I was a very geeky Star Wars fan. On May 25, 1977, 40 years ago today, I cut school with a couple of other junior high school buddies to see the highly anticipated opening of George Lucas‘ magnus opus at the Astor Plaza Theater in Manhattan.
I own original Star Wars posters, buttons, trading cards and various promotional items from that period. I even created a quiz that tested the Star Wars acumen of my friends, to very nerdy depths.
One thing I didn’t know at the time was that the iconic baddie in black, Darth Vader, was represented by more than two people. We all knew that David Prowse was the body inside, and that James Earl Jones intoned Vader’s menace with his breathy baritone. But we didn’t know that the swordbuckling Vader was animated by a 1952 Helsinki Olympian from England named Bob Anderson.
Anderson of Alverstoke, Hampshire served in World War II with the Royal Marines, where, according to The Independent, he learned how to fence. After the war, Anderson found success in competition, succeeding in the 1950 British Empire Games before joining TeamGB at the World Championships and the Helsinki Games. While his team finished fifth, Anderson went on to coach Great Britain’s fencing teams for the next five Olympics. His teams took silver at both the 1960 Rome Olympics and 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
He was also brought in to choreograph the lightsaber fight between Obi-wan Kenobi and Darth Vader in Star Wars. When Lucas began work for the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, it was likely determined that Prowse could not execute the lightsaber duels to the precision desired. That’s when Anderson the choreographer became Anderson the dark lord. It is Anderson who duels with Mark Hamill in The Empire Strikes Back, and it is Anderson’s Vader who cuts Luke Skywalker’s right hand off.
Anderson went on to reprise Vader’s lightsaber scenes in The Return of the Jedi. At the time, however, Anderson’s screen presence was never officially acknowledged. Upon the release of The Return of the Jedi, which I also saw on opening day, May 25, 1983, Hamill felt he needed to let the world know the truth about his on-screen dad in an interview with Starlog Magazine. “Bob Anderson was the man who actually did Vader’s fighting. It was always supposed to be a secret, but I finally told (director) George (Lucas) I didn’t think it was fair any more. Bob worked so bloody hard that he deserves some recognition. It’s ridiculous to preserve the myth that it’s all done by one man.”
I didn’t know this until recently. I will have to add this to my quiz.
You’re 18 and you’re about to do battle on the biggest boxing stage there is – the Olympics!
Spaniard Valentin Loren stepped into the ring with fellow featherweight, Hung-Cheng Hsu of Taiwan, but ended up having a bigger fight with the other person in the ring.
There are very few details about Valentin, Hsu or this first round fight at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. According to the press on October 14, 1964, Loren was “consistently fouling” the Taiwanese boxer, and the Hungarian referee had seen enough. In the middle of the second round, the referee, Gyorgy Sermer, suddenly disqualified Loren.
Furious upon understanding that his Olympic career had been stopped only minutes into it, Loren began chasing Sermer around the ring before landing a few punches. Loren’s left hook to Sermer’s face, likely Loren’s best punch of the night, was plastered in newspapers around the world.
That day, the Amateur International Boxing Association executive committee met in an emergency meeting. The room must have been tense as the committee actually brought Loren and Sermer together before declaring a ban on Loren from Olympic and amateur boxing competition for the rest of his life.
My dear Father, my dear Mother: I thank you for the three-day pickled yam. It was delicious. Thank you for the dried persimmons. And the rice cakes. They were delicious, too.
My dear Brother Toshio, and my dear Sister: I thank you for the sushi. It was delicious.
My dear Brother Katsumi, and my dear Sister: The wine and apples were delicious. I thank you.
My dear Brother Iwao, and my dear Sister: I thank you. The basil-flavored rice, and the Nanban pickles were delicious.
My dear Brother Kikuzo, and my dear Sister: The grape juice and Yomeishu were delicious. I thank you. And thank you, my dear Sister, for the laundry you always did for me.
My dear Brother Kozo and my dear Sister: I thank you for the rides you gave me in your car, to and fro. The mongo-cuttlefish was delicious. I thank you.
My dear Brother Masao, and my dear sister: I am very sorry for all the worries I caused you.
Yukio-kun, Hideo-kun, Mikio-kun, Toshiko-chan, Hideko-chan, Ryosuke-kun, Takahisa-kun, Miyoko-chan, Yukie-chan, Mitsue-chan, Akira-kun, Yoshiyukikun, Keiko-chan, Koei-kun, Yu-chan, Kii-chan, Shoji-kun: May you grow up to be fine people.
