Seventeen-year-old Dick Roth, winner of the individual medley race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, was thirteen years old when he first travelled with the US swim team to Japan in 1960. He remembers being treated like a celebrity. Toward the end of his stay, the team went to Nikko, the beautiful resort town not far from Tokyo. And while walking about the woods with the team, he saw something he clearly remembers today.
I wandered off on my own, which was a habit I have when I travel, skipping the handlers. I was walking back to the lodge and I came face to face with a group of eight to ten horribly disfigured children of my age, probably older. They were from Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Later I talked with one of my handlers and asked about them. He said they were also on a tour. The organizers were trying to keep us apart. I was shocked and horrified. To think anyone could do anything so barbaric. I know we dropped the bomb to shorten the war. But it’s a visceral feeling I will never forget.
Back in Tokyo four years later, Roth also remembers the Opening Ceremonies when a sole torchbearer ran into the National Stadium. “The torchbearer came in and there was cheering and a kind of reverence. I don’t know what to call it. The attention was locked on this individual. I was stunned by the switch in the crowd. He got to the top and turned around. It was like another one of those moments that defies description. When he stood there and held the torch high, I was stunned.”
Roth was referring to Yoshinori Sakai, who was born in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the day an atomic bomb was dropped on his city. “When he reached the bottom of the stairs he didn’t stop, just ran up the stairs in stride. He only paused at the top, turning to face the full stadium and the world. He then turned and lit the flame, causing an entire nation a collective moment of pride and sadness.”
It was a bold move. For a country that was trying desperately to erase from its collective memory the horrors of World War II, the Olympic organizers risked offending the United States of America by reminding the world that Japan was the first and only country to be attacked by nuclear weapons.
In fact, prominent Japanophile and translator of such classics as The Tale of Genji, American Edwin Seidensticker, said that the selection of Sakai as the final torchbearer was not “incidental,” and was “unpleasant to Americans.”
When G. D. Sondhi of India, a member of the International Olympic Committee who had just witnessed Sakai’s torch lighting at the opening ceremonies, was asked to comment on Seidensticker’s reaction, he replied, “He (Sakai) 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 that he did not think Sakai’s selection to be political, and rather thought that Sakai represented “a big hope” for Japan, and that his was “the most touching of all Olympic ceremonies I ever saw.”
Still, it’s amazing that the organizers, on Japan’s biggest day, consciously chose to highlight Hiroshima via Sakai—whom the press dubbed “Atomic Bomb Boy”—a poke in the ribs of the United States.
“Imagine coming out of a subway station in New York and all you see is horizon,” said Jan Palchikoff. That was her way of imagining what her father witnessed when he arrived in Hiroshima a few weeks after it was flattened by the first atomic bomb ever used in military conflict.
Jan was an Olympic rower who competed in the double sculls at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, one of nearly 400 who competed on Team USA. But her story of why she competed as an American is distinctly unique.
In 1942, after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941, Jan’s father, Nikolay, was 17 years old and he wanted to join the US Army. He had emigrated to America in 1940, attended high school in Los Angeles and then worked odd jobs as a janitor and sales before answering the call for army recruits.
He wasn’t even an American citizen. But he did speak fluent Japanese and Russian.
Nikolay eventually made his way to the Pacific theater, lent out to the Navy to question Japanese soldiers and listen in on radio conversations in Japanese. He did intelligence work in New Caledonia and the Philippines, roaming the seas in an American naval convoy as kamikaze pilots and Mitsubishi G4M bombers attacked.
When Japan surrendered, Nikolay was sent to Japan to help seek out safe places for American troops to land in the Tokyo area to ensure the safety of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, General Douglas MacArthur, for the surrender ceremony. And when MacArthur oversaw the signing of the instrument of surrender on the USS Missouri, Nikolay watched from a higher perch on the USS General Pershing, which was docked next to the Missouri.
With his primary duty in Japan done, Nikolay insisted that he be allowed to go to Hiroshima. Only one month after the atomic bomb was dropped on that city, the Army intended to send him to Korea, and was reluctant to send a random American soldier over 800 kilometers to the Western part of Japan which was not yet considered safe and secure.
But Nikolay was insistent. After all, Hiroshima was where he was born, and where his parents were.
Nikolay’s father, Sergei Palchikoff, was a Tsarist from Kazan, Russia, who fought the Communists across Imperial Russia before commandeering a ship in Vladivostok and escaping to Japan. Sergei and a few other Russian families ended up staying in Hiroshima.
