedding rings. They planned to hold their big day after their graduation from Sofia University on Prodanov’s birthday in May of 1965.
That same day, the couple went to visit the Bulgarian ambassador, Christo Zdravchev. When the ambassador saw the rings, he brought out a bottle of Bulgarian wine and toasted to the couple’s happy future. But then, despite the diplomatic nature of the ambassador’s job, he apparently let the cat out of the bag by informing members of the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee, who in turn implored the ambassador to request Prodanov and Yorgova to change their plans. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, they enthused, for the young Bulgarian couple to hold their wedding in Japan, in the Olympic Village, during the Olympic Games?
The next day, the ambassador sheepishly approached Prodanov and Yorgova with the surprising request.
“Thus our fairy tale began,” said Yorgova. “I can’t forget the attention and care with which the Japanese ladies of the beauty parlor in the Olympic Village were preparing me for the ceremony. There, for the first time in my life, I had my hair dressed and my nails polished by professionals, who also massaged my scalp and even my arms. When I saw and put on the most beautiful dress of white lace and Nikola put on the first tuxedo in his life we felt like the prince and princess of a fairy tale.”
It was October 23rd, 1964, the day before the closing ceremony. Prodanov and Yorgova were nervous and filled with mixed feelings as this impromptu wedding meant that instead of sharing the moment with families and friends in Bulgaria, they were sharing it with diplomats, administrators and athletes, as well as press from around the world.
With the civil ceremony completed at the Bulgarian Embassy, the couple then embarked on what can only be described as a most original wedding: Western Olympic Shinto.
Japanese who choose a traditional wedding take their vows before a Shinto priest. But this was something more than just a traditional wedding. Held at the Yoyogi Olympic Village International Club, Prodanov in a black morning coat and Yorgova dressed in a white lace gown and veil entered in the glare of television lights and hundreds of flashing cameras, as they came to take their places in front of the presiding priest.
The traditional Shinto arrangements of sake bottles and rice, along with photos of the Olympic cauldron and the ever-present Olympic rings forming their wedding backdrop, were reminders that they were a long way from home in Bulgaria. An interpreter stood by to explain some of the more confusing aspects of the ritual. In Yorgova’s words:
We made our oath of allegiance to the Olympic Flag and a huge poster of the Olympic Flame in the presence of outstanding athletes from all over the world, official guests and journalists. To a background of gentle Shinto music we exchanged our rings, drank three sips of sake, and cut the most magical cake of our lives. At the end, we all danced Bulgarian traditional dances “horo” and “ruchenitsa.”
If one event symbolized the Olympics’ singularly international character, this may have been it.
After the ceremony, the couple were whisked away to the brand-new bullet train to enjoy a honeymoon evening in Kyoto and return to Tokyo the next morning to participate in the closing ceremonies in the afternoon.
Fifty-three years later, Yorgova recalled that magical moment with gratefulness. “As parents and grandparents of four grandchildren, we value the great efforts of the organizers more than ever before, and we apologize most heartedly for the extra anxiety, inconvenience and problems we caused to organize our wedding on such short notice,” she said. “We lived a moment we will never forget, thanks to the kind and gentle people of Japan, so full of goodwill.”
The design of the tickets for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympics were released, and have been put on display. You can see them on the first floor of the Nihonbashi Mitsui Tower in Tokyo for free until January 29.
There are 59 different ticket designs for the Olympics and another 25 for Paralympic events. If you are fortunate enough to have bought a ticket, deliveries will start in May.
According to Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the design is based on two concepts:
The three rectangular shapes that make up the Tokyo2020 emblems, and
Kasane no irome, which is the color scheme used in the creation of fabrics used for kimono during the Japanese Heian Period (794-1185).
Japan is an orderly place, run by officials and managers who tend to be risk averse. That’s why things work so efficiently and effectively here.
Thus, when Tokyo2020 organizers created an Artist Selection Committee to create official posters for the lead up to the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, I would have expected them to be traditional in their outlook.
After all, the posters that have been in the public eye for the past few years have been those of the Olympic and Paralympic logos – as conservative as you can be.
But Tokyo2020 is not your grandparent’s Tokyo1964. The committee commissioned19 artists to create posters, and I imagine that the brief they were given was very liberal. Of the 20 official posters that were officially revealed in early January, only 4 at most would be identified as representing the Olympics and Paralympics, either because the official logos are referenced, or Tokyo 2020 is explicitly displayed. The other 16 could be posters for anything.