My dear Father and my dear Mother, Kokichi is too tired to run anymore. I beg you to forgive me. Your hearts must never have rested worrying and caring for me.
My dear Father and Mother, Kokichi would have liked to live by your side.
These were the handwritten words of Kokichi Tsubaraya, one of two notes he left as explanation for why he took his life in his dormitory room of the Ground Self Defense Forces. Tsuburaya was a soldier, but he was also a Japanese icon, winning the bronze medal in the marathon at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. As he wrote, he was simply “too tired to run anymore”. As described in a previous post, injuries and heartbreak may have led to Tsuburaya’s demise.
Suicide rates, while decreasing in recent years, thankfully, have been traditionally high in Japan compared to other countries. Perhaps there is a romanticism connected with suicide in the deep recesses of Japanese culture. So when some of Japan’s most celebrated writers, Nobel Prize winners Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata, read the suicide note of Kokichi Tsuburaya, they swooned at the simple yet striking words of the athlete. Mishima viewed Tsuburaya’s notes as “beautiful, honest and sad.” And as Makoto Ueda explained in his book, Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature, Kawabata was even jealous of the quality of Tsuburaya’s poetry.
Kawabata was deeply moved upon reading this suicide note. After citing it in its entirety, he offered to explain why: “in the simple, plain style and in the context of the emotion-ridden note, the stereotyped phase “I enjoyed” is breathing with truly pure life. It creates a rhythm pervading the entire suicide note. I tis beautiful, sincere, and sad.” Kawabata then observed that this suicide note was not inferior to similar notes written by reputable writers, despite the fact that Tsuburaya was an athlete who boasted no special talent in composition. Kawabata even felt ashamed of his own writings, he said, when he compared them with this note.
Another giant of Japanese literature, Kenzaburo Oe, was also impressed by the suicide note of Tsuburaya. At a series of talks Oe gave at the University of California, Berkeley in April 1999, he talked about how Tsuburaya’s suicide note was a wonderful cultural marker of the 1960s, a reflection of Japan in a state of transition during a period of intense social, economic and political change. Let me quote Oe at length here:
We know from this note that Kokichi Tsuburaya was from a big family. The many names he mentions probably do not evoke any particular feeling in a non- Japanese, but to a person like myself—especially to one who belongs to an older generation of Japanese—these names reveal a naming ideology of a family in which authority centers around the paternal head-of-household. This family-ism extends to the relatives. There is probably no large family in Japan today where children are named so thoroughly in line with traditional ethical sentiments. Tsuburaya’s suicide note immediately shows the changes in the “feelings” of the families of Japanese these past thirty years.
The many foods and drinks he refers to also tell of the times. Twenty years had passed since Japan’s defeat, and it was not a society of food shortages. But neither was it the age of satiation and Epicurean feasting that began ten years later. The year Tsuburaya died was the year that Nikkeiren, the Japan Federation of Employers’ Association, tried to counter the spring offensives—the annual demand by labor unions for wage hikes and improved working conditions—by arguing that the sharp increase in prawn imports was evidence of a sufficient rise in the standard of living. More consumers were eating imported frozen prawns. Business administrators keep an eye on such trends. And I think that honestly expresses the eating habits of Japanese people at this time.
Domestically, 1968 saw the rage of student rebellions, most noted among which were the struggles at Tokyo University and Nihon University. Outside of Japan, there was the May Revolution in Paris, and the invasion of Soviet troops into Prague. In retrospect, we clearly see that the world was full of premonitions of great change.
Against this backdrop, a long distance runner of the Self-Defense Forces— itself a typical phenomenon of the state of postwar Japan’s twisted polysemous society—turned his back on the currents of such a society, alone prepared to die, and wrote this suicide note. In the note, the young man refers to specific foods and drinks, he encourages his nephews and nieces to grow up to be fine people; he is overwhelmed by the thought of his parents’ loving concern for him and writes that he knows their hearts must never have rested in their worry and care for him. He apologizes to them because, having kept running even after the Olympics with the aim of shouldering national prestige, he became totally exhausted and could no longer run. He closed his note with the words: “My dear Father and Mother, Kokichi would have liked to live by your side.”
