Fuji Film 6_Sakai lights the cauldron

This is part two highlighting the powerful black and white photos of the opening day ceremonies of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, 53 years ago yesterday. The photo above, from this series compiled by Fuji Film, captured one of the most dramatic moments of the Tokyo Games.

The sacred flame that lit the Olympic cauldron, which burned for the 16 days of the Tokyo Olympics, was initially lit 51 days earlier on August 21 in Olympia, Greece. The flame then travelled through 12 countries in Eurasia, including Turkey, Lebanon, Iran Thailand, Malaysia and Taiwan, before landing in Japan. The flame was distributed to four torches, which then made their way through all prefectures in Japan. The four flames came together in Tokyo and the final torch bearer was Yoshinori Sakai, a university runner selected because he happened to be born on August 6, 1945 in Hiroshima, the day the world entered the nuclear war age.

Fuji Film 7_Takashi Ono delivers Olympic oath

After the Olympic cauldron was lit, the flag bearers of the 93 nations formed a semi-circle around the lectern, where Japanese gymnast Takashi Ono, stood. Ono, a veteran participating in his fourth Olympics, who accumulated 5 golds and 13 total medals since the 1952 Helsinki Games, delivered the athlete’s oath.

In the name of all competitors, I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules that govern them, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honor of our teams.

Fuji Film 8_Ten thousand pigeons released

After the oath, 8,000 pigeons were released. I’m sure it was a spectacular image on television and in the newspapers and magazines, but it was a bit of an annoyance to athletes and spectator alike who tried and failed to dodge the guano bombs of the birds who were probably less than thrilled with being cooped up in cages and then suddenly released into the air above the stadium. One athlete told me that the water pressure in the Olympic Village dropped drastically as everyone showered at the same time to rid themselves of their unwanted opening day souvenir.

October 10, 1964. In the annals of 20th century Japanese history, it was truly a day to remember.

Fuji Film 10_Aerial view of the National Stadium

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Hiroshima torch relay
The torch relay passing through Hiroshima prior to the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, from the book 1964 Tokyo Olympiad Kyodo News Agency

One thing certain about the dates of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics: July 24 to August 9, 2020. It will be hot and muggy!

One less obvious thing recently occurred to me about the dates. The final week of the Tokyo Olympics falls on the 75th anniversaries of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Was it intended to bring attention to the worst days in Japanese history, during the proudest days of the nation’s history?

Of course it was. It’s impossible to imagine that no one in the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee or the IOC noticed that the closing ceremonies of the Olympics would take place on the day the second atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, thus expediting the eventual end of the war six days later.

On the contrary, the organizers must have thought that the final day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics would be an opportunity to solemnly (and hopefully tastefully) implore the world that peace and love trump war and hate.

Such a closing ceremony would provide a poetic bookend to the opening ceremony of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Only 19 years removed from the end of WWW II, it was a 19-year-old student from Waseda University named Yoshinori Sakai who carried the sacred flame up the National Stadium’s steps to light the Olympic cauldron on October 10, 1964.

Sakai was born in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the very day that the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb called “Little Boy” on Sakai’s hometown.

All he was saying was give peace a chance.

Edwared Seidensticker

Edward Seidensticker was a translator from Japanese to English, and was so proficient in Japanese that by the time the Tokyo Olympics rolled around in 1964, he had already translated the works of Japanese novelists Niwa Fumio and Tanizaki Junichiro. He would go on to translate one of the world’s earliest novels, “The Tale of Genji” as well as the works of Kawabata Yasunari, which led to his selection as the first Japanese to receive a Nobel Prize.

But his formative years as a young adult was as a translator for the US Marines in the Pacific War, as well as in Post-War Japan during the American occupation. And in the weeks leading up to Tokyo Olympics, Seidensticker reportedly stuck his neck out.

It was already news that the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee had selected a 19-year-old freshman from Waseda University named Yoshinori Sakai to run into the National Olympic Stadium, carry the sacred Olympic torch up the steps and then light the Olympic cauldron. Sakai was born on August 6, 1941, in Hiroshima, the day an atom bomb was dropped on that city.

Sakai at cauldron 2

Seidensticker was reported to have objected to this particular selection, saying that choosing Sakai was not “incidental”, and that it was “unpleasant to the Americans”.

When a member of the International Olympic Committee was asked to comment on Seidensticker’s reaction, G. D. Sondhi of India, who had just witnessed Sakai’s torch lighting at the opening ceremonies, replied “He is good and I’m happy to see him do it so nicely. We must bring young people in the Olympics and let those old men just sit and help them.” Sondhi went on to say in an article from the October 11, 1964 Mainichi Daily News that he did not think Sakai’s selection to be political, and rather thought that Sakai was “a big hope” for Japan, and was “the most touching of all Olympic ceremonies I ever saw”.

Take a look at the first 10 minutes of Kon Ichikawa‘s classic documentary, Tokyo Olympiad. Ichikawa shows in dramatic fashion the blazing sun, old buildings being demolished making way for modern-looking stadiums. Ichikawa charts the path of the sacred flame, ignited in Greece, and carried in an amazing international relay through the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, North Asian and finally into Japan.

After the torch leaves Okinawa, it arrives in Hiroshima. As you can see at about the 6-minute mark of the film, Ichikawa uses a helicopter to focus in on the famed Hiroshima Dome, its skeletal frame a reminder of the atomic bomb’s power, and a symbol for resilience. The Mainichi Daily News wondered if this scene would also arouse the ire of Seidensticker and others like him.

October 1964 was barely 19 years removed from the disastrous end to the war in Japan. Those who remembered the war on both sides could be excused for a nerve unexpectedly exposed on occasion. But I can’t help but believe that the choice of Sakai, born symbolically out of the ashes of Japan’s greatest disaster, was an inspired and most appropriate choice.