Olympics | ROBERT WHITING'S 1964 OLYMPICS RETROSPECTIVE

Olympic construction transformed Tokyo

by Robert Whiting

Special To The Japan Times

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics had a profound impact on the capital city and the nation. In the opening installment of a five-part series that will run during the next two weeks, best-selling author Robert Whiting, who lived in Japan at the time, takes a look back at the preparations for the event.


The 1964 Olympics was one of the most remarkable events in modern history. The staging of the games marked Japan’s re-entry into the world community after two decades of shame and struggle caused by defeat in war and put the cap on what is regarded as the most explosive urban transformation in history.

In 1959, when Tokyo won the bid to host the Olympics, the capital looked nothing like the gleaming high-tech megalopolis it would later become. It was an ugly sprawl of old wooden houses, scabrous shanties, cheaply constructed stucco buildings and danchi — crowded, cramped Soviet-style apartment blocks thrown up to accommodate the postwar influx of people from the rural areas.

Tokyoites dwelled under a constant cloud of noise, dust and pollution as the city struggled to rebuild itself from the wreckage of the American B-29 Superfortress bombings. The sewage system was medieval, the harbor and the capital’s main rivers thick with sludge from the human and industrial waste that poured into them. House theft was rampant, narcotics use was endemic, and it was considered too dangerous to walk in public parks at night. Moreover, yakuza were everywhere, their numbers at an all-time high.

When news of Tokyo’s winning bid was announced — the result of the submission of an ambitious half-billion dollar budget to remake the capital for the event, a figure that far exceeded the $30 million spent for the Rome Games in 1960, not to mention the intensive wining and dining of the International Olympic Committee during a visit to the capital in 1958 (which, according to Andrew Jennings’ expose “The New Lords of the Rings,” included the pre-paid services of Tokyo’s finest, most elegant call girls) — the reaction of many people was, “How in the world is the city going to pull it off in time?”

Municipal plans called for the construction of 10,000 new office and residential buildings, ranging in height from four to seven stories, 100 km of new superhighways along vital arteries from Haneda International Airport, a $55 million monorail from the airport into downtown Tokyo, 40 km of new subway lines, four new five-star hotels, a billion-dollar bullet train (shinkansen) that would halve the existing travel time between Tokyo and Osaka.

The unparalleled effort to redo Tokyo’s urban infrastructure was undertaken in conjunction with a massive government plan to simultaneously double GNP and per capita income by the end of the 1960s through the manufacture and export of transistors, radios, television sets and automobiles and over the next five years, activity accelerated to maniacal levels.

When I first came to Tokyo in 1962 with the United States Air Force, the level of construction was simply off the charts. Everywhere you turned it seemed there was a building being erected or another one being torn down. Crumbling sidewalks were being ripped apart, roadways air-hammered into rubble, trucks whizzing by carrying dirt and building materials. There was so much going on that it was a contact high just to stand there and watch it all.

It was also an overwhelming assault on the senses. The reek of setting cement was everywhere and pollution from the automobiles that clogged the streets and industrial smog from factories on the city’s periphery was so severe that Tokyoites wore face masks while traffic policeman carried small oxygen cylinders during their shifts. Sidewalk cafes were encased in large plastic screens to protect customers from the pervasive smoke and soot while first aid stations were strategically located for citizens overcome by the toxic air.

There was an electronic sign near Ginza that gave the time and temperature as well as the current sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide readings and a second electronic billboard erected at a Nishi-Ginza intersection actually measured the phonic damage from all the noise — the omnipresent auto horns, jack hammers, pile drivers, trolley cars and bulldozers.

At night, after the salarymen had gone home and the traffic thinned out, the city stepped up construction, rebuilding its main avenues and widening its side roads in an effort to make the city’s vast labyrinth of narrow, twisting streets more navigable.

Most of Tokyo’s citizens stoically put up with the annoyances, using black curtains and ear plugs to block out the blinding work lights and noise from the diesel compressors. But I clearly remember a newspaper item in one of the English-language dailies about a college student who was unable to study because of the constant pounding near his rooming house and became so agitated that he marched down to the construction site, put his head underneath the offending pile driver and ended his misery.

Among the modernizing projects going up to accommodate the expected hordes of tourists who would be coming to Tokyo to see the games were the glamorous new Hotel Okura, modeled after an ancient Kyoto temple, the Tokyo Hilton Hotel, the huge Tokyo Prince Hotel, with 1,600 rooms, and the 17-floor Hotel New Otani, the tallest building in the city.