Tsuburaya was a man of his times, celebrated in 1964 for his accomplishments as an athlete. Today he is also remembered for his eloquence in representing the Every Man in Japan, a poet who is said to have captured the essence and the angst of those times.
But as related in this post, Tsuburaya was a man of commitment, and he promised he would work hard to ensure he was ready to compete and do better at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Not only did Tsuburaya feel that added weight to make up for the “loss” of silver, so too did his seniors at Tsuburaya’s place of employment, Japan’s Ground Self Defense Forces.
Tsuburaya did indeed train hard. And yet, somehow, he also found time for courtship. He had a met a girl named Eiko before the Tokyo Olympics, and he wanted to marry her after the Tokyo Games. His coach at the Self Defense Forces athletics school, Hiro Hatano, was supportive of the proposed marriage. Tsuburaya’s parents too approved of their son’s plans to marry Eiko.
One would assume that further approval would be unnecessary, but in 1966, coach Hatano’s boss expressed his dissatisfaction with the union. Perhaps Hatano’s boss thought that Tsuburaya needed to keep his focus 100% on his training – I’m not clear yet on the specifics. But in a country where hierarchy determines status and power, and in the context of a military culture where the norms of hierarchy are amplified even more, Hatano’s boss had the power to overrule a personal decision of someone in his organization.
Perhaps, in an exercise of power that feels cruel, Hatano’s boss brought Hatano, Eiko and Eiko’s mother together to inform them that the marriage to Tsuburaya would have to wait until after the Games in Mexico City so that Tsuburaya could focus solely on his training. Tsuburaya was not present in that meeting.
Eiko was devoted to Tsuburaya and wanted to wait until they could get married. But Eiko’s mother was no longer supportive, worried that marriage to a famous man like the marathon bronze medalist who had the weight of a nation’s expectations on his shoulder would only lay unknown burdens on the shoulders of the wife. Perhaps more of a concern, Eiko’s mother was not confident that a marriage to Tsuburaya was a sure thing in two years, and was worried that Eiko, at the age of 22, could lose other opportunities to marry well in that period.
In the end, the proposed marriage of Kokichi and Eiko was broken off. Tsuburaya’s coach and manager, Hatano, was left with the unfortunate task of informing Tsuburaya. Hatano protested these decisions to his own boss to the point where he ended up being demoted and removed as Tsuburaya’s coach. Tsuburaya thus had to train on his own, likely feeling quite alone. Very quickly, injuries began to plague Tsuburaya – first the return of the intense pain of the slipped disc, and then an injury to an achilles tendon, which required surgery in 1967.
At the end of 1967, Tsuburaya returned to his hometown of Sukagawa, Fukushima for the long holiday break that bridges the old year with the new. Tsuburaya’s father was pained with news that he wasn’t sure he should share with his son. But he thought it best to tell his son before he found out on his own – that his former fiancé, Eiko, had gotten married. Kokichi replied “Oh, Eiko-san is married. That’s good for her.” The son pretended that he was OK with the news, but his father could tell that his son was shocked and saddened.
Tsuburaya returned to his Self Defense Forces base after his time with family during the New Year’s break. And on January 8th, 1968, he slit his wrist and died in his dorm room.
Note: Special thanks to my researcher, Shiina Ishige, for her in-depth research that contributed heavily to the writing of this post.
At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Olympic Village was more than serviceable. It was an actual neighborhood.
The neighborhood was called Washington Heights, an American military compound designed to make American soldiers and their families feel like they never left America, as you can see in the video above. If you watch until the 1:18 minute mark, you’ll see Washington Heights before it was transferred from the US Government to the Japanese government for the purpose of being re-fashioned into an Olympic Village.
I got my hands on a booklet that was published by the Organizing Committee of the 1964 Olympics, called “XVIII Olympiad Official Bulletin No. 12”. This booklet, published in November 1963 to update officials on the progress of the organizing committee, featured pictures and blueprints of the dorm rooms in the Olympic Village.
Here are the descriptions from that bulletin with the images. If you’re an Olympian from 1964, let me know your memories of living in those former military family quarters.
There are two types of housing facilities: one is a ferro-concrete four-storied building of a dormitory type, and the other, an independent wooden house of one or two stories. The men’s quarters will consist of these two kinds of housing, while the quarters for women will be of the dormitory type especially prepared for the fair sex.