But that’s OK. They are a wide variety of styles and interpretations of what the Olympics and Paralympics represent, which is in line with the hopes of Masayoshi Aoyagi, the chairman of the artist selection committee, who said in this article that the committee looked for a diversity of values and aesthetic sense to reflect this era of diversity, and so they selected photographers, manga artists, graphic designers. He said that you can see the very rich diversity of the art scene, as well as the incredible individuality and creativity of these artists.
HARMONIZED CHEQUERED EMBLEM STUDY FOR TOKYO 2020 OLYMPIC/PARALYMPIC GAMES, by Asao Tokolo
Tokolo was selected to design the logos for Tokyo 2020 in April, 2016, and it is his design that has been the object of the posters promoting the Olympics. For this larger poster project, Tokolo reimagined his design for two separate Olympic and Paralympic posters, creating patterns that to me, reflect celestial bodies or traditional Japanese fabrics. Tokolo said that “…these designs, ‘individual’ rectangles form ‘groups’ under ‘rules.’ The designs were created partly on the computer, partly by hand. My aim was to create a ‘relay baton’ to be passed on from 2020 to future generations. I created the designs as a tribute to the Tokyo 1964 designers, who relied on compasses and rulers for their creations, and by imagining what mediums would be employed by designers of the future.”
Now it’s your turn! by Naoki Urasawa and The Sky above the Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa by Hirohiko Araki
Both Urasawa and Araki are acclaimed artists of manga, the Japanese style of comic book drawing. Urasawa of Tokyo, whose manga works include best-selling titles as “Yawara!” and “MONSTER,” created a comic page that shows an athlete getting ready, with the anticipatory words “tsuzuku,” at the bottom, which means “to be continued.” Araki, a Miyagi artist who is known for his comic series, “Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure,” riffed on a very popular Japanese image – Hokusai’s “Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa. “I imagined the gods of sports descending on Japan from a sky filled with clouds resembling turbulent waves.
FLY HIGH by Shoko Kanazawa and Open by Koji Kakinuma
Two calligraphers were invited to create posters for Tokyo2020. Kanazawa selected the first character in her first name “sho,” to boldly represent her wish that “everybody supporting the Olympic Games, will soar high above Tokyo to reach people the world over.” The character “sho” means “to fly high.” Kakinuma selected the characther “開,” which means “open.” He said “I imagined Olympic and Paralympic athletes working toward new height every day, and told myself, ‘Open, open, open!’ as I applied brush to paper until I felt myself to be completely ‘open.'”
Flow line, by Daijiro Ohara
Ohara is an artist from Kanagawa, Japan who imagined the route of the Olympic flame from Athens to Tokyo as a jumbled set of intersecting lines and loops, which reflects the complexity of connectivity. “What could possibly link an individual with an event in which world-class athletes compete?” asked Ohara. “It is not easy to grasp what does connect a huge-scale event with an individual – such connections can be erratic, or elusive.”
Higher than the Rainbow by Mika Ninagawa, and Ludus, by Viviane Sassen
Ninagawa is a photographer and filmmaker who is reflecting the limitless potential of para-athletes. Of this image of Renshi Chokai, she said “para-athletes are cool. This simple message is what this picture is about.” Sassen, a photographer, from Amsterdam, said she wanted to “depict the JOY of PLAY,” as well as cultural diversity and the variety of nationalities who all come together to participate in the Olympic Games.”
Wild Things – Hachilympic, by Tomoko Konoike
The most arresting poster to me was this “wild thing,” chasing a bee (“hachi” in Japanese). Perhaps Konoike, an artist from Akita, was channeling Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things. She said that “as animals, each human being grasps the world with totally different perceptions. We see the world through our own unwelts. None are the same. No words are identical. No light is identical. If the Olympic Games prepare themselves for that and address it honestly, then in time, a new ecosystem, filled with the senses, for a small organism, will begin to function.”
While the “rat” in English tends to have negative connotations, in terms of the Chinese zodiac, the rat is seen in a very positive light.
In Chinese culture, the rat is energetic, alert, flexible, witty and full of life. The rat, because of it’s reproductive prowess, is a symbol of wealth.
