hotel-okura-under-construction-1961
Hotel Okura under construction in 1961
It was the middle of winter, and yet on January 1, 1964, Tokyo was hot! In fact, the way the foreign press described it, Japan was running a temperature!

“Japan Feverishly Prepares for the 1964 Olympic Games” – AP, January 1, 1964

“World’s Biggest City Suffering Olympic Fever” – UPI, January 2, 1964

Here’s how the major American news services – AP and UPI – explained the state of Tokyo only 10 months before the opening of the XVIII Olympiad:

A strange fever previously unknown in the Orient is gripping Japan. Symptoms include intense worry and a driving compulsion to build things. It’s called Olympic fever. Japan is lunging helter skelter toward that magic day when the 1964 Olympic games open in Tokyo. (AP)

The entire city is afflicted with “Olympic hysteria”, from the prime minister whose political future hinges on the games to the man in the street who curses the inconveniences he has to put up with for the Olympics: the high prices he has to pay, the scaffoldings he had to duck, the torn-up streets around which he has to detour. (UPI)

Again, this was 1964, less than a generation removed from the devastating effects of the Pacific War. Indeed, Tokyo was still emerging (and groaning) from the physical and emotional remains of war rubble, at least as the AP described it:

Tokyo essentially is a city just 18 years old, built on piles of ashes and rubble left by American bombers during World War II. Tokyo has grown haphazardly since 1945, with small, almost ramshackle, houses springing up in disorderly profusion along twisting, narrow streets. Trains are overcrowded. Prices are high. The city chronically has been short of housing, water – just about everything today’s tourists wants and expects. The population has grown so much (to more than 10 millions) that the city fathers have pleaded with the youth of Japan to stay on their farms in the villages and not come to the big city. But on they come, crowding in where there is no room.

national-gymnasium-under-construction
The National Gymnasium complex under construction in Tokyo on June 6, 1964, just a few months before the games were to begin. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
While it might be hard to imagine today in Tokyo, where large-scale construction is on the whole, relatively and remarkably quiet and unobtrusive, it was for Tokyo denizens in the early 1960s, the bane of their existence. And safety was at times taken for granted, according to AP:

Tokyo, the largest, noisiest, most crowded city in the world, is getting a needed facelifting. The roar of new buildings and bridges going up – and occasionally falling down – fills the night and day. Bamboo scaffolding is everywhere and thousands of workmen clamber up and down, painting and plastering, putting finishing touches on new hotels, restaurants and night clubs.

At least two major Olympic construction projects have collapsed – an elevated expressway and the steel frame roof for a swimming pool. One person was killed and 25 were injured…. In an editorial titled, “no Fun and Games,” Yomiuri declared inexperienced workmen are being used on many Olympic projects and elementary safety precautions are being ignored.

We are three years away from January, 2020. Will history repeat itself? Will Tokyo be an overcrowded, noisy, chaotic city creaking its way to the Opening Ceremonies on July 24, 2020? I doubt it. Will Tokyo again be gripped in Olympic fever? Most definitely yes.

Sazae-san_Eight and a Half Million People

Another great comic strip from Machiko Hasegawa, in the book “The Best of Sazae-san: The Olympic Years“.

Sazae-san’s husband, Masuo, is coming home from work and bumps into a friend. It’s an excuse for Hasegawa to comment on the massive population of the world’s most populous city at the time – Tokyo – which in turn is an excuse for Masuo and his friend to have a drink.

Drinking alcohol in Japan has always been a significant part of Japanese society, the lubricant that eases interactions between people who ordinarily behave formally with each other, the softener that allows the hair to come down, and the relaxant that turns those frowns upside down.

This is especially true in the office life of Tokyo, where most of the populace commute via train and bus and thus have little concern about having a drink or two or three after work. And for the retired generation, those who remember the industrious days of the 1960s and 1970s, drinking together at parties and at company trips to the countryside was the best way to build camaraderie across teams and functions. Drinking with clients after a routine meeting or at the year-end parties were ideal ways to relax the tensions built up between salesmen and customers. It is called “nomunication“, a cross between the word “nomu” which is Japanese for the verb “to drink”, and communication. Here is how Japan Today describes it:

Japanese salespeople frequently woo their clients over drinks, knowing that although explicit deal making is never done during this type of socializing, a deal is rarely won with- out it. Of course, drinking to build trust is not just a Japanese custom. Across East Asia, whether you are working in China, Thailand, or Korea, doing a substantial amount of drinking with customers and collaborators is a common step in the trust-building process.

Many people from task-based cultures don’t get it. “Why would I risk making a fool of myself in front of the very people I need to impress?” they wonder. But that is exactly the point. When you share a round of drinks with a business partner, you show that person you have nothing to hide. And when they “drink until they fall down” with you, they show you that they are willing to let their guard down completely. “Don’t worry about looking stupid,” Hiroki reassured our German manager, who had begun wringing his hands nervously. “The more you are willing to remove social barriers in the evening, the more they will see you as trustworthy.”

drinking in japan_JT

Times are changing. Alcohol consumption among men is dropping, while alcohol consumption among Japanese women is rising. Additionally, Japanese in their 20s and 30s are less likely to go drinking with company colleagues or clients at a drop of the hat as a desire for independence has grown in recent decades. I am an internal consultant in leadership development, and I remember a conversation about a Japanese leader who had strong leadership potential in sales, but was given negative feedback because he didn’t drink alcohol. “How could he shmooze the clients if he didn’t drink with them”, went the argument. Thankfully, executives in that company ignored that particular criteria, enabling that leader to climb the ranks.

Kanpai! I’ll drink to that!