Each floor of the dormitory is of the same plan and has 18 bedrooms and a common bath and toilet facilities. There will be a total of 69 bedrooms per building. A central heating system is provided, but the temperatures in October in Japan will not require its operation. The staircases and corridors are covered with asphalt tile, the walls with plaster, and the ceilings with sound-absorbing materials.
Each bedroom, 25.5 square meters in area, faces the corridor on one side and has windows on the other. Lockers will be prepared along one of the two blank walls, in addition to beds (three beds in a room on the average), desks chairs and boxes for small articles will be provided, in each bedroom. For comfortable living conditions, bedside lamps have been installed, and insect nets and curtains are attached to the windows.
There are nine types of independent housing units. One frame house is composed of one to four housing units of one or two types. The combination of such unites varies 50 different ways. A house may be of one to four unites of the same types and another house may be of two to four unites of two different types. Building may be of one storied, while the others may be two storied. Although the types of houses are quite varied, the interior décor is limited to only nine types.
The outside of those houses is covered with cement mortar, and the roofs are tiled. A-1 Type house is the simplest; it is one-storied and has four bedrooms and a utility room. One of the two doors leads to the entrance hall and the other to the utility room. Eight persons will be accommodated in each house of this type.
In the larger two-storied B-1a Type house are four bedrooms, the rest being almost the same as in the A-1 Type. Nine athletes are to be provided with lodgings in this type of house. The wood floor is covered with a carpet, and the (board) walls are painted. The ceiling is covered with fibre board. These houses will be furnished in the same way as the dormitory rooms and wardrobe closets will be added, if necessary.
Each house has a gas hot furnace for heating, and the room for the chef de mission is equipped with a telephone. The utility room contains a gas heater and a sink.
We gathered at the prestigious Singapore Cricket Club on May Day, and enjoyed fish and chips and beef Guinness pie reminiscing about 1964. I had the honor of having lunch with three Singaporean Olympians who went to the Tokyo Olympiad:
Canagasabai Kunalan, who held the fastest 100-meter time in Singapore for over 30 years, and competed under the Malaysian flag at the 1964 Olympics, as well as under the Singaporean flag in 1968,
Hamid Supaat, who competed in the grueling individual cycling road race in the chilly hills of Hachioji at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, as written about here, and
Anwarul Haque, who was a goalie on the 1964 Malaysian field hockey team, went on to become a lawyer, as well as serving eight years as president of the Singapore Cricket Club, where we ate and reminisced.
In 1964, Singapore was undergoing political upheaval, having gained independence from Britain in 1963, and joining a federation of states that became Malaysia. Previous to that, Singapore had been a colony since Stamford Raffles arrived on the tiny island in 1819 to claim it as a trading post for the East Indies Company and the British empire.
Before independence, Singapore was a bustling harbor town, its population growing quickly, but still relatively small at 1.5 to 1.8 million in the first half of the 1960s. So it’s quite understandable that in the sports history of Singapore, only 5 medals have been won by Singaporeans in the history of the Olympics, the first one – Singapore’s first silver – in 1960 and the last one – Singapore’s first gold – in 2016.
Tan Howe Liang migrated with his family from southern China to Singapore and at an amusement park saw an exhibition of weightlifters and was hooked. He joined a weightlifting club, and soon became internationally competitive, finishing ninth in the lightweight category at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, and then gaining confidence by winning gold at the 1958 Commonwealth Games, the 1958 Asian Games and the 1959 SEAP Games. In Rome, Howe Liang brought glory to Singapore with a silver medal in the lightweight category.
Even earlier, at the 1948 London Olympics, Singapore had a representative as a part of British crown colonies. His name was Lloyd Oscar Valberg, and he competed in the high jump as Singapore’s sole athlete in the first Olympics after the Second World War. Valberg came in 14th. But he set the Singapore record for the high jump at the age of 17, and is a symbol of how far Singapore has come. Valberg’s nephew was Colin Schooling, and his son saw his famous relative as a role model.
Inspired by his grand uncle, Joseph Schooling went on to take gold in the 100-meter butterfly in one of the most dramatic races at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Schooling beat a very strong field, including his childhood idol, Michael Phelps to win Singapore’s first gold medal.
These are values that resonate with the Japanese. You see it in the office worker who stays late to get things done, night after night. You see it in the high school baseball player who dives left and right after dozens if not hundreds of ground balls in the rain. You see it in the artist who tirelessly works the pottery wheel until she gets the exact curvature in the clay she sees in her head.