As the Chinese zodiac runs on 12-year cycles, and the Olympics run on 4-year cycles, there have been a large number of Olympiads, both summer and winter, held in the Year of the Rat.
Year of the Rat
You can see a few selection trends via the above table. Initially, the Olympics were highly European-centric, with a shift to North America towards the end of the 20th century. The 21st century has seen a shift towards Asia, including three Olympiads in a row held in Asia (2018 – PyeongChang, 2020 – Tokyo, and 2022 – Beijing).
The 1972 Sapporo Olympics, only 8 years after Japan’s triumphant hosting of the Summer Olympics in 1964, were also a success. Not only did Japan win its first gold medals in a Winter Olympiad, it is said that the Sapporo Games turned a profit. The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were considered the first Olympiad to make money as well.
So while the Olympics in general are not profit-making events, the Year of the Rat and its aura of prosperity may make a difference in the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics. By many measures, Tokyo2020 is already a success.
So if you smell a rat this year, that may be a good thing.
There are a little more than 200 days to go before the Opening Ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. There’s always noise before an Olympic Games, as there’s always excitement. I believe Tokyo 2020 will be an incredible Summer Olympic Games. I hope you can make it to Tokyo to see for yourself.
As they say in America, three strikes and you’re out.
In the latest round of the lottery for Tokyo 2020 Olympic tickets for residents in Japan, there were 23 million requests for tickets….chasing 1 million tickets. A 1 in 23 chance doesn’t sound horrible, but doesn’t sound likely either.
My chance to win tickets to opening and closing ceremonies disappeared at 8 am yesterday morning when the automated email hit my inbox.
The demand for tickets was incredibly high, and unfortunately, you were not awarded any of the tickets you requested in the lottery.
This is the third time I “failed” (Tokyo 2020’s word – see picture) to win tickets.
Next summer’s Olympics have generated unprecedented demand. Organizers said 3.57 million tickets had been awarded to Japan residents in previous lotteries. Organizers confirmed for the first time the demand was almost 20 times over supply — about 60 million tickets requested.
Demand for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics is also very high. According to reports, there were 3 million requests for tickets at the paralympic lottery a couple of months ago, which is three times the demand of the popular 2012 London Paralympics.
The Japanese were buying televisions, this magical device that brought the world into their homes. And with the Tokyo Olympics arriving in October, 1964, sales for color television were soaring like their pride in hosting the Olympics.
The Tokyo Games had a massive impact on the psyche of the Japanese – no event in the history of Japan was viewed as much by as many people. Reports of television ratings in Japan vary wildly depending on the source. One source explains that over 75 million people watched some part of the Olympics over the two-week period, for a rating of 97.3%. That’s amazing since the population in Japan at the time was about 100 million.
Another source explains that three of the four highest rated programs in Japan in 1964 were related to the Olympics:
15th NHK Red and White Song Battle (NHK General, December 31) 72.0%
Tokyo Olympic and Volleyball Women’s Final “Japan vs Soviet Union” (NHK General, October 23) 66.8%
Tokyo Olympics Closing Ceremony (NHK General, October 24, 16: 52-18: 20) 63.2%
Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony (NHK General, October 10 13: 43-15: 20) 61.2%
But I suspect this list from Wikipedia is misleading as it focuses on ratings for one channel. The number one program, the annual new year’s eve programming (Red and White Song Battle) was broadcast only on NHK. But the Tokyo Olympics, on the whole, was broadcasted on multiple channels, sometimes up to five channels covering the same event. That was the case for the Opening and Closing ceremonies, as well as the highest rated event during the Olympics – the women’s volleyball final – when the Japanese defeated the Soviet Union to win gold.
One can say, with little exaggeration, that nearly everyone in Japan was watching that match.
Think about that – when was the last time an entire nation’s eyes were watching the same exact thing, united in their attention and feelings? In recent years, I can think of only moments of disaster and distress: 9.11 in the US or 3.11 in Japan.
In terms of uplifting moments, never was Japan more united, or prouder, than at 9 pm on October 23, 1964, when the final point sealed the victory for the Witches of the Orient, as the women’s basketball team was affectionately called.
I must admit. I believe I felt a bit of that unity and pride 55 years later, in September and October 2019. The Rugby World Cup is currently being held for the first time in Asia, and the host country, Japan has the only Asian representative in the tournament.