Then there were the Olympic Village dormitories for the 7,000 athletes due to arrive; plus sports facilities like architect Kenzo Tange’s shell-shaped National Gymnasium complex, where swimmers and basketball players would vie for medals; the Meiji Olympic Park for track and field; and the Budokan Hall with its bat-winged roof, where the first judo competition in Olympic history would take place.

Last, but certainly not least, was the laying of new sewers, so that flush toilets could replace the scoop-and-dispose variety still prevalent throughout the city.

A half century later, Tokyo would be justifiably famous for its high-tech toilets, with their automated lids, water jets, blow-dry functions and computer analyses, that headlined an impressive sewage system. But in that era, despite the frantic rebuilding, less than a quarter of the city’s 23 sprawling wards had sewage systems at all, making Tokyo one of the world’s most primitive (and odiferous) megalopolises. Human waste had to be sucked out from underneath buildings by kumitoriya (vacuum trucks) on a regular basis. Adding to the unhygienic mix were the gesui (roadside gutters), where the kitchen and bath water effluence ran, and into which late-night drunks often urinated, and often tumbled.


Despite such inconveniences, Time magazine saw fit to call the Tokyo of the early ’60s the “most dynamic city on the face of the earth,” the pace of life “double that of New York.” It was already the most populated single city in the world, with a population exceeding 10 million as of February 1962, and growing rapidly as trainloads of new workers arrived from the countryside each day to take part in the city’s reconstruction. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to live in Tokyo. The salaries were higher and there was more to do.

In the capital city, there were 15,000 coffee shops, many of them featuring live music, like the ACB located in West Ginza. It seated 300 and presented live acts on the hour — rockabilly, go-go music and “group sounds” — with headliners such as Japan’s iconic twin sisters, The Peanuts; Kyu Sakamoto of “Sukiyaki” fame; popular Beatles-style rock bands like The Spiders and The Tigers.

Also appearing were star attractions from abroad, including Neil Sedaka and Paul Anka. Artists stood on a revolving stage in the center of the ground floor and played to five floors worth of customers, who were usually crammed together, elbow to elbow, seated on tiny chairs and sipping ice tea, the only item on the menu. (Adding to the excitement were Ginza-based yakuza from the Tosei-kai gang, who would show up every now and then in their signatory dark glasses to overturn tables, toss lit cigarettes at random targets and then refuse to pay their bill, in what were naked extortion attempts. The owners eventually turned for protection to another Ginza underworld figure, Shingo Goichi Okamura, the man who had organized the pan-pan girls, or streetwalkers, during the Occupation.)

There were also twice as any places to eat as New York and more bars per square kilometer than anywhere else in the world. By one estimate there were 8,000 bars and 3,000 night clubs and cabarets in Tokyo’s six main drinking quarters alone — Ginza, Akasaka, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ueno and Asakusa — with 300,000 bar girls working in them.

One of them, the Mikado in Akasaka, employed 1,250 hostesses, each wearing an expensive evening dress and a beeper. The Showboat in Shinbashi, which appeared in the movie “The Bridges Over Toko-Ri,” was almost as large. There, the customer was piped aboard a huge replica of a Mississippi Riverboat and entertained by a band moving up and down an elevator shaft, as well as a revolving squadron of hostesses. A girl driving a miniature train collected empty glasses.

There were so many places to drink in Tokyo — a modern building in front of Shinbashi Station, for example, not far from the 1,000-year-old Karasumori Shrine, housed 100 different “stand bars” — that you could go for weeks, months, even years, without repeating yourself. Even if you could patronize them all, by the time you finished, a whole new crop of establishments would have made their appearance. The spectrum of entertainments was infinite.

In sum, there was so much going on — the visual density was so great — that the Western eye could not process it all. Narrow buildings in the entertainment areas were crammed full of mizu shobai (or water trade, as the nightlife business was called) establishments. On the first floor might be a coffee shop, the second a bar, the third a dance hall, the fourth a supper club, the fifth, a restaurant, the sixth, a hostess night club, and so on. They would be identified by a panel of signs hanging from the side of the building in one of the four Japanese writing systems: hiragana, katakana, kanji and romaji (the Roman alphabet).

To get to one of them you went up a dingy elevator, inside of which a second panel listed the businesses inside and the floors on which they were located. The sheer density of the information was daunting; it took a certain kind of reckless fortitude to step onto the elevator and wade your way in.

Interestingly, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government seemed to be counting everyone who moved, in the interests, presumably, of traffic control and public safety, and perhaps marketing for the upcoming games. During the day, for example, a city worker sat at one corner of Hibya crossing in a folding chair with a hand counter recording the number of pedestrians who crossed the street from Hibiya Park into the Yurakucho area every day. Another sat on the opposite side of the street counting the cars that passed through the intersection. A team of four counted the traffic at the East entrance of Tokyo Station. That’s just to mention a few.


