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The 1964 Games Proclaimed a New Japan. There’s Less to Cheer This Time.

TOKYO — The Japanese capital is undergoing a resurgence. In October 1964, under clear blue skies, Emperor Hirohito of Japan stood before a resurrected nation to proclaim the beginning of the Tokyo Olympic Games. A voice that the Japanese public had first heard in World War II, announcing the country’s surrender, now echoed across a packed stadium that was brimming with excitement as the ceremony approached.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Summer Olympics in Tokyo will be inaugurated on Friday, one year after they were originally scheduled to begin. Despite the fact that Emperor Naruhito, the grandson of Emperor Hirohito, will be in the audience for the opening ceremony, it will be closed to spectators as the nation struggles to cope with yet another wave of infections.

In the case of both Japan and the Olympic movement, the postponement of the 2020 Games may represent less of a window of opportunity for the future than the distinct possibility of decline. And for the generation of Japanese who remember the 1964 Games with fondness, the prospect of a truncated and largely unwelcome Olympics is a sobering prospect.

Everyone in Japan was buzzing with excitement about the Games, recalled Kazuo Inoue, who was a child growing up in Tokyo and vividly recalls being glued to his family’s brand-new colour television when the Games were held in 1964. “That isn’t there, which is a little disappointing.”

However, the ennui is not solely due to the pandemic chaos and the numerous scandals that have occurred in the run-up to the Games. A great deal has changed in the country and in what the Olympics represent for it since the first Games were held in 1960.

During the 1964 Olympics, Japan demonstrated to the world that it had recovered from the devastation of World War II and had rebuilt itself as a modern, peaceful democracy following an era of aggressive military action. Highway construction and the construction of the bullet train were rushed to completion. Due to rising incomes, many Japanese families, including Mr. Inoue’s, purchased televisions in order to watch the Games, which were the first ever to be broadcast live around the world by satellite.

This time, however, Japan is a mature and prosperous society. However, its economy has remained stagnant for much of the past three decades, resulting in an increasing number of people being left behind. One in every seven children lives in poverty, and many workers are employed on a contract or part-time basis, which provides little job security and few benefits.

It is also a much older country than it was previously. When Emperor Hirohito declared the Summer Games open, only 6% of the population was 65 or older, according to official figures. Currently, the figure is greater than 28 percent, and the fertility rate is nearly half of what it was in 1964. Since 2008, there has been a decrease in the population.

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics are widely regarded as the watershed moment in Japan’s transition from poverty to prosperity. Within four years, Japan had surpassed the United States, which had been its former occupier, as the world’s second-largest economy. (It has since dropped to third place, trailing only China.) As more and more Japanese moved into the middle class, they began to purchase not only televisions, but also other modern appliances such as washing machines, refrigerators, and vacuum cleaners, among others.

Japan is once again on the verge of a watershed moment, one whose outcome will be determined by how the government, corporations, and civil society respond to the country’s shrinking and ageing populace.

According to Hiromu Nagahara, an associate professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there was a “sense of Japan in motion and a sense of a country with a future” in 1964. “A country that has lost confidence and a country whose political elites are feeling the effects of that loss of confidence very intensely,” says the author.

Many long-time observers of Japan believe that the country should revise some of its sclerotic practises and cultural practises. While the country’s rise as an industrial powerhouse was built on strong social cohesion, that aspect of society has tended to repress women, ethnic minorities, and other groups that don’t conform to traditional expectations of masculinity and femininity

According to Carol Gluck, a historian of modern Japan at Columbia University, “Japan’s strengths are obvious — it’s the social fabric.” “However, if it makes it difficult to effect change, that can become a weakness.”

Professor Gluck went on to say, “There’s a lot of potential there.” “However, the question is whether it will be grasped and realised before things deteriorate to such an extent.”

Many of Japan’s societal flaws have been exposed as a result of the international spotlight shining on the country for the Olympics.

