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.

Cabral (center-left, pointing) sights the Brazilian mainland for the first time on 22 April 1500.
In March of the year 1500, the Portuguese explorer, Pedro Álvares Cabral, left Lisbon and led a fleet of 13 ships and 1500 men to India. Instead of going straight South, and taking the turn around the Cape of Good Hope at the bottom of Africa before heading up the African coast to India, Cabral went southwest. 

India was the land of riches, where spices like pepper made men rich. But southwest Cabral headed, and about six months after leaving Portugal, they dropped anchor in a natural harbor they named “Porto Seguro”, or Safe Port. The Portuguese traded with the locals, whom they called “Indians”, hunted, fished and foraged for food stocks, and held Christian Mass. They built a 7-meter tall cross made of wood, thus establishing their claim as Christians and men of the Portuguese Kingdom. A few weeks later, Cabral led the fleet on to India and riches, thus becoming the first explorer to venture across four different continents: Europe, Americas, Africa and Asia.

Since the early 15th century, Portuguese explorers have spanned the globe seeking items of value and territories to possess. The Portuguese Empire dotted Africa and Asia: Timor and Malacca in Southeast Asia, Macau in China, Goa in India, and what are now called Angola and Mozambique in Africa, for example.

And while Portugal never established any permanent stronghold in Japan, Portugal has had an impact on Japan since the 16th Century, when Portuguese traders turned the sleepy port town of Nagasaki into a bustling center for international commerce. For the first time, Japanese were exposed to tobacco, bread and Christianity.

Nagasaki Castella
While Christianity never took root in Japan, other customs did, as evidenced by words now considered Japanese (see source here):

  • Buranko (ブランコ): From the Portuguese word balancé or baloiço, “buranko” is the word for “swing” in English.
  • Castella (カステラ): From the Portuguese “Pão de Castela”, which means “bread from Castile”, a region in Spain, is today the word for a popular Japanese sponge cake, often found in gift shops in Nagasaki.
  • Tempura (天麩羅): And most famously, this classic example of popular Japanese cuisine, tempura, came to Japan via the Portuguese missionaries in Nagasaki, who would cook up a Portuguese dish called “peixinhos da horta“, commonly green beans dipped in batter and then fried. One etymological explanation, according to Wikipedia, is that

The word “tempura”, or the technique of dipping fish and vegetables into a batter and frying them, comes from the word “tempora”, a Latin word meaning “times”, “time period” used by both Spanish and Portuguese missionaries to refer to the Lenten period or Ember Days (ad tempora quadragesimae), Fridays, and other Christian holy days. Ember Days or quattuor tempora refer to holy days when Catholics avoid red meat and instead eat fish or vegetables.

Peixinhos_da_horta_precursor to tempura
Peixinhos da horta, the Portuguese ancestor of Japanese tempura
And now you know the rest of the story.

Nagasaki Peace Park
On August 9, a plutonium bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, 70 years ago. The primary target of the B-29 carrying “Fat Man” was a city in Kyushuu called Kokura.

Kokura was the location of munitions factories, which had been targets of US bombers in previous days. In fact, the smoke of burned-out factories, as well as the dense smoke from burning coal tar done with purpose by Japanese on the ground, was so bad that the bomber pilots decided to move on to their secondary target – Nagasaki.

And the rest is history.

This last tidbit is tiny in the context of this story. The reason isn’t clear to me, but the sport of Keirin was initiated in the city of Kokura in 1948. Keirin, a bicycle race that takes place on an oval track, was devised to raise money through gambling. According to this article, over 55,000 people came out on a single day to the Kokura Velodrome, raising close to 20 million yen, motivating local governments to arrange similar activities.

Keirin became an Olympic sport in 2000 at the Sydney Games. Racing around a track for 2 kilometers, differentiated by its use of an accelerating motorized bicycle that sets the pace, Keirin has become one of the most popular racing events in the Olympics.

keirin japan