National / History

A symbol of Japan's reconstruction: Ex-pilots reminisce about drawing Olympic rings in sky at 1964 Tokyo Games


Two former pilots from the Air Self-Defense Force’s Blue Impulse team, which drew Olympic rings in the sky with colored smoke at the opening ceremony of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, still remember their preflight nerves even after 55 years.

“When I checked the aircraft before boarding, I was preoccupied with the feeling that failure was not allowed and that I had to show (the smoke rings) to the world,” Katsushige Nishimura, 83, said in a recent interview.

“I created a mental picture of how to draw the rings without a mistake and still keep a distance of 2 kilometers from the plane in front of me,” Tadashi Fujinawa, 82, said in the interview. “I prepared myself mentally before arriving at the airfield.”

The team timed their appearance in the sky above the former National Stadium in Tokyo in line with the request from the Olympic Games’ Organising Committee, despite the opening ceremony running late.

As doves were released after the Olympic Oath, the team drew five rings in the Olympic colors of blue, yellow, black, green and red, each about 1,800 meters in diameter, at an altitude of some 3,000 meters.

After drawing the Olympic rings, the five planes tasked with the feat flew over the tracks of the Yamanote Line as they returned to the base, passing through areas such as Shibuya. As if to show off, the planes occasionally released some smoke.

The success of the smoke drawing symbolized the reconstruction of postwar Japan.

During World War II, Fujinawa, originally from Tokyo, had evacuated to Tochigi Prefecture. At the same time, Nishimura, who was born in Shiga Prefecture, was living in former Japanese-controlled Manchuria, currently a northeastern part of China. Nishimura left Manchuria after the war.

“I wanted people to see Japan having achieved reconstruction through the success of the Olympic flight,” Nishimura said.

Other symbols of postwar reconstruction, such as the opening of the Metropolitan Expressway and the Tokaido Shinkansen line, were introduced right before the Tokyo Games.

Haruhide Matsushita, the formation leader of the five planes that drew the Olympic rings, passed away at the age of 87 this May. The two former pilots agreed that he was a gentle and steady leader, with everyone placing full trust in his precise calculations and calm judgment. The other two pilots, Toru Danno and Hiroo Funabashi, have also passed away.

After the Olympics, Nishimura, Fujinawa and Danno were deployed to the ASDF’s Chitose Air Base in Hokkaido for scramble missions against aircraft from the former Soviet Union.

The opening ceremony for next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo will be held on July 24. The Olympic flame will arrive at the ASDF’s Matsushima Air Base in Miyagi Prefecture on March 20, passing through all 47 prefectures in a relay. The base suffered damage from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

“The opening ceremony will be held at night, so the Blue Impulse may draw something at related events before that,” Nishimura and Fujinawa said. “We are looking forward to the celebration of peace.”

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