When the president of the Tokyo organising committee, Yoshiro Mori, 84, complained that women were talking too much in meetings, he was forced to resign; however, he did so only after receiving an outspoken defence from traditionalists. A lot of Japanese women recognised his comments as reflecting all-too-familiar attitudes in a country that ranks 120th out of 156 nations in terms of gender gap.

Even though activists urged the Japanese government to use the Olympics as an opportunity to advance gay and transgender rights, a modest bill declaring discrimination “unacceptable” failed to garner even a single vote in the country’s conservative parliament. In addition, a composer for the opening ceremony resigned this week after it was revealed that he had admitted to severely bullying disabled classmates at his previous school. Bullying, according to the Japanese Education Ministry, is one of the most serious social problems that students face in the classroom.

In 2011, when Tokyo submitted its bid for the 2020 Olympics, the prime minister of the time, Shinzo Abe, framed it as a symbol of triumph over a devastation caused by an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. It has been replaced by a new narrative, which states that the Games are part of a global effort to combat the pandemic, which is false.

The Japanese people, who are overwhelmingly opposed to the holding of the Games, are not buying either of these messages. There is still work to be done on the nuclear cleanup, and the Olympics are being held in the middle of a state of emergency because coronavirus cases in Tokyo have reached a six-month high. These increases have been exacerbated by daily announcements of positive cases in the Olympic Village, which serve as a constant reminder to everyone of the virus’s enduring power.

Furthermore, with spectators barred from all but a few events, there is little opportunity for hotels, restaurants, retailers, and other businesses to benefit from the event.

“I feel sorry for the tourism industry or the hotels,” said Ikuzo Tamura, 84, who worked as a salesperson in the 1964 Olympic Stadium selling commemorative cloth wraps. Unlike us, they do not have the same opportunities that we did. I don’t believe anyone should be held responsible, but people have no choice but to endure in this situation.”

For the time being, Japan’s best hope may be to demonstrate its crisis management abilities by ensuring that the events take place without any widespread outbreaks.

Roy Tomizawa, author of “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan,” said that regardless of whether one agrees with the Japanese government, the Games will take place with a high degree of risk.

“It’s like Simone Biles attempting a double pike, which is a move that no other woman will attempt except for Simone Biles,” he went on to describe the move. The number of countries that would have gone ahead with this is unknown to me.

Historians have pointed out that the 1964 Games did not go as smoothly as some naive citizens might have imagined. According to Yuji Ishizaka, a sports sociologist at Nara Women’s University, two top officials resigned as a result of widespread public criticism of Japan’s decision to send a team to the 1962 Asian Games, which were held in Indonesia and which excluded athletes from Israel and Taiwan from competing. At the same time, only about half of the general public supported hosting the Olympics until a year before the Games.

Even so, the hope for any Olympics is that, once the Games begin, the athletic competition will take centre stage and take the world by storm. The victory of the Japanese women’s volleyball team, a group of factory workers who snatched the gold medal away from the Russians, or the men’s gymnastics team, which won a group gold medal and went on to become heroes, are the events that people remember most from 1964.

This year, even in the absence of live audiences, the drama will be present and broadcast on television. However, it will be moderated.

“Having spectators gives you so much power as an athlete, at least for me,” said Shuji Tsurumi, 83, a gymnast on the 1964 Japanese Olympic team who also won three individual silver medals.

You must be able to feel the athlete’s breath on your skin, the air in the stadium, and others’ tension as they wait for a successful landing, he continued. In the absence of that, it isn’t the same.

Yoshiko Kanda, a member of the victorious volleyball team in 1964, recalled that the cheers of the crowd served as “the most powerful reminder of why I was participating.”

79-year-old Ms. Kanda, who competed under the alias Matsumura because she was not married, said, “I’m sure many athletes are struggling without this feeling in the air.” The year was 1964, and she continued, “the environment, the air, and the feeling in society were all brimming with excitement.” “It will be a lonely experience compared to the 1964 Olympics.”


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