Showdown at Budokan

It was 40 years ago today, and The Beatles were rocking Japan

by Shibly Nabhan

The rightwing reactionaries were arriving in their menacing black-and-white trucks, blasting military music. The politicians were shaking their fists and telling people to go to a garbage dump. The police had locked down all entrances to the Imperial Palace grounds. Riot police lined the road leading to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. Girls stood in the streets crying.

The fight for political control centered on Nippon Budokan, the two-year-old martial arts hall beside the Imperial Palace grounds. The political stakes were high. There were 35,000 police deployed over the course of the four-day struggle.

Military coup? No. The Beatles in concert.

The year was 1966, and Budokan was a marvel of Japanese architecture that symbolized the rebirth of the capital and the whole country from the ashes of war.

Just 19 years after its abject capitulation, Japan proclaimed its resurrection with three events: The inauguration ceremony of the first shinkansen (bullet train) line, which sliced the tedious 10-hour journey between Tokyo and Osaka to a jaw-dropping 4 hours. That quantum leap came just in time for the second of those three epoch-making events, Tokyo’s hosting of the 1964 Summer Olympics — the first occasion the international competition had been held in Asia.

The third of those landmark events was the opening of the Budokan, a stadium in the city’s heart dedicated to the martial arts of kyudo, kendo, judo, karate and all disciplines associated with honor and the Shinto spirit. Sited between Yasukuni Shrine and the Imperial Palace, it was reportedly built on the site where soldiers pledged their lives to the Emperor before joining their wartime units.

Following a request from Japan, judo had been included at the Tokyo Olympics for the first time as an official Olympic sport — a move that proclaimed to the world that Asian culture was standing on the world stage along with European and Anglo-Saxon cultures.

Japanese xenophobia

But if Japanese culture was to make its way onto the world stage, then wouldn’t other cultures inevitably show themselves on the Japanese stage?

Two years after the Tokyo Olympics, four young men landed in Haneda Airport. Delayed by a typhoon, they were several hours late. The newspapers declared that as one typhoon had left, another had just arrived. It was the first test of what the post-Olympic future of the Budokan Hall would be. Would it remain a sacred venue on hallowed land, or simply become another concert hall?

On one side were the four most popular musicians on earth at the time; on the other, four Japanese opinion leaders, including the prime minister.

The Fab Four of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr — none of whom knew the intricacies of Japanese xenophobia — were criticized by Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, who declared that The Beatles were not an appropriate act to perform at such a respected venue.

As media coverage built up and rightwing groups opined that rock music made young people crazy and would break down social order, Sato was joined by Tatsuji Nagashima, the promoter who had arranged the five Budokan concerts with The Beatles’ management, but then changed sides and protested against them; Hosokawa Ryugen, an influential Asahi Shimbun journalist; and octogenarian Matsutaro Shoriki, founder of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper and the Tokyo Giants baseball club. As first president of Budokan Hall, Shoriki had originally agreed to host The Beatles but later changed his mind after hearing alarming reports of long hair and girls screaming uncontrollably. He was told that the contract could not be torn up.

With The Beatles on one side, and four pillars of the Establishment on the other, you could call it a faceoff between the Fab Four and the Drab Four.

The Beatles themselves first sensed trouble while they were still touring Germany. There, they were shown a news report saying that Japanese rightwing groups wanted to capture them on their arrival in Tokyo and cut their Mop Top locks.

Fearing trouble from rightists at Budokan, the Metropolitan Police Department met with fire department officials 10 day before The Beatles’ arrival to coordinate crowd control and disaster response. They even arranged for some 40 armored personnel carriers to be brought in to overpower any rightwing trucks in the area.

When it became clear there was to be no stopping the concerts, and that they might even become a turning point for Japan’s culture, the war of words intensified.

Hosokawa and other critics appeared on television talk shows, both criticizing the concert plan and highlighting their ignorance by on occasion referring to the Liverpool quartet as “The Peatle.” In other debates, critics began calling for the band to play not at Budokan but at Yume no Shima (Dream Island), an ironically named garbage landfill zone.

For Budokan Director Matsutaro Shoriki, this was no mere trifling debate: he had faced political pressures from nationalists before — and had the scars to prove it. Decades before he had founded a Japanese baseball league and invited U.S. teams to play in Japan. Rightwingers saw this as a sellout to Americans and a form of cultural pollution. As a result, Shiroki was ambushed by sword-wielding would-be assassins and was lucky to survive being stabbed.

Next came pressure on the Japanese youth: Tokyo schools began ordering their students not to attend the concerts, even though most of them were on the weekend. This snowballed into a move to stop students playing electric guitars, based on the fear that rock music would turn young people into delinquents and hooligans.

