When the monorail connecting Haneda Airport and downtown Tokyo opened up on September 17, 1964, a month prior to the opening of the XVIII Olympiad, it was yet another symbol of Japan’s revitalization and cutting edge.
The people who built the monorail in Tokyo likely saw the successful models before deciding on developing a monorail system of their own. Two of them were in the US – Disneyland in Los Angeles, which opened in 1959, and the Seattle Center Monorail, which debuted in 1962.
Half a century later, Haneda is still a reliable way to get to Haneda Airport. The Seattle Center Monorail is more of a decorative transportation option that takes you from one tourist destination to another. Still, the Seattle monorail transports over 2 million people a year. And for only a $2.50 one-way fare, the Seattle monorail takes you from Seattle Center, home of the city’s Space Needle, to WestLake Center, the heart of Seattle, in only 2 minutes. As you can see in the video, it’s a pleasant ride that gives you a great above ground view of the city!
Today is October 10. Until the year 2000, October 10 was a national holiday in Japan called Sports Day, marking that momentous occasion in Japanese history – the start of the XVIII Olympiad in Tokyo.
It is also a time marker to note when primary and nursery schools across Japan engage in the gathering of children, teachers and parents for undokai, an event dedicated to sporting events. Since 2000, Sports Day was moved from October 10 to the second Monday of October to ensure that Japan always celebrates with a three-day weekend. It is that weekend in which the undokai is often held.
According to this guide, typical sports organized at undokai are the running sports, but also include three-legged races and the formation of human pyramids. As the students get older, that sense of competition increases, but the overwhelming atmosphere is one of cheer and support, with shouts of “ganbare!” to encourage them to do their best.
I remember my son’s first undokai when he was 2, in the same way many parents do – through the countless pictures and video taken of the time. My son was going to a nursery school, and the teachers helped put these somewhat distracted, somewhat awkward children through the various running, jumping and throwing competitions.
The novel, Olympic Ransom, (Orinpikku no Minoshirokin) by Hideo Okuda, weaves a story about the imagining of an attempted terrorist attack during the Opening Ceremony of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. (See previous two posts for details.)
Inspector Masao Ochiai is searching for clues regarding a series of small explosions in Tokyo. The start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics is only weeks away, and the explosions are concerning to the authorities overseeing security of Tokyo and the Olympics, wondering if this is the start of something more sinister.
Tadashi Suga is the son of the head of security for the Tokyo Olympics, and since his red sports car was seen near one of the explosions, he was targeted as a potential witness. Ochiai tracks Suga down at the poolside of the Hotel New Otani, one of the most remarkable new structures on the flat landscape of Tokyo. In fact, in 1964, the Hotel New Otani was the tallest and flashiest building in Japan.
The Hotel New Otani was built in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics, requested by the government in response to the perceived shortage of hotel space for visitors. As James Kirkup wrote after his visit to Japan in 1965, “From the monorail or the expressway, one’s first overall view of Tokyo is of a sprawling, squat city. There were no skyscrapers until the Hotel New Otani, with its revolving circular restaurant sixteen floors up, was opened just in time for the Olympics in September, 1964. Kirkup’s comments highlight that, until building height codes were lifted in 1963, all buildings in Tokyo were restricted to under thirty-one meters. The first major structure to exceed that limit was the Hotel New Otani at five times this limit – one hundred fifty-six meters (seventeen stories, the top floor housing the revolving restaurant.
The New Otani broke the mould, setting the precedence for taller buildings across Tokyo, as well as quickly becoming a photogenic symbol of Tokyo’s transformation to a city of the future. Watch the 1967 James Bond film, You Only Live Twice, and you’ll learn that SPECTRE’s headquarters in Japan was actually the New Otani.
Okuda wrote about the shiniest objects in the Tokyo landscape to create sharp contrast with the poorest parts of Japan. But he did so also to bring to life that feeling of optimism people in Tokyo felt at the time. He expresses this sense of marvel through the eyes of Suga and his girlfriend Midori, who wend their way through Tokyo in a red Honda S600, approaching the newly constructed elevated expressway that passes by the New Otani, as well as the Akasaka Prince Hotel.
