Edward Seidensticker was a translator from Japanese to English, and was so proficient in Japanese that by the time the Tokyo Olympics rolled around in 1964, he had already translated the works of Japanese novelists Niwa Fumio and Tanizaki Junichiro. He would go on to translate one of the world’s earliest novels, “The Tale of Genji” as well as the works of Kawabata Yasunari, which led to his selection as the first Japanese to receive a Nobel Prize.
But his formative years as a young adult was as a translator for the US Marines in the Pacific War, as well as in Post-War Japan during the American occupation. And in the weeks leading up to Tokyo Olympics, Seidensticker reportedly stuck his neck out.
It was already news that the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee had selected a 19-year-old freshman from Waseda University named Yoshinori Sakai to run into the National Olympic Stadium, carry the sacred Olympic torch up the steps and then light the Olympic cauldron. Sakai was born on August 6, 1941, in Hiroshima, the day an atom bomb was dropped on that city.
Seidensticker was reported to have objected to this particular selection, saying that choosing Sakai was not “incidental”, and that it was “unpleasant to the Americans”.
When a member of the International Olympic Committee was asked to comment on Seidensticker’s reaction, G. D. Sondhi of India, who had just witnessed Sakai’s torch lighting at the opening ceremonies, replied “He is good and I’m happy to see him do it so nicely. We must bring young people in the Olympics and let those old men just sit and help them.” Sondhi went on to say in an article from the October 11, 1964 Mainichi Daily News that he did not think Sakai’s selection to be political, and rather thought that Sakai was “a big hope” for Japan, and was “the most touching of all Olympic ceremonies I ever saw”.
Take a look at the first 10 minutes of Kon Ichikawa‘s classic documentary, Tokyo Olympiad. Ichikawa shows in dramatic fashion the blazing sun, old buildings being demolished making way for modern-looking stadiums. Ichikawa charts the path of the sacred flame, ignited in Greece, and carried in an amazing international relay through the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, North Asian and finally into Japan.
After the torch leaves Okinawa, it arrives in Hiroshima. As you can see at about the 6-minute mark of the film, Ichikawa uses a helicopter to focus in on the famed Hiroshima Dome, its skeletal frame a reminder of the atomic bomb’s power, and a symbol for resilience. The Mainichi Daily News wondered if this scene would also arouse the ire of Seidensticker and others like him.
October 1964 was barely 19 years removed from the disastrous end to the war in Japan. Those who remembered the war on both sides could be excused for a nerve unexpectedly exposed on occasion. But I can’t help but believe that the choice of Sakai, born symbolically out of the ashes of Japan’s greatest disaster, was an inspired and most appropriate choice.