Japan kicked off the tournament on September 20, 2019, defeating Russia 30-10. The television rating was 18.3%, attracting a peak of 26 million viewers. On September 28, Japan pulled off an upset, upending Ireland 19-12, igniting celebrations across the country, and sending ratings higher with 29.5 million viewers. As excitement and expectations noticeably grew among casual and non-rugby fans, viewers of the Japan-Samoa match on October 5 climbed to 47 million.
With three wins in hand during the tournament pool plan, a Japan victory against Scotland would send Japan into the Top 8 for the first time. Nervous but hopeful, over 54 million people were tuned into to watch, attracting a peak rating of 53.7% at the end of the match, when Japan realized their dream of advancement into the elimination round.
Alas, the Brave Blossoms could not survive the South African python that squeezed the life out of the Japanese ruggers. Ratings during the course of the match suffered as viewers realized that the impossible dream was indeed just a dream.
But the dream is the thing. Japan was living a dream vicariously through the incredible energy and surprising skill of the Brave Blossoms – these upstarts turned world beaters.
Is the 2019 Rugby World Cup a sign of things to come? Will the 2020 Tokyo Olympics raise expectations of triumph and pride? Will Japanese heroes emerge to capture the imagination of children and adults across the nation? Will the Olympics unite Japan in a way that exceeds the unity inspired by the Japanese ruggers?
There is little doubt in my mind – the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will bring the nation together.
At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the kayakers and canoeists landed at Haneda Airport like most other Olympians, but then were whisked off to Sagamihara, about sixty kilometers west of Tokyo. The competitions for the canoeists and kayakers were to be held at Lake Sagami, a man-made reservoir in an idyllic setting developed for tourists.
To Andras Toro, it was dreamlike:
Lake Sagami was a magical place with all the oriental beauty we had only seen before in magazines…the morning mist that rose along the shoreline was beautifully surreal.
It was the perfect setting for Cold War intrigue.
Since the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Toro and his friends in the Honved Canoe Club in Budapest had given serious thought to defecting from their country, as long as it was under the hammer (and sickle) of the Soviet Union. In fact, many of his friends did indeed defect, taking advantage of their participation at the 1956 Melbourne Games.
But Toro didn’t go to Melbourne. And his bronze medal finish at the 1960 Rome Olympics only fanned the flames of his desire to win in Tokyo. Competing in the individual 1,000-meter event, Toro had his sights set on the gold. But he also smelled an opportunity—that if he did not win a medal, he would seriously consider defecting to the West.
Just saying that you want to defect, however, doesn’t make it happen. There is no defector’s manual. Who do you contact? What country would take you? How do you avoid the ears and eyes of your country’s minders? Toro spoke almost no English. Who would he even start this conversation with?
And yet, when you want something, as Paulo Coelho famously put it in his novel, The Alchemist, “all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
Off the foggy banks of Lake Sagami, the universe began to conspire for Andras Toro.
In the tiny community of Olympic canoeists and kayakers emerged quite unexpectedly a friend of Toro’s, Andor Elbert. Friends since their teenage years in the Honved Canoe Club in Budapest, Elbert had defected to Canada eight years prior, and was representing Canada at the 1964 Olympics. Toro, shielded behind his Hungarian minders, was of course never informed that a defector had made the Olympic squad on another nation’s team.
Then an American kayaker named Bill Smoke entered the picture. He was at Lake Sagami to compete for the US Olympic squad, but he was also looking for talent. Smoke lived in Michigan, famous for its lakes and love of boating of all kinds, and he hoped to find someone who could build canoes and kayaks so that he could start a business back home.
Smoke walked over to the Canadian dorms looking for someone who spoke English and happened to have that conversation with Elbert. Smoke wondered if Elbert knew anyone in Canada who might be willing to help him out. As a matter of fact, Elbert did know someone, but he wasn’t from Canada.
Elbert told Smoke that his friend Toro was not only good at designing and building boats, he was also hoping to defect from Hungary. Smoke in turn talked with US teammate and then-girlfriend, Marcia Jones, who was in Japan also competing in individual canoeing. She turned out to be a key connection, as her mother was Mary Francis, an attorney, one of two women to graduate from the University of Michigan Law School in 1929. She was also sympathetic to people who had to leave their home countries.