Kokichi Tsuburaya exemplified those values. And when he drove toward the finish line of a grueling 42-kilometer marathon race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, on the verge of grabbing a silver medal in track and field, where Japan had found no success, 70,000 Japanese shouted and screamed their encouragement, attempting to will Tsuburaya on to a strong finish. And yet the drama laid out before the spectators had the sickly feeling of inevitability. Just as Tsuburaya emerged from the shadows of the tunnel entrance, a few meters behind so too did Basil Heatley, a Brit hot on the Japanese’s heels.
When Heatley accelerated past a depleted Tsuburaya like a biker passing a pedestrian, the growing balloon of hopes an entire nation held for Tsuburaya seemed to deflate in those seconds it took Heatley to get to the finish line. It must have been a tremendous disappointment.
But then again, that’s OK. To the Japanese, Tsuburaya was not a loser. He was one of them, a man who tried so very hard, who did his very best, who never gave up. As he said in interviews after the marathon, “I will practice hard towards Mexico City.”
Of course, Tsuburaya was a product of his national cultural traits. But more impactfully, he was his father’s son.
The seven children in the Tsuburaya household had to work hard, cleaning the house, preparing the bath, cooking, planting the rice, raising the livestock when they hit the age of 10. These were not easy tasks, and the head of the household, Koshichi Tsuburaya, believed that his children needed to be disciplined to ensure they did their chores. He ordered his children around military style, shouting directions like “Attention!” “Right face!” “Go Forward!” He made them wear shorts in the winter. He made his children repeat chores if they weren’t done properly, and of course he would hit them to make sure they knew they had done something improperly. Training included bayonet skills, just in case.
As a child Kokichi liked to run, and when his dog ran, little Kokichi liked to try to keep up with the dog. But one day, when he was 5, Kokichi felt a sharp pain in his legs and his back. The father (named Koshichi) then noticed that their boy’s left leg was shorter than his right. Knowing how little their little Kokichi would complain about anything, the parents took him to the hospital, where they learned that their boy also had tuberculosis arthritis, which causes pain in the weight-bearing joints of the hips, knees and ankles. So from an early age, Kokichi felt pain whenever he ran.
And yet, Kokichi loved to run. He looked up to his older brother, Kikuzo, who ran competitively. Kokichi often joined his older brother, and the elder brother saw the kid brother keep up, despite being 7 years younger. The brothers would often go for runs in the evenings. But their father didn’t approve of running for the sake of running. “You can’t live off of running,” he would say as a warning to his sons.
One time the brothers came home a little later than usual, and the entire family was seated at the dinner table quietly, waiting to start eating until the two boys sat down. The father kept quiet until the boys returned late again from running, and again told his boys angrily, “You can’t live off of running.” In order to avoid the glare of their father, the boys would sneak out for a run while their father was taking a bath.
Finally, one night, Koshichi the father confronted Kokichi the son and asked him, “If you run, will you stick to it?” The son said yes, to which Koshichi said, in the approving way of gruff dads, “Once you decide to do this, don’t quit halfway through.”
Kokichi never quit. In fact, he took his commitment to running very seriously. In high school, he trained very hard for a national 5,000 meter competition. He did not win, and without anyone’s urging, shaved his head to account publicly for his loss.
When Kokichi graduated from high school, he did something that made his father proud – he joined the Ground Self-Defense Force and became a soldier like his father had been. Japan has a long tradition of long-distance relay races, and Kokichi was slated to join the team representing the Self-Defense Forces in a national long-distance race. At the time of the race, Kokichi was in the hospital with a high fever. On top of that, Kokichi kept the fact that a slipped disk in his back was also causing him tremendous pain. Despite all that, Kokichi Tsuburaya insisted on running the longest leg of the race.
It was this commitment, this perseverance that eventually endeared Tsuburaya to the public. And through it all, even his father, who thought nothing would ever come of his running, was quietly very proud of his sone His father would often send Kokichi letters of encouragement, saying how worried he was for his son. And when Kokichi returned home from his bronze-medal finish at the Tokyo Olympics, he was surprised to find that his parents kept all sorts of newsclippings, medals and trophies of his accomplishments , or could not sleep on the eve of the Olympics, and worried deeply about his health.
They were deeply proud of their little Kokichi. And likely, so was an entire nation.
Note: Special thanks to my researcher, Shiina Ishige, for her in-depth research that contributed heavily to the writing of this post.