Shunichiro Okano, 83, a former player and manager of Japan’s national soccer team, is a believer in sports as a means of building bridges with other nations.
“It’s a shame that a country set to host the 2020 Olympic Games lacks consideration for neighboring countries,” Okano said in reference to Japan’s strained relations with China and South Korea.
Okano was born into a family that runs a well-established confectionery store in Tokyo’s Ueno district, where he survived the U.S. air raids in 1945.
Even today, Okano does not like the sound of sirens as it brings back memories of the Tokyo firebombing, which is said to have killed over 100,000 people. The sound reminds him of the air raid sirens.
“It must be hard to understand” the horror of living in constant fear, he said. The sirens at that time meant one could die at any moment.
Like many other boys then, Okano was greatly influenced by militarism. But he saw the reality of Japanese military life when he and other students were sent to Shizuoka Prefecture for military training.
The soldiers around him were in their 30s or older. They were always starving and asking for leftovers. Their swords were made of wood. He trained for a suicide attack that he was told would kill 10 enemies — digging a foxhole and then jumping out and slipping under a tank with a bomb.
In the evening, U.S. B-29 bombers flew over them, with no Japanese aircraft around to fight back. He knew then the war “couldn’t be won with emotional strength or will power,” as they were being taught to believe.
Okano stayed in Tokyo although his family evacuated to Gunma Prefecture, because he wanted to keep attending school, which, unlike most, continued to teach English.
While some classmates went to military schools, he remembers one of the teachers telling him that becoming a soldier was not the only way to serve his country.
Okano would study in dim light in a room with windows blacked-out by government order. But on Aug. 15, 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender to the Allied Forces. That evening, “I opened the windows and read a book with all the lights on. I felt an immense sense of freedom and knew what peace is like,” Okano said.
He enjoyed playing soccer for the rest of his school life. Professional baseball was revived in November 1945 and sports became a symbol of freedom.
He went on to the University of Tokyo and joined its soccer club. After playing as a member of Japan’s national team, he became its coach.
Together with other coaching staff, including Dettmar Cramer, 89, invited from Germany, Okano led Japan to the bronze medal at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.
He encountered a series of challenges at the Japan Football Association and other organizations where he later worked.
In preparations for the 2002 World Cup, which Japan and South Korea jointly hosted, the two nations had to address difficulties caused in part by Japan’s brutal annexation of the Korean Peninsula in 1910.
But Okano knew the joint event, decided in 1996, would be a success when he went to Seoul in autumn 1997 to watch a match between the Japanese and South Korean teams.
They were in the final qualifying round for the 1998 World Cup in France. While South Korea had already qualified, Japan was on the brink of elimination.
Then Okano saw a big banner held by South Korean spectators that read, “Let’s go to France together.”
“I was moved so much,” he recalled. “I felt the power of sports.”
Although the people of Japan and South Korea have become closer since the war, tensions still grow from time to time as a result of political confrontations.
Okano called on young people to take the time to “think about peace” and “learn the history behind” disputes that affect not only diplomatic relations, but the world of sports, citing some countries’ boycotting of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.
Noting Japan’s invasion of the Korean Peninsula and some of the practices it enforced, such as forcing Koreans to adopt Japanese names, Okano said Japan “should not deny history.”
“As a person who lived in those days, I know how important the feeling of remorse and education can be” in mending soured ties, he said.