Tokyo Olympics with Rafer Johnson
Thomas Tomizawa with the NBC News team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Rafer Johnson seated.

My father was a member of the NBC News Team that covered the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He’s far left, and that’s Rafer Johnson, Rome decathlete champion, seated, also a member of the news crew. The crew are wearing protective masks, being cheeky. They probably saw a lot of Japanese wearing these masks in and around town.

In modern-day Tokyo, men and women routinely wear masks during hay fever season to avoid the pollen, or during the fall and winter months to avoid giving others their colds. But I now realize that in 1964, the reason for wearing the masks was different – the air back then was filthy. Routinely in these crisp winter days, we have perfect views of Mt Fuji. Back then you couldn’t see it for the pollution. In the 1960s, Tokyo was a year-round cloud of dust. Here’s how writer, Robert Whiting described it in the Japan Times: “Tokyoites dwelled under a constant cloud of noise, dust and pollution as the city struggled to rebuild itself from the wreckage of the American B-29 Superfortress bombings.”

The dust, the noise, the smells, the ever-changing skyline and the disorientation with unprecedented change – for many, the transformation of Tokyo was overwhelming. What took the West a couple of generations to do – moving from agriculture to manufacturing – Japan was trying to do much faster. While the pace of change was exciting to many, giving them hope after post-war desperation, the 1960s was also a period of confusion and alienation for those coping with life in the most crowded city in the world.

 

Documentary Tokyo
Screenshot from NHK documentary, Tokyo.

 

I took an EdX MOOC course called Visualizing Postwar Tokyo under Professor Shunya Yoshimi of The University of Tokyo in which he highlighted the stress people in Tokyo were under due to this change. He shared the opening minutes of this NHK documentary called “Tokyo”, by director Naoya Yoshida, which shows the crowds, the noise, the traffic and the construction through the eyes of a woman whose father was killed in the Tokyo firebombings and mother who ran away from home.

As the woman says in the documentary, “Tokyo, unplanned and full of constructions sites, is no place for a human being to live. Only a robot with no sense could live in this rough, coarse, harsh and dusty city that doesn’t have any blue skies. Many people complain like this. But I disagree. I think this city is just desperately hanging along, just like me.”

As Professor Yoshimi said, “the woman in this film is a symbol of the isolation in the big cities.”

But again, rest assured. Tokyo is one of the biggest cities in the world, and today, is arguably, the cleanest.

Mt Fuji from Roppongi
The view from my office.
Season_of_the_Sun_poster
1956 film, Season of the Sun (Taiyou no Kisetsu)

 

If surfing comes to the Tokyo Olympics, it’s possible surfers will have the American military to thank.

After the Pacific War ended and General MacArthur assumed nearly imperial-like status in running Japan, military bases with thousands of American troops were established throughout the country. As explained in a previous post, American soldiers and their families were particularly prominent in the Shinjuku and Roppongi areas, significantly influencing the fashion and music of those areas in the 1950s and 1960s.

 

Screen capture of Prof Shunya Yoshima and Kanagawa Prefecture
Screen capture of Tokyo University Professor Shunya Yoshimi’s EdX course, Visualizing Postwar Tokyo.

 

In Kanagawa Prefecture, which is just south of Tokyo are two major American military bases, Atsugi and Yokosuka. A spot in between those two bases is a beach called Shonan, which today is considered a popular place for sun worshippers and surfers. The image of Shonan as a surfer’s hangout was most certainly cultivated by American soldiers who brought their music and surfboards to the beach. As Tokyo University professor, Shunya Yoshimi, explained in his EdX course, Visualizing Postwar Japan, “Kanagawa Prefecture or Shonan area was one of the most important areas where American military facilities remained even after the 1960s. And from these military facilities, sporting culture, marine culture, music culture, many kinds of American military culture spread out which people enjoyed.”

Marketers in Japan immediately noticed the influence and the emerging love of beach culture in Shonan. As Professor Yoshimi explained further, Hawaii, or the image of a Hawaiian lifestyle began to enter the Japanese pop consciousness. Prof Yoshimi uses as a case in point an advertisement of TRIS Whiskey, in which the company, Suntory, offers a trip to Hawaii to a lucky 100 Japanese people. Hawaii in the 1960s, for mainland Americans and Japanese alike, was becoming the exotic paradise that people dreamed of visiting. Today, of course, Hawaii is one of the most popular holiday destinations for Japanese.

 

Suntory Ad for TRIS Whiskey
Suntory ad for TRIS Whiskey offering 100 people a trip to Hawaii.

 

One of the more influential movies of the time was called “Season of the Sun”, which came out in 1956, based on a novel by Shintaro Ishihara. Season of the Sun was a love story between a boy, who runs with a rough crowd, and a rich girl, with life on the beach as a central part of the storyline.

Influenced by the surfing culture of beaches like Shonan, and with a desire to inject youth and fun into the Olympics, the Tokyo Olympic Committee nominated surfing to become an Olympic sport in 2020.