Miyake Slope (Miyake-zaka) was up ahead, along with the newly finished elevated interchange. And perched high above was Metropolitan Expressway 4, like the Milky Way itself, sublimely stretching out across the sky. How beautiful were all these roads, winding in all directions. This is a city of the future, he thought.
The Akasaka Prince Hotel is no longer there – it has been replaced by a mixed-use office-hotel complex called Tokyo Garden Terrace Kioicho, where I work today. But the New Otani still stands, accompanied by taller companions developed over the decades, a legacy of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
It’s October 10, 1964, past 2pm and 70,000 people who filled the National Stadium for the Opening Ceremony of the XVIII Olympiad in Tokyo are buzzing with excitement. Kunio Shimazaki, a student of the prestigious Tokyo University, has entered the stands, making his way towards the top of the east facing part of the stadium and the Olympic cauldron.
As Emperor Hirohito’s high-pitched voice declares the Olympic Games open, Shimazaki holds explosives in one hand and a lighter in the other, approaching the yet-to-be lit cauldron with deadly intent. The police surround Shimazaki, and up steps Inspector Masao Ochiai, his grip on his gun tightening.
This is a scene from the novel, Olympic Ransom (Orinppiku Minoshirokin) by Hideo Okuda, highlighting the national urgency of the time, to ensure that the 1964 Tokyo Olympics begin and end successfully, thus re-establishing Japan’s re-integration to the world community. A terrorist attack like the one Shimazaki hoped to carry out did not come to pass in the novel, but he, through the writing of Okuda, brought attention to the challenges of the Japanese economic miracle and the sacrifices made at the time.
While the Japanese economy was steaming ahead on the eve of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, GDP growing from 8.8% in1963 to an incredible 11.2% in 1964, there were sacrifices, and omissions of prosperity. In the novel, Shimazaki is from an impoverished town in the Northern part of Japan, Akita. Although he was able to break the cycle of poverty by gaining admission to the best university in the country, his older brother had to work long days on punishing schedules in Tokyo to help the city complete all of its infrastructure projects in time for the Olympic Games. And one day, his brother was dead, a result of an exhausting workload and a dependency on drugs.
Days before Inspector Ochiai stops would-be terrorist Shimazaki at the National Stadium, they meet at Tokyo University. In the film produced by Asahi Television in 2013 based on Okuda’s book, Shimazaki explains to the inspector why he is looking to make the authorities in Japan pay.
Ochiai-san, do you know there is an underground passageway into the National Stadium? An underpass to all for the movement of players from underground into the world’s best stadium? The country has spared no expense in the making of it. Due to various pretexts though, the use of it was stopped. My older brother for the sake of constructing that unused underpass was forced into working shifts of sixteen continuous hours. In order to get through those shifts he turned to taking bad Philopon….and died. For the national honor, the country wasted huge amounts of money all while treating migrant workers like trash until they die, paying them only tens of thousands of yen. If we don’t change something here, the unfair gap between rich and poor will go on widening forever. And endlessly the same tragedy will repeat.
As Bruce Suttmeier in his essay, “Held Hostage to History – Okuda Hideo’s Olympic Ransom” writes that Okuda’s re-imagining of history is “a thought experiment in narrative form”…with an intent to “expose political and social certainties to speculative inquiry.”
For example, Shimazaki explained in the encounter with Ochiai that his brother was sacrificed to help build an underpass under the National Stadium, and that it was not used despite the pain and labor that went into its construction. While such a tunnel was indeed constructed, the reality is the tunnel was actually used by athletes and officials alike during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, as noted in this previous post.
But it’s the head of security for the Tokyo Olympics, Shuichiro Suga, who explains to Ochiai that Shimazaki is not a hero of the people, but a terrorist.
Suga: The permission to shoot to kill Shimazaki Kunio has been issued. If you find Shimazaki this time around, shoot him without hesitation. Are you okay with the Olympics ending in failure due to your sentimentality? From the ashes of defeat , are you okay with wasting what the Japanese people have gritted their teeth over and rebuilt with great effort?