As the countdown to the games progressed, however, serious doubts arose as to whether Tokyo was going to make it in time. Two new subway lines had opened up — Toei Asakusa (1960) and Hibiya (1961) joining the older Ginza (1927) and Marunouchi (1954) lines — but as late as January 1963 none of the deadlines for road construction had been met and Shojiro Kawashima, cabinet minister in charge of the Olympics, was forced to concede to reporters that Olympic preparations were “regrettably” behind in all aspects. Tokyo’s Mainichi Shimbun was moved to editorialize, “At the rate preparations are moving, we must be gravely concerned.”

In fact, it wasn’t until Feb. 11 (Japan’s Foundation Day), 1963, some 600 days before the Opening Ceremony was scheduled to take place, and four years after the awarding of the games to Tokyo, that Japan finally found somebody willing to accept the presidency of the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee. It seemed that no one wanted to take on the job for fear of screwing it up and losing face.

As Sports Illustrated put it in an article about the preparation, or lack thereof, for the XVIII Olympiad, “If ever the head of an organization seemed certain to lose face, including both ears, it will be this one.” (A utilities magnate named Daigoro Yasukawa agreed to take on the job, but only because, as he put it, he was “severely pressured by the government” to do it.)

The man in charge of the 1964 Olympic bid was Construction Minister Ichiro Kono, who, ironically, as a member of the prewar Japanese Diet, had led the opposition to holding the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo, which had been awarded the games in 1934. He and others had withdrawn their support after the Sino-Japanese war broke out in 1937 and the Imperial Japanese Army leaders were demanding that the Olympic venues be built from wood because the metals available were all needed at the war front in China. Growing opposition abroad to Japan’s military activities in Manchuria, caused the games to be forfeited and given to Helsinki before being canceled entirely as World War II loomed.

Kono blamed Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the U.S. Occupation for the slow progress of preparations. As he told Time, “Once we had a powerful agency known as the Home Ministry which was authorized to step into local problems and solve them. The Americans abolished it as not democratic. The result is what we have this summer.”

In one sense he was right. A big reason for the delays was that under the postwar system the Japanese government was reluctant to invoke eminent domain laws giving the state and municipal governments the authority to confiscate private property for public use after paying appropriate compensation to the owner.

For example, construction on the new elevated coastal highway leading from Haneda International Airport, some 21 km into the capital, was late getting started because fishermen owned stretches of the land along the intended route and were demanding multiples of the price the government had anticipated paying.

In another case, speculators had bought up plots of land the government was eyeing for development into a second inland expressway into the city and demanded exorbitant prices which again went beyond the budget the authorities had prepared.

(The lack of political will to enforce eminent domain laws was why decades later private farm houses still sat in the middle of the site of Narita International Airport. The farm owners involved had refused to sell.)

Further complicating the matter was the fact that the families of those owners and residents who had decided to sell, and who numbered in the thousands, had to be moved to other accommodations elsewhere in the capital and such housing was not always easy to find in land-scarce Tokyo. The eminent domain issue, as we shall see further on, created other difficulties as well.

One of the biggest headaches was finding a way to house the 30,000 tourists expected for the games. According to one magazine report, there were only 11,460 beds in Western-style hotels and another 4,760 sleeping accommodations in suitable Japanese inns in the Greater Metropolitan Tokyo Area. Another 7,000 beds were under construction, which still left a sizable shortage.

There was also a Catch-22, just to further confuse the issue. According to the magazine, the government decreed that no foreigner could buy a ticket to the games until he showed proof of guaranteed housing. Yet, would-be visitors were also required to pay a 50 percent deposit on rooms booked in advance, which they were loathe to do without a guarantee of a ticket.

Another even bigger problem was a dire shortage of water in the capital caused by an abnormal lack of rainfall in the rainy season preceding the Olympics. Tokyo’s reservoirs had been emptying for three months and as the summer began, the municipal government instituted water rationing. Bathhouse hours were restricted, swimming pools closed, and on narrow side streets, police water trucks, usually employed to quell leftist riots, filled housewives’ buckets with water hauled in from nearby rivers. Soba shops cut down their cooking, while Ginza night clubs urged thirsty patrons to “drink your whiskey without water and help save Tokyo.”

Drilling crews dug emergency artesian wells while other work crews excavated canals to bring in water from nearby rivers. Japan Self-Defense Force planes dumped dry ice on overhead clouds, while on the shores of the Ogochi reservoir outside the city a Shinto priest in the mask of a scarlet lion writhed through a ceremonial rain dance. Townsmen were warned not to expect miracles. As the priest explained, “It will take two days for the message to get through to the dragon god.”

