shinkansen_1October1964

We waited on the platform for the arrival of the Shinkansen Nozomi #130 to pull in, and for the cleaning crew to do their magic. The train, as scheduled, pulled in at 16:53. The doors opened, the passengers walked out, and the 56 members of the Central JR Tokaido-sen cleaning crew, clad in pink, streamed into the 16-car bullet train. The train was to depart at 17:10, 17 minutes after arrival, but they had to complete the clean up in 12 minutes.

Nozomi Shikansen_Cleaning crew

First they had to forcefully rotate the sets of seats so that they faced the other direction, as the train was now going to head West. Next they had to gather the newspapers and drink cans, sweep up the floor, replace the headrest coverings, check the overhead racks for items left behind, and check the seats for moisture (ie: spilled drinks, excessive sweat, who knows what). On the day I was there, a seat actually had to be replaced as it was too damp.

And then, they’re done and out of the train. a few moments later, after the head of the cleaning crew gives the go ahead, the passengers for Western Japan are allowed on board the renamed Nozomi #53, bound for Hakata. 12 minutes. Done.

On October 1, 1964, 9 days before the beginning of the Tokyo Olympics, Japan commenced operations of the fastest train in the world, The Shinkansen, also known as The Bullet Train. As much as the Olympics did, the Shinkansen symbolized Japan’s impressive recovery from bombed-out and destroyed to world class.

In 1964, the Shinkansen ran at a top speed of 210 km per hour and made it from Tokyo to Osaka in four hours. Today, the top speed is now

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I am American, but of Japanese ancestry, so when I’m in Japan, I don’t get the “gai-jin” treatment – gawked at, overly praised for rudimentary Japanese, etc.

When Syd Hoare moved from England to Japan to train in judo in the early 1960s, he found the “constant attention” irritating. As he related in his book, A Slow Boat to Yokohama, “Wherever I went I was stared at, which was not that surprising since gaijin were bigger on average, with different color of hair, eyes, and skin.”

Hoare went on to tell this strange-but-true phenomenon where certain Japanese are so un-used to dealing with foreigners that they can’t quite rationalize one who speaks Japanese. Even though Hoare describes an incident from the early 1960s, as you can see in the above video, this brain cramping still occurs with certain Japanese. Both the story below and the video above are hysterical.

One time, when I was in Kyoto, an old shortsighted couple came up to me. The man asked me in Japanese where the Kiyomizu Temple was. Just as he neared the end of his question, his wife noticed that I was a foreigner and began badgering him. ‘Gaikoku no kata desu yo’. (‘He is a foreigner.’) By that time I had told him in Japanese exactly where the temple was. He was trapped between the information I had given him and the warning from his wife. The problem was that one part of his brain was telling him that he did not speak English, while the other half was telling him that gaijin cannot speak Japanese. I repeated the directions and walked on.

katahajime_180x210Training in the martial arts can be brutal. Olympian Syd Hoare felt this keenly when he moved from his home country of England to Japan to study judo with the very best. Wrenched knees, broken noses, dislocated shoulders, ripped-off toe nails – doesn’t matter. Stay calm, and carry on.

One of the more notorious training routines of judo (back in the day) was to purposely strangle someone to unconsciousness. This was partly done to teach the judoka how to revive the unconscious. It was also done to educate (to not get oneself in a position to be strangled, I suppose).

Hoare-Syd-A-slow-boat-to-Yokohama-a-Judo-odyssey1Hoare, who represented Great Britain at the 1964 Summer Games, wrote in his wonderful book, “A Slow Boat to Yokohama”, how his training in England included the “kata-hajime” strangle technique. Here is a somewhat chilling description.

“Then it was my turn to strangle my partner out but he was one of the fighters. Even as I was putting my hands in place for the kata-hajime strangle, he tensed his neck, preventing me from taking the full position. So, I softly started again, and then locked it on hard and quickly. Immediately he grabbed my hands and tried to tear them away from his throat, but the strangle was on securely. He began to flail around gagging and choking. At one point he arched violently

 From the film,

From the film, “Walk, Don’t Run”, filmed on location during the Tokyo Olympics

Today, the taxi driver in Tokyo, and Japan for that matter, is polite, knowledgeable, chatty and silent as you wish, and above all else, safe. As visitors realize their first time in Tokyo, you pay for this.

But in 1964, apparently, taxi drivers had a public relations issue. Sports Illustrated described taxis in Japan in their October 19, 1964 issue as “those four-wheeled hearses operated by frustrated Kamikaze pilots”.

Remember, the Tokyo Summer Games were held only 23 years after Pearl Harbor, so I wonder how much emotional baggage was packed inside that moniker. This is typical of the patronizing tone of the American journalist at the time. “(Taxi drivers) do not speak much English, and very little Japanese for that matter. All of them were hired 30 minutes ago and have no idea how to find the Imperial Palace. But they can all find the Olympic Village. In fact, they take every pale-faced passenger there, whether he wants to go or not.” (October 2, 1964).

“Everyone who goes to Tokyo must, sooner or later, find himself in a battle of nerves with the famous Tokyo cab drivers. (Bill) Lied had his experience and he isn’t likely to forget it. ‘The Japanese taxi ride isn’t to be forgotten,’ he said. ‘The Tokyo residents call the taxi drivers the Kamikaze Squad (on the wings of God) – and so they are’,” as the Wagner College Wrestling Coach explained to The Star-Ledger (November 6, 1964).

