Some beautiful footage of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, particularly the opening ceremonies, in the commercial from energy company, Eneos, which is currently airing.

The launch of the balloons is beautiful. The release of the pigeons around a huge cauldron of fire is scary. But I understand fried pigeon tastes like chicken. 

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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.

Kyu Sakamoto, crooner of hit song, Sukiyaki, visiting the Olympic Village in 1964. From the book,
Kyu Sakamoto, crooner of hit song, Sukiyaki, visiting the Olympic Village in 1964. From the book, “Tokyo Olympiad 1964”.
It hit number one on the American Billboard Hot 100 in June, 1963. Number 1. And not a word in English. The title – Sukiyaki – had nothing to do with the song lyrics.

The man who sang this international hit was Kyu Sakamoto, pictured above hanging out with Aussie athletes at the Olympic Village. During the Olympics, Sakamoto performed the song on Swedish television – live – which was a big deal in those days.

The song was first released in the Fall of 1961 under the title, Ue o Muite Aruko (上を向いて歩こう), and enjoyed number 1 status for several months until early 1962. The owner of a British record label heard the song in Japan, and likely due to its catchy melody, thought there would be an audience in England, despite the fact that the song was in Japanese. The record owner’s instincts, including the decision to re-name the song after a popular Japanese dish, were superb as the record hit #6 on the charts in Britain, as well as #1 in countries like Australia, Canada and Norway.

By the time the Summer Games in Tokyo rolled around in 1964, many an Olympian would have been familiar with the song, Sukiyaki.

While Sakamoto travelled the world singing his hit song, appearing on programs like The Ed Sullivan Show, he never climbed beyond one-hit-wonder status. And at the young age of 42, Sakamoto died spectacularly in the deadliest plane crash in Japan’s history, the Japan Airlines Flight 123 that slammed into a mountain side in Gunma, Japan, ending the lives of 505 people on board.

The cheerful title (Look Up and Walk) and melody belies the lyrics, which describe a man smiling and whistling through pain and loss, holding the tears at bay as he contemplates another night alone. Listen to Sakamoto’s syrupy version above. Get uplifted by the cheery melody. You’d never think the song is about pain.

Below is a version of the song in English by Jewel Akens in

Kon Ichikawa
From “The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964”

Kon Ichikawa’s film, “Tokyo Olympiad“, is considered a classic documentary. Perhaps since Leni Riefenstahl’s famous film on the Berlin Olympics, it has become de rigeur to make a film about the Games so that audiences can re-live the excitement.

Planning for this film began in 1960, when the Japan Olympic Organizing Committee sent famed Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa to scout the Summer Games in Rome, and observe how the film on the Summer Games in Italy were produced. When Kurosawa and his team provided a budget estimate of about $1.5 million dollars, and also informed the committee that the receipts from distributing the Rome Olympic film was only half a million dollars, they realized they had to scale back.

hundred years of filmHaving said that the committee eventually selected Kon Ichikawa to be the director. And while the film is visually beautiful, Japan film historian, Donald Richie, writes in his book, “A Hundred Years of Japanese Film“, that so much, as they say, was left on the editing floor.

“Aesthetically, the picture is superb – a masterpiece of visual design,” writes Richie about this documentary by the renown Ichikawa. “One remembers the incisive use of slow motion during the track and field events; the beautiful repeated shots in the pole-vaulting competition; the fast zooms in the shot-put event, and the long, brilliant climax of the marathon – the work of the director and a staff of nearly six hundred people, including sixteen cameramen.”

“None of this, however,

 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,

From curbed.com
From curbed.com

The Hotel Okura was part of the wave of new hotels built in anticipation of the hordes of tourists that would descend on Tokyo with the 1964 Summer Games. Based on the design of a Kyoto temple, the Hotel Okura was considered one of the poshest places in Asia. If you’ve seen the 1966 Cary Grant movie, “Walk, Don’t Run”, then you saw the Hotel Okura preening in a glow of newness and modernity.

But at the age of 53, it’s apparently time for architectural euthanasia. I’ve stayed at the Hotel Okura, a couple of times, most recently two years ago. Despite the obvious care with which management maintains the hotel, it is looking its age. I suppose a face lift was considered, but the true aim is probably more rooms in a prime location. The Hotel Okura’s 2nd coming will

Life Magazine, October 23, 1964
Life Magazine, October 23, 1964

The USA team looked sharp in blue blazers over white slacks and skirts. But to cap it off, the men were given a typically American touch – a white cowboy fedora. Some knew it was the idea of President Lyndon Johnson, a proud Texan. Some loved the hat enough that when thousands of pigeons were released during the opening ceremony, they made sure to take them off and shield them from the inevitable bird droppings. Some were pleased they had something to keep their hair from getting dirty.

The bottom line is that athletes and officials from other countries wanted the American hats! Jeff Mullins was a member of the gold medal-winning men’s basketball team in 1964. Like every other athlete in the Olympic Village, he enjoyed the United Nations vibe, but couldn’t really communicate…except when they were bartering.

“Trading,” said Mullins, “was our form of communication. Bill Bradley got us started. He brought a whole bunch of Princeton beanies with him, and we tried to fill them with lapel pins for our pins – red, white and blue pins with a pearl in it.”

The Olympic Century - XVIII Olympiad - Volume 16
The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad – Volume 16

“And we always were trading up,” said the man who would go onto play for the champion Golden State Warriors in the NBA. “Our uniforms were popular. So were our basketball shoes. But the thing that was worth the most was the Western hat. None of us liked it,

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”.

Sandra Bezic on the cover of Asahi Graf, February 18, 1972
Sandra Bezic on the cover of Asahi Graf, February 18, 1972

“With fame, you know, you can read about yourself, somebody else’s ideas about you, but what’s important is how you feel about yourself – for survival and living day to day with what comes up.”

So said Marilyn Monroe, that candle in the wind.

Sandra Bezic was 15 years old when she competed in the pairs figure skating competition at the Sapporo Olympic Games in 1972. Sandra and her brother Val finished ninth, and were in a frame of mind in which winning a medal was out of the question, which meant they could enjoy their lives after the competition.

Their parents decided that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a country – Japan – they may never come back to, so before the 2-week competition ended, they went on a family holiday to Tokyo and Kyoto.

And one day, while walking along the streets of Kyoto, the ancient seat of government, they came upon a magazine rack at a shop that had “rows and rows of me” – a magazine with a cover graced by the youthful face of the figure skater from Canada. “We bought up a whole bunch of copies,” Bezic told me, “and just laughed and laughed.”

But Bezic was not a candle in the wind. She had a plan post-Olympics. She found a niche as a choreographer for figure skating long before specialists were a part of a coach’s toolkit in shaping future Olympians. Such skaters as Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini, Brian Boitano, Kristi Yamaguchi and Tara Lipinski had routines designed by Bezic.

Bezic went on to become a commentator for NBC during

Yusaku Kamekura's first Tokyo Olympics poster
Yusaku Kamekura’s first Tokyo Olympics poster
Red sun over Olympic gold – a striking design that won over the Olympic organizers instantly. As explained by this article in pingmag.jp, the 1964 Olympics emblem was designed by Yusaku Kamekura in what might seem a flash of genius.

“Legend has it that Kamekura forgot when he had to submit his design and on the day of the deadline got a phone fall. He dashed this out in less than two hours. Of course, that’s not to say that he just did it off the cuff – clearly he had been mulling over the concept for a long time in his head. The design has real impact and perhaps cannot be better for its striking minimalism. It was