Ochiai: However, for those people struggling in poverty in rural regions, They have been rewarded with nothing.
Suga: Is there something wrong with Tokyo becoming enriched? First off, Tokyo, the center of the country, should prosper, and then the other regions will gradually become richer. Don’t forget. Shimazaki is a brutal criminal, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of people are still exposed by this crisis. In order to protect their lives you’ll have to pull the trigger too.
In the end, Ochia does indeed pull the trigger, bringing Shimazaki down, with nary a soul outside the police knowing that a deadly threat was thwarted. And so, the novel ends as the actual 1964 Tokyo Olympic opening ceremony ends – without incident.
In the essay, Held Hostage to History: Okuda Hideo’s Olympic Ransom, the author, Bruce Suttmeier, explains that while Okuda’s book is a novel, the author may be suggesting that so many things of significance may have happened, but that in the end, historians, authorities and society may have selective memories.
After the unnoticed shooting in the stadium and the brisk removal of Shimazaki’s injured body, the story quickly returns in its final pages to a sanctioned historical narrative, free from the destabilizing presence of a past encumbered by contingency and potential and by the weight of epistemic uncertainty.
As Suttmeier writes, when the head of security, Suga, is asked by his son whether the threat is over, Suga replies “what bomber?” In other words, why worry the public, the overjoyed and proud public with such distractions. Let the Games be the glowing symbol of Japan’s resurrection and triumphant return to the international community.
Perhaps what Okuda is saying in a way – no great triumph comes without sacrifice, and that we should peer a bit deeper into our own understandings of the past.
I remember the very first time you called my name. Olamide Orebamjo, announcing that I was an Olympian and now I am getting ready to hear my name called during my graduation ceremony. As I look back over the years, I can honestly say that you were not only my favorite teacher, but the best teacher I ever had.
Orebamjo was a shy, little sixth grader at Mayfield Woods Middle School in Elkridge, Maryland when she first met her social studies teacher, Richard Stebbins. But after completing his class, she was transformed, and sent a thank you note to him upon her high school graduation in 2010. She also wrote that she aspired “one day to become an attorney for the United Nations and later on become an ambassador for the United States.” Today, she is a 25-year-old judicial law clerk in Baltimore City, supporting a judge by researching, drafting opinions and memoranda, and preparing the judge for civil litigation matters.
Orebamjo is just one of many students at Mayfield Woods who had been deeply impacted by the ideas and the methods of their social studies teacher, who also happened to be an Olympic gold medalist from the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games. Now a retired teacher, Stebbins is also a member of the Southwest Athletic Conference (SWAC) Hall of Fame for his world-class sprinting at Grambling College, and is most famously known as the third leg of the US 4×100 relay team anchored by the legendary Bob Hayes that took gold in Tokyo.
Stebbins would frame his social studies class year as a long-term competition of sorts, placing eight of the student desks at the front of the room, facing the other students. Those eight desks were for the students who achieved the highest quiz scores at different points in the year. And this had a motivating effect on students, including one named Maria, who wrote about her excitement in a year-end essay:
When you told us about your Olympian method, boy was I excited! I listened to you attentively as you told us about those great kids who had sat at your left and at your right. They had earned A’s on most of their tests and their quizzes. I remember looking at that first desk at your left and thinking, “I will be there one day.” I wanted to so badly to show you that I could really work hard and that I love learning. Now that I look back at all the hard work that I put towards being on that Olympian sit, I am thankful I did because it is such a rewarding feeling to know that my hard work pays off. Since you showed us your Olympic method I started to dislike B’s. I set my goal at the beginning of the year that if I wanted to be an Olympian my grades on everything had to be mostly A’s.
Stebbins wanted his students to work hard, but he also wanted them to relax and have fun. He played jazz music during quizzes, showed videos, played games. But most importantly, he drilled certain messages over and over into the heads of his eager students.
