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Chiharu Ts’baki and Steve Myers rehearsng for my book launch party!

It was October 10, 1964 – a bright and beautiful Autumn day.

After years of hard work, years of worry, years of questioning whether the world would embrace Japan after the turmoil of world war, the Tokyo Olympics had finally arrived.

To the world, Japan was radiant, fresh-faced, smiling from ear to ear, looking at the world with eyes wide open, like a baby, looking at her beautiful mother for the first time.

The feeling at that time was reflected in the song, “Konnichiwa Akachan” (こんにちは赤ちゃん) , sung by Michiyo Azusa. This popular tune was released in 1963, but Japanese would still hear it on the radio and the TV constantly throughout 1964 as it captured the spirit of the time – optimism for a bright future!

Below is the singer, Chiharu Ts’baki and the guitarist Steve Myers, performing “Konnichi was Akachan” (which means “Hello, My Baby!”) at my book launch party on October 10, 2019, the 55th anniversary of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games.

The sense of optimism at the time was powerful, as Japanese adults who made the Olympics possible, and who cheered on and welcomed athletes from all visiting nations, were alive at the end of the Pacific War, when all they and their families knew was poverty, homelessness, hunger, and disease, at least for those in the burned out rubble-strewn cities of Japan.

The Japanese rebuilt the nation and were rightly proud to bring to the world the most logistically demanding global event of its time. And on that beautiful Autumn day on October 10, never was the nation prouder. Japan was akin to a newly born baby, smiling into the eyes of her mother, as in the song.

The person who wrote the lyrics to “Konnichiwa Akachan” was Rokusuke Ei. He also wrote the lyrics to a 1961 song that was very popular during the Olympics, not only to the Japanese, but also to foreigners visiting the country. The song was sung in Japanese, and still sold over 13 million copies worldwide, hitting number 1 on the pop charts in the US, Canada and Australia.

This song was known in Japan as “Ue o Muite Arukou,”(上を向いて歩こう) and its catchy melody made singer Sakamoto Kyu a global star, and made Japan relevant to the world. To the rest of the world, it was known as “Sukiyaki,” the idea of a British music promoter who thought that the Japanese dish would make more sense to the Western world. You can’t argue with success.

If you understand the lyrics,“Ue o Muite Arukou” sounds like a love song, or one of unrequited love. But Rokusuke Ei wrote not about love, but about defeat.

Ei participated in the anti-government protests against Japan’s signing of the Mutual Treaty of Cooperation and Security with America. And after the government signed the treaty, American soldiers and military bases were allowed to remain in the country. Ei was sad, and wrote that famous song, reflecting a more complex relationship Japan had with the West, particularly the United States.

While anti-government protests were happening in Japan in the early 1960s and around the world, they were gaining real force in the late 1960s. In fact, the 1968 Mexico City Olympics were scarred by the killing of dozens if not hundreds of students during an anti-government protest by government forces, only 10 days prior to the start of those Games.

If the Olympics came to Tokyo in 1968, it’s likely that the clamor of anti-government protests in Japan would have created tension if not trouble during the Games.

If the Games came to Tokyo in 1960, it’s likely that the Japanese economy in the 1950s, while accelerating, would not have been robust enough to support the organization of the Games for the summer of 1960.

In other words, 1964 was the perfect time, the right time. And after the successful completion of the 1964 Olympics, they were often called the Happy Games, and in retrospect, the Last innocent Games.

Two of Rokusuke Ei’s most popular songs captured the mood of the time, and are, in my mind, intertwined with the joy and wonder the Japanese had for the XVIII Olympiad in Tokyo.

Here again are Chiharu Ts’baki and Steve Myers with their beautiful rendition of “Ue o Muite, Arukou.”

Three high school friends from Yokohama are on a mission as they take the train to downtown Tokyo. In Goro Miyazaki‘s film, From Up on Poppy Hill (コクリコ坂から), it’s 1963, the Olympics are a year away, and Tokyo is crowded with people, congested with cars, and filled with the sounds of jackhammers and creaking of cranes.

Up on Poppy Hill_construction

Change is coming to Tokyo, for good and for bad. A subplot focuses on the high school students who are protesting the decision to demolish an old mansion that houses the various clubs that make the school’s social tapestry: the philosopher’s club, a newspaper, a group that forecasts the contents of future exams. A small group of students eventually change the views of the majority who had previously believed that “out with the old and in with the new” applied to all places and things. This sweeping change in views saves the club house.

Certainly, that was a powerful societal theme in Tokyo in the 1960s – How do we change and modernize so that the international community looks upon Japan with respect and admiration, while still maintaining who we are as Japanese?

Up on Poppy Hill_Olympic Sign
“For a successful Olympics, make Tokyo beautiful.”

The main plot is a love story between Umi, a girl who lost her father in the Korean War, and Kazuma, a boy who’s real father is a mystery, but was at first suspected to be the same as Umi’s. The mystery unravels as Umi and Kazuma ask questions about their past, learning of the pain and angst of their parents’ generation who lived and died in the turmoil and confusion of the Pacific and Korean wars.

And yet, because this is a story of young love, the tone is upbeat and sweet. The son of acclaimed anime director and screen writer of this film, Hayao Miyazaki, applies a rosy sentimental touch to the times. The film opens with a springy, jazzy tune called “The Breakfast Song”, that speaks of the optimism that comes with the day’s first meal.

The scene when Umi and Kazuma’s love first blooms enters with the bouncy hit song of that time, Kyu Sakamoto’s “Ue o Muite, Arukou” (aka: The Sukyaki Song). You can see that in this clip below (with English subtitles).

Want to take a nostalgic look at Japan in 1963? Watch From Up on Poppy Hill.