At a preconcert press conference, a reporter asked The Beatles if they thought their behavior might have a negative influence on Japanese culture. Paul responded by asking if it should be considered a cultural invasion if a Japanese group were to appear in England. John, making an oblique reference to World War II and the expanding Vietnam War, quipped that singing was much better than fighting.

Ringo commented, “It’s amazing security, you know. I’ve never seen so many people guarding us.” To this, a reporter responded, “Well, we want to make sure that you’re not hurt while you’re here.” Ringo replied: “But we don’t want the security to hurt the fans. Don’t be too rough with them.”

Meanwhile, police were ripping banners out of the hands of rightwing squads outside the Budokan as the rightists berated them through megaphones.

Scheduled to give one concert on June 30, and two each on July 1 and 2, the Fab Four thought they would get a chance to see the sights on the morning of the 30th. But the Tokyo police said their officers would not take responsibility for their security on a slated sightseeing trip to the nearby ancient capital of Kamakura.

Plainclothes police

That official decision was tantamount to grounding the band in their hotel, and George and Ringo obliged by staying there giving interviews and waving at fans through closed windows. Resenting their confinement, John and Paul each came up with their own plans for escaping from the Capital Tokyo Hotel (now the Tokyo Hilton).

With a member of the tour entourage in the lead, Paul tried to sneak out of the main lobby but was stopped by guards. After a great deal of haggling, he was placed in a car with plainclothes police officers and given a short tour of Meiji Jingu Shrine and a portion of the Imperial Palace grounds. They briefly got out of the car to have a walk around, but when photographers spotted Paul he was quickly shuffled back into the car and returned to the hotel. One news source later noted that The Beatle had been spotted in the palace grounds “no-neku-tai” (without a necktie).

John fared much better. Borrowing the ID badge and camera of a photographer on their team, he posed as a member of the press corps and used the badge to walk past the lobby security guards and into the street. From there he made his way to the Omotesando boulevard running away from Meiji Shrine, where he is reported to have bought souvenirs at the famous Oriental Bazaar shop. Then he went to the swish Azabu district nearby, where he was fitted for a new pair of glasses before returning to the hotel. He is said to have purchased on the outing a ceramic figure that was included in Peter Blake’s collage design for the cover of 1967′s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Apparently, back at the hotel Paul complained that he had only managed a few minutes out in the open air — while John had gone on a shopping spree and returned with trophies to prove it.

The Beatles played the five concerts with little incident inside the hall. The authorities had braced for two main threats: that the kids in the audience would go crazy, and that rightwing nationalists would get violent outside. Neither happened.

The main floor area was kept empty to stop anyone approaching the stage, and the fans were confined to the mezzanine and balcony areas from where they watched the shows from over a sea of police hats. In the aisles, security guards stood at the end of each row, while another security ring of white-gloved officers stood between the stage and the seats, and another security ring sealed off the venue. Ambulance teams were at the ready.

In an effort to downplay the presence of a Western band with long hair, promoters arranged for several Japanese bands to perform as opening acts.

Elsewhere, because of the limitations of amplifiers at that time, The Beatles were often frustrated that the screaming and wailing of hysterical female fans elsewhere drowned out the sound of their instruments. At the Budokan, though, security was so suffocating that fans didn’t even dare to stand up. In fact, the police announced over megaphones before the concert that anyone who did stand up and make any disturbance would be arrested. Consequently, the crowd noise during the meager half-hour they were allowed to play — enough for just 11 songs — was among the lowest The Beatles had experienced.

Photos from the concerts show the four playing against giant billboards for Lion toothpaste, with the audience barely visible in the distance. At the end of each concert, the authorities left no chance for an embarrassing mob scene by fans, or a violent incident by demonstrators in their trucks. The Fab Four were bundled into a police-escorted convoy and returned to the hotel within 10 minutes of taking their last bows.

Afterward, the Asahi Shimbun reported that the fans, many of them “haiteen” (late teenagers), were treated like children by the condescending authorities. Then, as The Beatles waved goodbye to Tokyo on their way to Manila, newspapers ran headlines such as “The Beatles typhoon has passed.” Photos showed George on the stairs to the plane carrying a suitcase in each hand, and Paul with a camera, taking photos of the crowd.

Absence of disturbances

Reports in The Japan Times and elsewhere not only pointed out the absence of disturbances during the Budokan concerts, but felt it worth noting that fans did not cause any trouble at the airport farewell.

The “Sgt. Pepper’s” album cover with the Japanese figurine on the ground near John went on to be voted one of the most memorable design images of the 20th century, and The Beatles sold more than 1 billion records in their careers. Since then Budokan — whose flip-flopping founder Shoriki Matsutaro died in 1969 — has remained a popular stop for rock bands touring Asia. Deep Purple and Bob Dylan recorded live albums there, and the full-on likes of Kiss and Ozzy Osbourne have performed in the hall. It will even host the Black-Eyed Peas in July this year.