TOKYO — Under a clear blue sky in October 1964, Emperor Hirohito of Japan stood for a reborn nation to announce the opening of the Tokyo Olympics. A voice the Japanese public had heard for the first time announce the surrender of the country in the Second World War now echoed expectantly through a packed stadium.
Tokyo will once again usher in the Summer Olympics on Friday, after one year delay because of the corona pandemic. Hirohito’s grandson, Emperor Naruhito, will be in the stands for the opening ceremony, but it will be forbidden to spectators as a fearful nation grapples with yet another wave of infections.
For both Japan and the Olympic movement, the postponed 2020 Games are perhaps less of a moment of hope for the future than the obvious possibility of regression. And for the generation of Japanese who look back fondly on the 1964 Games, the prospect of a diminished, largely unwelcome Olympics is a grave disappointment.
“Everyone in Japan was on fire with excitement over the Games,” said Kazuo Inoue, 69, who vividly recalls being glued to the new color TV at his family’s Tokyo home in 1964. “That’s missing, so that’s a bit sad.”
Yet boredom is not just a matter of pandemic chaos and the numerous scandals leading up to the Games. The nation today, and what the Olympics represent before it, is vastly different from what they were 57 years ago.
The 1964 Olympics showed the world that Japan had recovered from the ravages of war and rebuilt itself as a modern, peaceful democracy after an era of military aggression. Highways and the bullet train were rushed to completion. With incomes rising, many Japanese families, like Mr. Inoue’s, bought televisions to watch the Games, the first to be broadcast live via satellite around the world.
This time Japan is a mature, prosperous country. But the economy has been has stagnated for much of the past three decades, leaving a growing number of people behind. One in seven children lives in poverty and many workers have contract or part-time jobs that are unstable and pay few benefits.
It is now also a much older country. When Hirohito opened the Summer Games, only 6 percent of the population was 65 or older. Today it is more than 28 percent and the fertility rate is almost half that of 1964. The population has been shrinking since 2008.
The 1964 Tokyo Olympics are often regarded as the point at which Japan turned into prosperity. Within four years, Japan became the second largest economy in the world, after the United States, the former occupier. (It has since fallen to third, behind China.) When many Japanese entered the middle class, they bought not only televisions, but other modern appliances such as washing machines, refrigerators and vacuum cleaners.
Japan is approaching another turning point, the outcome of which will depend on how government, businesses and civil society respond to a shrinking and aging population.
In 1964, there was “a sense of Japan on the move and a sense of a country with a future,” said Hiromu Nagahara, an associate professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Now it is “a country that has lost confidence and a country whose political elites feel that loss of confidence very intensely.”
Long-time observers of Japan say it needs to revise some sclerotic practices and cultural norms. While the country’s emergence as an industrial powerhouse was based on strong social cohesion, that aspect of society tends to oppressing women, ethnic minorities and other groups that do not meet traditional expectations.
“Japan’s strengths are obvious — it’s its social fabric,” said Carol Gluck, historian of modern Japan at Columbia University. “But that can become a weakness if it makes it difficult to bring about change.”
“There is a lot of potential,” added Professor Gluck. “But the question is whether it is understood and realized before it gets this bad.”
With the international spotlight on Japan for the Olympics, many of its societal warts have been exposed.
In February, Tokyo Organizing Committee chairman Yoshiro Mori, 84, was forced to resign after i say that women talked too much in meetings, although not before he received a strong defense of traditionalists. In a country that ranks 120th out of 156 countries in a gender gap ranking, many Japanese women recognized his comments as reflecting an all-too-familiar attitude.
Despite pressure from activists to seize the Olympic moment to promote gay and transgender rights in Japan, a modest bill that labeled discrimination as “unacceptable” didn’t even get an audience in the Conservative parliament. And this week, a composer for the opening ceremony resigned after it was revealed that he had confessed to severely bullying disabled classmates at school. The Japanese Ministry of Education calls bullying one of the biggest social challenges in the classroom.
When Tokyo made a bid for the 2020 Games, the then Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, set it up as a symbol of triumph over a devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in 2011. That message has been superseded by a new story: that the Games represent a global effort to overcome the pandemic.
The Japanese people, especially against holding the Games, do not buy either message. The nuclear cleanup is: far from complete, and the Games are being held amid a state of emergency as Tokyo’s coronavirus cases have reached a six-month high. Those increases were compounded by daily announcements of positive cases in the Olympic Village, reminding everyone of the lasting power of the virus.
And with spectators barred from all but a few events, there is little benefit to hotels, restaurants, retailers and other businesses.
Essential Summer Olympics
“I feel sorry for the tourism or the hotels,” said Ikuzo Tamura, 84, who sold commemorative cloths at the Olympic Stadium in 1964 at the Olympic Stadium. “They don’t have the same opportunities as we do. I don’t think anyone should be blamed, but in this situation people have no choice but to persevere.”
Right now, perhaps Japan’s best hope is to demonstrate its crisis management skills by allowing the events to take place without large-scale outbreaks.
“Whether you agree with the Japanese government or not, these Games are going ahead at a very high risk,” said Roy Tomizawa, author of “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan.”
“It’s like Simone Biles trying a double pike, a move no other woman will do except Simone Biles,” he added. “I don’t know how many countries would have gone through with this.”
Historians point out that the 1964 Games didn’t go as well as gauzy-eyed citizens may remember. According to Yuji Ishizaka, a sports sociologist at Nara Women’s University, two top officials resigned after public criticism of Japan’s decision to send a team to the 1962 Asian Games whose host country, Indonesia, excluded athletes from Israel and Taiwan. And until a year before the 1964 Olympics, only about half of the public supported hosting the Games.
Still, the hope of every Olympics is that once the Games begin, the athletics competition will come to the fore. What people remember best from 1964 is the victory of the Japan Women’s Volleyball Team, a group of factory workers who stole the gold medal from the Russians; or the men’s gymnastics team, which won a gold group medal and became heroes.
This year, even without a live audience, the drama will still be present and televised. But it will be tempered.
“For athletes, for me, having spectators gives you so much strength,” said Shuji Tsurumi, 83, a gymnast on the 1964 team who also won three individual silver medals.
“You have to feel the athlete’s breath on your skin, the air in the stadium, the tension of the others around you waiting for a successful landing,” he added. “It’s not the same without it.”
Yoshiko Kanda, a member of the victorious volleyball team in 1964, said the crowd’s cheers were “the greatest reminder of why I competed.”
“Without this feeling in the air, I bet a lot of athletes have a hard time,” said Ms. Kanda, 79, who competed under her unmarried name Matsumura. “In 1964, the environment, the air, the feeling in society was burning with excitement,” she added. “Compared to the ’64 Olympics, it will be so lonely.”