Hotel New Otani 1964
Hotel New Otani, 1964

 

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.

As Bruce Suttmeier wrote in his essay, Held Hostage to History: Okuda Hideo’s Olympic Ransom:

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.

Hotel New Otani from old to new

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Igor Ter-Ovanesyan in 1964
Igor Ter-Ovanesyan in 1964

In 1964, there was an expectation that athletes would defect. It was the time of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis, George Smiley and James Bond. The Cold War was real, and spooks were everywhere. According to a Sports Illustrated article from November 2, 1964, though, rumors were often just rumors.

In the Olympic Village, sportswriters had recurrent visions of Soviet athletes popping over the back fence and dashing for the U.S. Embassy. One report got around that Broad Jumper Igor Ter-Ovanesyan was practically under house arrest. The truth was that if concern was rampant among Soviet worriers over life in post-Khrushchev Russia, there was no panic and defections were not likely. Ter-Ovanesyan seemed to have complete freedom of movement and freedom of speech.

It wasn’t just 1964 that people thought Ter-Ovanesyan was susceptible to defecting. There was an actual attempt to do so in 1960. At those Games in Rome, American sprinter, David Sime, was in the running for a medal, if not the gold medal, in the 100 meters. Sime (sounds like “rim”) was pulled into the spy vortex, and was recruited by the US government to assist in persuading an athlete from the Soviet Union for defection. The mark was Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, a 22-year old at the time, who appeared to have a Western flair and a love for things Americana. He self-taught himself English. He listened to jazz. And his idol was Jesse Owens.

According to David Maraniss’ fascinating account in his book Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World, Sime approached Ter-Ovanesyan on the track during a practice. They talked. They liked each other. They agreed to meet again for dinner. When they met for dinner, they talked about Ter-Ovanesyan’s life in the Soviet Union, which he claimed was pretty good: “In the Soviet Union, he was taken care of; he had an apartment, a car, a teaching slot at the sports university. ‘And they give me a lot if I win a medal here,’ he said. Sime said he did not know what the United States could offer, except freedom, maybe set up him up as a track star out in sunny California, out near the film stars and beautiful people and fast cars.”

David Same, Armin Hary and Peter Radford - silver, gold and bronze medalists in the 100 meter race in Rome 1960.
David Sime, Armin Hary and Peter Radford – silver, gold and bronze medalists in the 100 meter race in Rome 1960.

In other words, was Ter-Ovanesyan really looking to defect? Well,