Jones said that when she was ten, they had a DP, or displaced person, couple from Latvia stay with them. “The government brought them over here,” she said. “My mother sponsored them. They lived at our place. They went to our schools. She wanted to help them out. She was a very generous person and we could afford to help them.”
When Jones told her mother about Toro, Mary Francis got to work, contacting the US Embassy in Tokyo to seek their help. According to Smoke, who eventually married Jones, his future mother-in-law was not someone you could say no to easily. Francis was able to set up a meeting for Toro at the Embassy.
So very suddenly, all of the pieces fell into place. Toro was ready to defect, resigned to most likely never seeing his family and home country ever again, but with hopes of starting anew in a new land. All that remained, strangely enough, was for him to lose.
In 1959, when Tokyo was awarded the XVIII Olympiad by the IOC, Seiko’s President, Shoji Hattori, was determined to make Seiko the official timer of the Olympic Games. In 1960, he sent a telegram to one of his watch design section managers, Saburo Inoue, with instructions that would forever change the fate of the Japanese watch company—”Intend to handle official timing duties. Go to Rome Olympics in August and observe timing procedures.”
Inoue was deeply skeptical of the idea, and for good reason. “I’d never seen timing devices for the Olympics,” he said. “I didn’t know how they used their stopwatches, or what types they would need. We couldn’t do computer simulations, so we had to work out every single thing by trial and error.”
But again, as explained in the 2012 The Daily Telegraph article, ignorance proved to be bliss.
In those days, it was the prerogative of the local organizing committee to select the company that would supply the timers, and it was likely they would choose the tried-and-true Swiss watchmakers—Omega or Longines. Up till then, they were the only firms trusted with ensuring accurate times in Olympic competition.
In contrast, Seiko’s experience in building timers specifically for sports was zero. Such was the confidence of Hattori and Japan at the time—that anything was possible if they tried.
Without assurance of a contract for the Olympics, Hattori asked his three group companies to work on Olympic-related projects: large clocks, stopwatches, crystal chronometers, and a new idea, a device that could print the times of competitors right after the end of a race. They were called printing timers, and this revolutionized the way results of competitions were determined.
In only two years, Seiko was producing sports stopwatches that passed the standards of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Technical Committee. In a track and field competition in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, the IAAF was witness to a successful test, as the Japanese-made stopwatches proved accurate and reliable.
Seiko had already successfully developed quartz technology for small watches, and used this crystal technology for long distance races, like the marathon among others. Developing this quartz technology was key to developing Seiko wristwatches of the future that would stay accurate over longer periods of time.
More significantly, perhaps for the athletes, was Seiko’s development of the printing timer, a machine that would electronically time and print the results of an event, up to 1/100 of a second for track events.
This machine had a significant impact on a high-visibility competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics—the women’s 80-meter hurdles final.
On October 19, at the National Stadium, Karin Balzer of Germany and Teresa Cieply of Poland settled into their starting blocks. When the pistol shot rang, an electric signal was sent via wire to a printing timer, as well as a signal to a camera that would take special photo finish pictures, and a signal to a large spectator clock that set the second-hand in motion.
In a stunning finish, Balzer, Cieply, and Australian Pam Kilborn hit the tape seemingly in a dead heat, all three timed by officials at 10.5 seconds. Despite numerous officials with hand stopwatches that measured in tenths of seconds, officials could not determine a winner.
The officials preferred not to hand out three gold medals, and fortunately, had a fallback plan—the latest timing technology from Japan.
When the runners arrived at the goal, a picture was taken by a slit camera, manufactured by Japan Photo Finish Co. Ltd. After thirty seconds, the image’s negative was transmitted as a reflected image, and converted in three minutes to a positive print. The information from Seiko’s printing timer was integrated into an image noting times in hundredths of seconds. The photo would show not only the athletes, but time, and thus the order in which they finished.
Thanks to the printing timer, it was revealed that Balzer completed the race in 10.54 seconds, 0.01 seconds ahead of Cieply, who was also only 0.01 seconds ahead of Kilborn. While the IAAF officially recognized times to the tenth of a second, in this case, they accepted the recorded electronic time to the hundredth.
The printing timer contributed mightily to the evolution of timed sports, and led to the creation of the famed, global printing company—EPSON—its name a simple mash-up of the words “son of electronic printer.”