Education is a Privilege: Recalled a student named Andrew, “You made me understand that hard work and an education are a privilege, not a burden. We may think we don’t have enough, but in reality we have way too much. You made us aware of the situation of people on every continent, and of their struggle to survive daily.”
Excellence: Stebbins, his Olympian system and the fact that he had a gold medal made him a symbol of excellence to his students. But he also showed many examples of people who demonstrated excellence in their lives, including his sharing of videos of people recognized by the President of the United States for their excellence. Wrote a student named Jadah, “My favorite thing about your class was the Kennedy Center Honors (videos). I might have not looked interested but it was only because it was early in the morning but I was excited to learn about different people and what they have added to the world. I want to be something that the world admires and what to honor.”
The World is Big and Diverse: Wrote a student named Brendan in his year-end essay, “Before I came to sixth grade, I always saw the world as just a place where I live. Now, with Mr. Stebbins help, I see the world as one big history book filled with knowledge and connections. He has influenced me to travel around the world, and see many of the world’s greatest wonders. I think that knowledge is the best gift you can give to anybody and when I moved into Mr. Stebbins class that is the first thing he gave to me. I am honored that I was able to meet this wonderful man.”
A big focus of Stebbins’ teaching was the history of African Americans. In addition to dressing up in traditional African wear, and talking about people like Miles Davis and Malcolm X, he awarded Olympians with a 365 Days of Black History calendar that featured Stebbins. “This was and is a prized possession that I still have – his photo from the 1964 Olympics is featured on one of its pages,” said a student, Sandra Hwang. “Signed by Mr. Stebbins, it says, ‘you are a seeker of truth.'”
Never Give Up: Jeremy wrote to Stebbins 11 years after taking his social studies class, describing his teacher’s penchant to quote from a popular cartoon at the time, Pinky and the Brain, secondarily to inject fun into the class, but primarily to send a message. “You incorporated your love of Pinky and the Brain into the class lesson, and into the values, you wanted to instill in your students. You used to say all the time “Brain never took over the world, but he never gave up.” You wanted us to do the same. You wanted us to have a dream and no matter how long it took not to give up. Your words ring in my ears until this day.”
You are Special: Stebbins always had something specific to say about each of his students. Amber wrote that Stebbins said something to her that stuck with her since. “I was really one of a kind, and he could tell that I was going to do great things. I will never forget that day.” Hwang was in Stebbin’s class in 2003, and she remembers ordinary days that instantly became most memorable ones thanks to Stebbins.
While I was in other classes, say math class, if Mr. Stebbins came in the room to pick up something from the teacher and saw me in the room, he would point his finger at me and, in total interruption, announce loudly to the room, “this one, she is destined to be great.”
Today, Sandra is a 26-year-old healthcare design strategist for a consultancy in Boston, with a personal goal of helping people “have a better chance at the health and happiness they deserve…and to do this work for those among us that truly need it most. Children, minorities, women, refugees, people living in homelessness, without support, without equal access, without the right to health.” She wrote to me emphasizing what a huge influence Stebbins was for her.
I cannot articulate how many young students out there need someone like Mr. Stebbins to walk into the room and declare their worth with such absolute certainty. Mr. Stebbins did not set me up to do a good job in school, have a good job, and to live a good, stable life. He set me up to dream and to elevate myself in accordance to my dreams – to aspire for excellence, for greatness, and with the kind of boldness and audacity carried by the heroes we learned about in class.
Stebbins explained in a Baltimore Sun article that he only did what his best teachers did for him when he was growing up in Los Angeles in a single-parent household. “Two teachers in junior high school saved my life — an old black man, and an old white woman,” he said. “They told me I could be somebody, that I could do something with my life.”
Those teachers did what Stebbins did for countless kids at Mayfield Woods Middle School. Orebamjo noted that to Stebbins in her letter, quoting William A. Ward.
The American men’s 4×100 relay team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics broke the world record, and won the gold medal. A more apt description is that Bob Hayes won the team the gold medal. His historic anchor leg took the American team from 5th to 1st in arguably the fastest 100-meter leg in 4×100 relay history.
