Wherever they went, they drew huge, enthusiastic crowds.
It was the summer of 1964. Young men and women wearing white tops with the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Emblem, looking something akin to the Japanese flag, ran through the streets, calling to the crowds that the Olympics were coming to Asia.
This was only 19 years after a time when Japanese troops carried their nation’s flag in battlefields of Asia.
Akiko Kuno was a 24-year old Japanese woman working in the Olympic Organizing Committee’s public relations department, and was selected as a member of the Overseas Olympic Torch Relay Mission. This relay wended its way through Okinawa and then Japan, before ending at the Opening Ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympics in the National Stadium.
Kuno, who joined the mission from India, was concerned about the reception the Japanese would get in South East Asia.
The young runners, in cities like Yangon (then Rangoon) and Bangkok ran with a uniform that had the hinomaru on it. At the airport, when we parted I can’t forget what they said. They told me proudly that this was going to be Asia’s first Olympics. They said their hope was that Japan, which lost a war but recovered, can be a model of success, so that one day their own country could one day host an Olympics. “That is the dream that this torch relay gives us,” they told me.
Kuno was one of the few Japanese present to witness a near perfect execution of geopolitical “soft power” in a time when the phrase didn’t exist. She was part of a team of roughly 40, members of the Olympic Organizing Committee (OOC), a JAL crew of pilots, engineers and a stewardess, as well as the Japanese media. They journeyed together for 40 days during the international torch relay that started in Greece on August 21, and passed through Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, India, Myanmar (then Burma), Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Okinawa.
A Dream Job
It was March, 1964 and Kuno had graduated from Keio University. While most of her friends got married after graduation, Kuno wanted to be part of the Olympics. She had good English skills, having studied at Stanford University in California as well as Hope College in Michigan. Equally important, her father was a good friend of Kazushige Hirasawa, a diplomat and an influential senior journalist with NHK, who helped Japan land the 1959 bid for the 1964 Olympics with an inspiring speech.
With Hirasawa’s help, Kuno became a staff member of the Olympic Organizing Committee, which was located in the Akasaka Rikyu Palace, the residence of the Crown Prince before the war. She was assigned to the public relations department, which was located in the study of the Crown Prince.
Kuno had several duties. She took visiting International Olympic Committee (IOC) and National Olympic Committee officials on tours of the various venues that workers were rushing to complete in time for the Games. She coordinated with the international news agencies. For nations that were sending athletes but did not have diplomatic relations with or embassies in Japan, she sourced English-speaking Japanese men who belonged to the Junior Chamber International Japan, people who had the time and means to assist the people from those countries.
And she was asked to take care of the most senior person in the Olympic movement – Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee. Kuno said she was routinely asked to take dictation and type up documents for him, not an easy task for a famous taskmaster.
He said type this and that, and there were a lot of mistakes. I was so scared. I never worked as a secretary. Brundage had a warm heart but he did not smile and he had a short temper.
Of course, when Brundage flawlessly delivered his speech, in Japanese, soliciting the Emperor of Japan to open the Tokyo Olympics, he thanked Kuno for her support in making sure his pronunciation was well practiced.
The Sacred Mission
One day in July, 1964, her role suddenly expanded. Kuno’s supervisor came up to give her an order – that she would be assigned to the overseas torch relay mission. Her only thought? “YAY!”
The Japanese mission that oversaw the operations of the international torch relay traveled together with the sacred Olympic flame, their journey spanning 12 countries and about 16,000 kilometers. This meant that they had to journey by plane. They flew on a DC-6B, a prop plane called “City of Tokyo,” which was outfitted with special safety measures to carry two specially designed containers filled with kerosene and modeled on the design of a coal-mine safety lamp.
Kuno was one of two English interpreters on the team. The first one traveled with the team from Greece to India. Kuno relieved her in Calcutta, India and took responsibility for the second half of the international torch relay. She explained the daily plan.
- The City of Tokyo arrives in the destination’s airport.
- Fumio Takashima, the OOC chairman of the Olympic Torch Relay Committee, lights a torch from the flame of the safety lamp.
- A local dignitary or the NOC Head waits with an unlit torch and Takashima lights his torch.
- Then he passes the flame to the first actual local runner.
- The runners follow a route to the national stadium of that country, or a city hall or a large public space with a big stand.
- The evening included a reception where members of the torch relay mission dined and mingled with the local dignitaries. (Kuno translated for Takashima during these events.)
The next day was the process in reverse, where runners followed the same route back to the airport. According to Kuno, on average, there were about 15 runners one way, and another 15 on the return, although there were also official runners who accompanied the torch bearer.
All the runners were young men and women, their uniforms and the torches donated to them by the Tokyo OOC.
During the course of the relay, the roads were filled with spectators hoping to get a glimpse of the Olympic flame. The organizers escorted the runners with cars preceding and following the torch bearer. Kuno, who was always in the car behind, was particularly anxious during those times.
The fuel within the torch, a mixture of red phosphorus, manganese dioxide and magnesium burned a flare-like red for only 6 minutes. Kuno’s mission was to make sure that the runner got to the next runner within 6 minutes. Having the sacred flame fizzle out in front of thousands would have been humiliating. It wasn’t going to happen on her watch.
The crowd came out onto the road. My job was open the window say in English, “GET AWAY!” And when that didn’t work, I shouted in Japanese, “DOITE!” That got their attention. And the flame never died out.
Kuno remarked that every member of the mission felt it was imperative that the flame never go out during the relay. She said that the President of the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee, Yasukawa Daigoro, took exceptional risk management measures. After the flame was ignited by the sun in a ceremony in Olympia, Greece, he made sure that he got a part of that flame, which he kept on his person.
In those days, Japanese would keep warm on cold evenings with metal mini-heaters the size of a lighter called kairo, which contained a piece of heated charcoal. According to Kuno, Yasukawa, who did not accompany the international tour, ignited a flame for his kairo, and put it in his pocket…just in case the DC-6 City of Tokyo crashed.
Kuno said she was saddened to see the flame go out twice in Fukushima during the start of the Tokyo2020 Torch Relay. For her, the flame represents a powerful symbol for humanity that should never go out.
While working as a part of the torch relay mission, I was so occupied with my responsibility to not let the flame die out. I remember I was so moved to see all these excited people on the streets. I think they saw the flame as a symbol of eternal peace and hope. Throughout the relay, I felt that Asian people were united with the same hope and dream – that war will never happen again.