Under crisp blue skies in October 1964, Emperor Hirohito of Japan stood before a reborn nation to declare the opening of the Tokyo Olympic Games. A voice that the Japanese public had first heard announcing the country’s surrender in World War II now echoed across a packed stadium alive with anticipation. On Friday, Tokyo inaugurated another Summer Olympics, after a year’s delay because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Hirohito’s grandson, Emperor Naruhito, was to be in the stands for the opening ceremony, which were otherwise closed to spectators as an anxious nation grapples with yet another wave of infections. For both Japan and the Olympic movement, the delayed 2020 Games may represent less a moment of hope for the future than the distinct possibility of decline. And to 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 burning with excitement about the Games,” said Kazuo Inoue, 69, who vividly recalls being glued to the new color television in his family’s home in Tokyo in 1964. “That is missing, so that is a little sad.” Yet the ennui isn’t just a matter of pandemic and the numerous scandals in the prelude to the Games. The nation today and what the Olympics represent for it are vastly different from what they were 57 years ago. The 1964 Olympics showed the world that Japan had recovered from the devastation of the 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 bought televisions to watch the Games, the first to be broadcast live by satellite around the globe.
This time around, Japan is a mature, affluent nation. But its economy has been stagnant for much of the past three decades, leaving growing numbers of people behind; 1 in 7 children live in poverty, and many workers are in contract or part-time jobs that lack stability and pay few benefits. It’s a much older nation now, too. When Hirohito opened the Summer Games, just 6% of the population was 65 or older. Today, the figure is more than 28%, 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 when Japan pivoted into prosperity. Within four years, Japan became the world’s second-largest economy, behind the United States, its former occupier. (It has since fallen to third, behind China.) Japan is again approaching a turning point, one whose outcome depends on how the government, corporations and civil society respond to a shrinking and aging population. Back in 1964, there was “a sense of Japan in motion and a sense of a country with a future,” said Hiromu Nagahara, an associate professor of history at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Now it’s “a country that has lost confidence and a country whose political elites feel very intensely that loss of confidence.”
Longtime observers of Japan say it should revise some sclerotic practices and cultural norms. 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 do not conform to traditional expectations. With the international spotlight on Japan for the Olympics, many of its societal warts have been exposed. In February, the president of the organising committee, Yoshiro Mori, 84, was forced to resign after saying that women talked too much in meetings, though not before he received a staunch defense from traditionalists. In a country that ranks 120th out of 156 nations in a gender gap ranking, many Japanese women recognised his comments as reflecting all-too-familiar attitudes.
Still, the hope of any Olympics is that once the Games start, the athletic competition comes to the fore. What people remember best from 1964 is the victory of the Japanese women’s volleyball team, a group of factory workers who snatched the gold medal from the Russians; or the men’s gymnastics team, which won a group gold medal, becoming heroes. This year, even without live audiences, the drama will still be present and televised. But it will be tempered. “For athletes, for me, having spectators gives you so much power. 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,” said Shuji Tsurumi, 83, a gymnast on the 1964 team who also won three individual silver medals. “Without that, it’s not the same.”