As Rich Stebbins said, “The good lord gave Bob Hayes something most people don’t have. Pure unadulterated speed.”
And yet, it is a team event. Four sprinters have to circle the track and transfer the baton successfully three times in stride in order to have a chance. Stebbins knew this. He was a member of Grambling State University’s dominant 4×100 championship team, which had a 18-match stretch where they were one or two tenths off the world record. “The secret was we had exquisite exchanges. We would walk around campus handing the baton off.”
The American relay team was in a bit of a pickle. Mel Pender and Trent Jackson were speedsters who got injured during the individual 100-meter sprint competition, so were unavailable for the relay. Paul Drayton was available but had to run with a pulled muscle in his leg. So when the coaches and sprinters gathered to discuss the make up of the team, Stebbins said Hayes looked at him explaining that Stebbins was the best relay runner in the country, and said, “He third, I’m anchor, and I don’t care who else.”
Stebbins was very confident in his hand-offs and could do so with either his left or right hand, and so when Hayes told him he wanted the baton in his right hand, Stebbins made the exchange with his left. Hayes is so fast that he almost outran Stebbin’s hand-off. But the baton landed firmly in Hayes’ right palm, and off he went, racing into history.
Fifty two years later, at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Stebbins saw on his television a team that reminded him of the importance of great baton passing. “The Japanese team that won silver – their passing was exquisite.”
I bought mine on eBay. But if you were an athlete or official at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, you should have received this as a gift.
They are called kokeshi, traditional wooden dolls, developed in the northern part of Japan as toys for children. The more artistically expressive they became, the more popular they became for wealthier adults who saw them as ways to show their status, according to this article.
In 1964, a volunteer organization of students called the Japan Junior Sports Club Association, set off on a mission to carve 12,000 kokeshi for distribution to participants of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. One fifth-generation kokeshi artisan, Akihiro Sakurai, was recruited as a student to manufacture these dolls, and he spent a good part of ’64 breathing kokeshi life into wood.
“I’ve been making kokeshi since middle school,” said Sakurai, who is from the Naruko Onsen area of Miyagi Prefecture, a part of Japan where kokeshi craftsmen have plied their trade for centuries. “At the time, there was a kokeshi-making club in school. The club was the centre of my life and the kokeshi makers from our local area came and taught us, and we practiced like mad to make those kokeshi.”
When the athletes received their kokeshi gift, they looked at the base of the doll, and found a rolled up piece of paper inside a cylindrical hole drilled to store the note. This was the message:
To the participants who have come over to this country for the Tokyo Olympic Games.
We, Japan Junior Sports Club Association, give a hearty welcome to you all. Now at this unforgettable time of the Tokyo Olympic Games, we’ve decided to give you a “Kokeshi Doll”, one of our old folk dolls in this country.
This is one of Kokeshi Dolls which were made by the members of Junior Sports Club at Naruko, a branch of J.J.S.A., in Miyagi Prefecture. Naruko is famous for its producing center of Kokeshi Dolls. Well, during this summer vacation, they’ve made these dolls one by one, through the process of cutting woods and pointing them, giving their whole mind to the work.
“Kokeshi Dolls” are wooden ones which have been handed downs since several hundreds years ago in Tohoku district in Japan. They say that these dolls were popular with warriors as ‘mascot’ in expectation of their victory.
This is “Naruko Kokeshi”, which is a well-known toy, enjoyed by the boys and girls all over this country. If we turn its head slowly, it makes a charming sound to hear.
We wish you would accept such a tiny present as a token of a real friendship between you and J.J.S.A.
At this memorable international sports meeting of the Tokyo Olympic Games, we hope you’ll have a good time.
Japan Junior Sports Club Association
(J. J. S. A.)
Please note that the 64th All-Japan Naruko Kokeshi Matsuri (Festival) will be held from August 31 to September 2, 2018. Go to this link for details.
To see a video of a kokeshi doll being created, click here.