Not all was bad. Taxis were cheap, some 30 or 40 yen per trip, so at 360 yen to the dollar, that’s 8 to 11 cents a ride. And there were, of course, conscientious taxi drivers. As is cited in the book, “The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad”, some taxi drivers tried to reverse the bad PR with PR of their own, placing signs in their vehicles in English that read, “I Am Not a Kamikaze Driver.”

As for me,

On September 30, 1964, the film crew was far removed from the hustle and bustle in Tokyo, as the organizers raced to ensure that everything was ready for the start of the Olympics on October 10. This crew was instead shooting a scene for a film at the Oh River in Fukushima, directed by Koji Wakamatsu.

Two prisoners, recently escaped from a prison, were wading across the river, handcuffed Actors Drown_Japan Times_1October1964together. As The Japan Times of October 1, 1964 reports, one of the actors, Shinobu Takasuga “stumbled and fell, pulling (Sanzo) Akaozeki with him, and the two men were swept downstream. The river current was unusually strong, the eyewitnesses said.”

Apparently, the 28-year old director, Wakamatsu jumped in the river along with three others with the hopes of saving the two actors, but they had to be rescued themselves 100 meters down the river. As of that writing, the bodies still had not been found.

While Wakamatsu would go on to have a long career as a film director, this was a dark time at an early stage in his career. The title of this unfortunate film? “Misjudgment”.

Japan Times, October 8, 1964
Japan Times, October 8, 1964

Nicola Zappeti, recently released from prison, found himself in Tokyo in the late 1950s with nothing but a notion that Japan needed a pizzaria. And so he cajoled enough friends and acquaintances to provide him with funds to start an Italian restaurant, despite the fact that the only thing he knew about the restaurant business was that he liked Italian food. From nothing, Zappetti created a culinary icon, explains author and old Japan hand, Robert Whiting describes in his book, “Tokyo Underworld – The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan“.

“Nicola’s was still the attraction. It now occupied an entire newly constructed three-story concrete building with forty large tables, two blocks from its original location and a stone’s throw from the opulent new Hotel Okura, modeled after an ancient Kyoto palace and adjudged to be the finest hotel in the world. The restaurant had made Roppongi synonymous with pizza.

tokyo underworld“Although Crown Prince Akihito and Princess Michiko had subsequently curtailed their pizza-eating excursions to concentrate on the task of producing an heir to the throne, Nicola’s remained a Who’s Who of Tokyo and international society. On any given night,

Life Magazine, 11 September 1964
Life Magazine, 11 September 1964

“Bowling is the hottest new sports fad in Japan, and Tokyo has the biggest bowling center in the world, with 120 lanes. This monster, the Shinagawa Bowling Center, is open until 3 in the morning. It attracts, in addition to serious bowlers, a good many beatniks and nightclub hostesses after the clubs have closed. Other bowling lanes where a little English is spoken include the Tokyo Bowling Center, right next to Meiji Olympic Park, Tokyo Bowl at Tokyo Tower and the Korakuen Bowling Arena in Korakuen Park. Reservations are necessary, especially at night. All of these places have restaurants and bars, but the food is not recommended. Bowling costs a steep 60¢ to $1 a line.” Sports Illustrated – July 6, 1964

I went to a birthday party at this bowling alley last April. I bowled one of my best games ever – 158.

Prince Bernhard at the 1956 Melbourne Games
Prince Bernhard at the 1956 Melbourne Games

There are many stories of Japanese going beyond expectations in helping foreigners in need, but this story was above and beyond the call of duty. Prince Bernhard of Holland lost his Dunhill tobacco pouch while observing equestrian events in Karuizawa. That’s when a platoon of Japan’s Self Defense Forces sprung into action, combing the entire 33 kilometer equestrian course, finding the royal pouch in under 60 minutes. “They are quite wonderfully organized,” he said, referring to the Japanese Self-Defense Forces men. “They are really worthy of a gold medal.” (Did he really say that?)

Japan Times, October 22, 1964
Japan Times, October 22, 1964

Prince Bernhard was not a man of insignificance. He established the World Wildlife Fund in 1961. Unfortunately, he was forced to step down from the WWF after being implicated in the notorious Lockheed scandals, accepting a million dollar bribe in exchange for influencing Dutch aircraft purchases. Lockheed also helped bring

One of the things that has not changed in Japan since 1964 is how people outside Japan view the Japanese. No matter where you go, people will say the Japanese are kind, courteous, helpful and respectful. One can argue that the reason the Japanese behave this way is because they truly care about this perception, and will work hard to ensure this view. This UPI report from January 2, 1964, 10 months before the commencement of the XVIII Olympiad, describes this mindset.

The major worry of government, civic and business leaders is not the unfinished projects. It’s the impressions of the Japanese people which the visitors to the games are likely to take home. Will they remember the Japanese as dignified, cultured and courteous, or as a people beset with social ills.

The answer? The former.

UPI, January 2, 1964
UPI, January 2, 1964
From The Japan Times, October 8, 1964
From The Japan Times, October 8, 1964

My wife just yesterday found a bag sitting on a shelf on top of an ATM machine, and she brought it to the local police station. The person who lost the bag, which contained a wallet, will be relieved that he/she lives in Japan. There is no other major metropolis in the world where you can expect a lost valuable returned.

Three days before the opening of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, a high school teacher carrying the tickets targeted for students in his school, simply lost them while buying a box of cigarettes. They were returned right away to a local police station, but one can assume this teacher nearly had a heart attack. Moral of the story – smoking is bad for your health.