A jarring fixture in Hiroshima, the Caucasian Palchikoffs stood out in the Japanese streets. Sergei made his way and built up social capital by teaching violin in an all-girls school, as well as teaching Russian and English.
Nikolay was born in Hiroshima, feeling at home playing Japanese war games with his neighborhood friends. As he said in this Japanese article, “When I lived in Hiroshima, I had many friends and I had never been treated as a foreigner. I was accepted as a single Hiroshima person – swimming, fishing in the river, riding around the city by bicycle.”
However, as the 21-year-old approached Hiroshima on the train, he began to realize that his hometown would not be the same. His train passed the Kurii Naval Base and “you could see that all the Japanese ships were rusting, turned over” as Kurii had been shelled “for three days and nights. And I thought, “My god, Hiroshima couldn’t possibly be worse than this. And I was wrong.”
There was of course, nothing alive, no plants. No birds chirping. In Japan, there are these cicadas, and they make noise all day long. They’re up in the trees, and we used to try to catch them. Nothing. Dead silence. And I approached my house. There was nothing there, except my wrought-iron bed is used to sleep in, so I knew I was at the right place.
Nikolay could not find his family amidst the rubble. When he encountered one of the Parasuchin’s, one of the few other Russians living in Hiroshima, Nikolay was informed that the Russians were rounded up by the police and had taken them all to the mountainside. Whatever the reason for that, the Palchikoff’s were not in the central part of Hiroshima when the bomb hit. In fact, Nikolay’s parents, as well as his brother, David, and sister, Kaleria, were still alive!
The Palchikoffs were moved to a town called Taishaku away from the bomb blast and the initial spray of radiation. As far as the family in Hiroshima knew, their eldest son was in high school in America. But then one day, he shows up on their doorstep in a uniform, one of the first American soldiers to appear in Hiroshima.
It is hard to fathom the emotions of such a reunion. Most of this narrative is taken from an interview of Nikolay in May, 2003. In the parts of the transcript where Nikolay is describing his return to Hiroshima, you can see the word “Cries” in brackets, where Nikolay apparently would be talking through his tears.
Nikolay’s sister, Kaleria, was interviewed shortly after the end of the war, her memories an example of the horrors the people of Hiroshima witnessed. In this excerpt, broadcasted on NPR, she described her shock at seeing people whose skin color were burned dark by the blast, and the subsequent radiation sickness that befell them.
We saw Negroes. They weren’t Japanese. They were Negroes. I asked them what happened to them. ‘We saw the flash and this is the color we turned.’ We reached the military hospital. I stayed there for two days. There were people wounded, badly wounded. The skin just peeled off. Some of them you could see the bone. The eyes were closed, the nose bled, the lips swelled, the whole head started swelling. As soon as they gave them water, they vomited it all out, and they would keep on vomiting until they died. On the second day, the wounds became yellow in color, and it would go deeper and deeper. No matter how much you tried to take off the yellow rotten flesh it would go deeper and deeper.
Nikolay had to return to duty back in Tokyo, and then in Korea. In the meanwhile, he made sure that his parents and siblings got safe transport back to Tokyo. He was also able to get his father a job in the Officers’ Club in Tokyo. In January, 1946, Nikolay was allowed to return to the United States, and he was able to bring his family with him.
After returning stateside, Nikolay had an appendicitis attack and went to the hospital, where he had his appendix removed, and his heart stolen by a nurse named Dawn Clarke. Nikolay and Dawn got married, and had four children: Jan, Kim, Kai and Jay.
Jan rowed for UCLA, and then for Team USA at the Montreal Olympics. She is still an active athlete who competes in Masters competitions in cycling. She also currently serves as the senior vice president for sports & programs for Special Olympics Southern California.
But the journey of her family that brought Jan to achieve Olympian heights was a century-long road through the Siberian steppes and the atomic wasteland of Hiroshima.
Remembering my grandparents and my parents, it occurs to me now that one of the common threads that runs through our lives is simple perseverance – necessary for survival and for facing adversity and challenges. My grandparents’ story and how my dad ended up in the US and met my mother has always filled me with awe, wonder and inspiration. While I was not fighting for my life in sport, I am positive that the drive my grandparents had is alive in me today. Perseverance and the drive to succeed most certainly are defining factors in my journey as an athlete and in my individual character.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.