A day in the life of a G.I. in Tokyo during the Post-War years of the Allied occupation must have been surreal. Life bustled on wide, clean streets around the Dai Ichi Insurance Building, where the headquarters of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (GHQ) was located while the rest of Tokyo was clearing war rubble, scrambling to subsist, and figuring out how to rebuild.
As described in Post 2, the work arrival and departure times at GHQ of the great General Douglas MacArthur was considered a treat by passersby in those years of 1945 to 1951.
While MacArthur worked long hours seven days a week, it is said that he loved to watch movies. According to this eyewitness in the Armchair General bulletin board, the General watched a move every evening at his residence at the American Embassy compound. As E. H. Freeman, a member of the Honor Guard stated, he would sometimes join in the private viewing.
He was not a particularly social man. His main form of relaxation was watching movies, which he did seven days a week– then dinner around 10:00. One of the “perks” of being an Honor Guard was the fact that the first 35 men to sign the roster could see the movies as well. He sat in an over-stuffed chair in the center of three; his wife Jean to his right; Maj. Story, his pilot to his left. The first thing he did was to light a cigar. We enjoyed going to the movies at the “Big House” as we were able to get first run films. ahead of everyone else.
For the thousands of Americans supporting the effort in Tokyo, watching movies were one of the major forms of entertainment. The movie theater was only a five-minute walk away from GHQ – the old Takarazuka Theater in Yurakucho, which was taken over by GHQ and re-purposed as a theater for allied military. To make it clear, the theater was re-named The Ernie Pyle Theater, named after the famous and popular American war journalist, who died in action in a small island named Iejima, north of Okinawa.
Norman A. Kuehni wrote in Armchair General that he worked in GHQ from 1947-48, helping to publish a brief called the GHQ Daily Bulletin, which included information on the latest at the Ernie Pyle Theater.
I was a Tech 4 and our office was responsible for publishing the GHQ Daily Bulletin along with other duties. Our daily duties included a trip to the Ernie Pyle theater to acquire the current movie schedules. We often visited the Ginza when fulfilling this duty.
The sign for The Ernie Pyle Theater was no more after the Allied Occupation ended in 1952. The original Takarazuka Theater, which was built in 1934, was unfortunately demolished in 1998. The theater was re-born in 2001, another remnant of those Post-War years found only in old pictures.
From August, 28 1945 to April 28, 1952, Japan was not a sovereign nation; instead it was occupied by the Allied nations of the Second World War. And the Allies base of operations during the occupation was an imposing building in its time – The Dai-Ichi Insurance Building. While much of Tokyo was destroyed by American firebombing, the Imperial Palace and the central part of Tokyo were not targeted, perhaps to spare the Emperor, perhaps to leave a habitable space for a conquering military administration.
Completed in 1933, across the moat of the Imperial Palace, it must have been an impressive sight. One of the largest structures in the area at the time, GHQ’s home was a solid stone block of a building with its six-story columns, the American flag flapping from the top, clearly visible from the Imperial Palace. In this building worked the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP), American commander, General Douglas MacArthur.
As wrote Russell Brines, the war correspondent and author of the 1948 book, MacArthur’s Japan, the general commanded respect.
In Tokyo, his personal and legal authority was unquestioned. His headquarters was dominated by military men, accustomed to unquestioning obedience. They echoed his moods, repeated his propaganda, tried to anticipate his wishes. His personality constantly hovered over the ornate Dai Ichi Insurance Company, and other modern buildings, where policy was made in the capital. Civilian officials who disagreed remained discreetly silent.
MacArthur’s office on the sixth floor of the Dai Ichi Insurance Building was surprisingly spartan. His desk was more like a dining table, without drawers, his table often without papers or reports. As a Dai Ichi spokesman said in explanation of the lack drawers,
MacArthur didn’t need any. He was a man who made quick decisions, not the type to pull reports out of his bureau for lengthy consideration.
MacArthur had long days in GHQ. They started around 10 am in the morning. He would then go to his residence in the American Embassy compound around 2:30 pm and return around to GHQ around 4:30. He would then continue his work until about 8:30 pm, a pattern that E. H. Freeman in this discussion board called Armchair General.com said the general did 7 days a week.
MacArthur was as close to a super hero as you can get in those days. Japanese and Americans alike would try to time his arrivals and departures from GHQ to catch a glimpse of him passing through the columns of the Dai Ichi Insurance Building – the Japanese bowing and the GI’s saluting. Bill Zettler wrote about his moment with the man on the discussion board:
In the fall of 1946 I was standing near the front entrance to the Dai Ichi building, camera in hand, hoping to see Mac as he came to work. I did not realize he would use the door behind me. I felt that photographing him at that distance would be impertinent, and so I stepped aside, held the camera behind me, and saluted. He returned that salute, and then I realized I was the only GI in his view, so I had received a PERSONAL salute from the General.
Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓 Hotaru no Haka) was released in 1988, in hindsight, a surprisingly sober film from Studio Ghibli, the production company that has brought the world such wondrous animated films as My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away.
I watched it for the first time this week.
Destruction in war time, no matter which side of a conflict you’re on, is hard to comprehend in times of peace, or in the security of your living room, in front of a large flatscreen TV. And yet, in Grave of the Fireflies, the director, Isao Takahata, transports us to Kobe, Japan, in the waning days of World War II – a time of routine air raids, frantic dashes to air raid shelters, and fruitless attempts to extinguish the fires of napalm bombs dropped from American B-29s.
Over 60 cities in Japan were bombed in the months leading to the war’s end on August 15, 1945, including Kobe, a port city that was a major industrial center, particularly for shipbuilding.
Takahata, based on a short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, tells the semi-autobiographical story of a brother, Seita, and his younger sister, Setsuko, who are orphaned when their mother dies from full-body burns in a air raid, and their father in the Imperial Navy perishes in the Pacific. They stay at an aunt’s home, but as the days pass, the siblings feel they are an unwelcome burden, and leave to survive on their own in an abandoned cave. Their resources dwindling, the two make do, but eventually, Setsuko, and finally, Seita, succumb to the slow death of malnutrition and starvation.
Despite a mild Buddhist tradition of care for the weak and infirm, despite Confucian homilies about reciprocal obligations between social superiors and inferiors, and despite imperial platitudes about all Japanese being “one family” under the emperor, Japan was a harsh inhospitable place for anyone who did not fall into a “proper” social category.
In the early stages of the post-war period in mid-1946, the Ministry of Health and Welfare estimated there about 4,000 war orphans in Japan, but that number climbed to over 120,000 eighteen months later.
According to Dower, the war orphans lived by their wits doing anything they could to survive, “shining shoes, selling newspapers, stealing, recycling cigarette butts, illegally selling food coupons, begging,” with teenage girls ending up prostituting themselves to get by.
Grave of the Fireflies powerfully brings the war orphan experience alive – a desperate experience – and one in the thoughts of the late, great film critic, Roger Ebert that speaks to the unfairness of war in its lack of precision, by showing the innocent nature of these two children, and the agonizing specifics of their circumstances.
I’ve seen a lot of war films. Many of them are exciting, or moving, or dramatic or artistically effective. And a few of them reach you at an emotional level and not just at an action level. I was amazed the first time I watched Grave of the Fireflies that I was actually moved just about to tears by this film. This film has an emotional breadth involving war, and the results of war, and two victims of war that is astonishing.
I think this movie is saying that firebombing is not a very precise way of going after the enemy. It’s a way to destroy morale, a way to break down a nation’s will to resist, but at the same time, are we really thinking about people like this little brother and his even smaller sister, when we drop these bombs. Or are we managing to objectify the Japanese as an evil race who deserve to have this happen to them.
So many decades later, in the 21st century, many around the world have little visceral understanding of the immediate post-war period, their understanding based on text books and dry historical explanations. But Grave of the Fireflies, considered one of the best animated films ever produced, brought that difficult time in history to life, a powerful reminder of what the stakes are when we go to war, and what depths Japan emerged from to get to where it is today – a nation where some of the most beautiful and touching animated works of art have been created.