As the deadline for the games approached, there was an enormous, frantic rush to finish everything on time. Construction continued around the clock, seven days a week. Bulldozers rearranged the landscape and dump trucks loaded up with dirt for land- reclamation projects in Tokyo’s fetid harbor rumbled back and forth in unbroken streams.

A month before the games were scheduled to begin, the tumult and the clamor gradually subsided and glimpses of the New Tokyo began to appear, including long finished stretches of the raised expressways. You could even take a ride on a section of the new overhead highway from Shinbashi to Shibaura for ¥50 and many people did just that to see what it was like. It was such a popular thing to do that it was featured in a scene from a Nikkatsu movie.

A friend of mine, a plastic surgeon named Dr. Sato, whom I had met in a bar and began tutoring, took me along for a spin on the 3.2-km run in his brand new Datsun Fair Lady roadster (his “weekend car” as he put it), oohing and aahing at the smoothness of the road, while listening to “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” by a new group called the Beatles, on the radio.

“I like the smell of freshly dried asphalt, ” he remarked, “It means progress.”

I had met Dr. Sato in a Tory’s bar in the Ginza and began tutoring him in English. You could do things like that in those days. Everybody wanted to learn English for the Olympics and there were only 7,000 American civilians in the city — businessmen, diplomats, intelligence agents, judo students, missionaries, English instructors, Mormons preaching the word of Joseph Smith and ex-Occupationaires who had stayed on to seek their fortunes. (There were also about a thousand British in the city and the same number of French and German). The demand for English conversation teachers was so great that American children as young as 10 were recruited for positions as instructors.)


On Sept. 17, the Monorail from Haneda Airport into Tokyo began operations; it would go on to become the busiest and most profitable monorail line in the world.

The wraps were taken off the last of the gleaming new buildings constructed in the center of the city, among them the deluxe new Hotel New Otani and the Shiba Prince Hotel with 1,600 rooms between them, while one after another, the athletic fields, arenas and halls to be used in the Olympiad were announced ready. They included the space-age Komazawa Olympic Park complex for volleyball, soccer and cycling; the Budokan; the National Stadium for track and field; and Kenzo Tange’s swooping, tent-shaped National Gymnasium complex for swimming and diving also in Yoyogi Park.

Melding modern engineering techniques with traditional Japanese forms, Tange’s work would later win the Pritzker Prize for architecture.

Of special significance to the Japanese was the completion of the Olympic Village, also in Yoyogi Park, a retooled and renovated complex that had housed U.S. military officers’ families since the end of the war, and would now put up the 6,624 athletes and their coaches and trainers during the games. The area was located next to the Meiji Shrine and had been the site of a barracks and parade ground for the Imperial Japanese Army before the war. However, during the Occupation, the Americans had appropriated the land, renamed it Washington Heights and made it home to the families of 2,350 U.S. Air Force men.

The fact that Americans had occupied this particular territory had been humiliating enough. What made it worse was the alarming manner in which some of the foreigners living there had behaved.

In 1956, for example, there had been the widely reported case of five teenage American boys accused of raping an 18-year-old Japanese girl. Instead of being forced to face justice in a court in Japan, however, the five youths were merely sent back to the United States, no questions asked. Japanese domestic maids working on the base complained in one magazine piece that they were expected to cook, clean, launder, answer the telephone and be a governess to the family’s children, all for $24 a month, while the provocatively dressed ladies of the house were over at the officer’s club getting tanked up and flirting with other women’s husbands.

Japan had long wanted to get U.S. bases out of central Tokyo. The Olympics were a catalyst for this happening, including many bases outside the city. The Washington Heights complex, by far the biggest and most important one, was relocated to a shiny new complex, Kanto Mura, near the Chofu airport, all expenses paid for by the Japanese government, while others such as Jefferson and Pershing Heights were closed down. The lone survivor, incidentally, is Hardy Barracks, the heliport was regarded by the Americans as too important to give up.

The return of the Yoyogi Park land to Tokyo as the central site for the 1964 Olympics was viewed as an especially welcome gift by both left- and right- wing groups who longed for the day when all the Americans would pack up and go home — starting with those based in central Tokyo. It was yet another step on the road back to self-respect.

The United States government, however, had been reluctant to surrender such valuable territory, guaranteed as it was by the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party with behind-the-scenes support from the CIA and yakuza.

Ironically, the staging of the Olympics had also provided ample opportunities to reward the Tokyo Underworld gangs for their devoted efforts. They had helped the conservative (and CIA-backed) ruling LDP to pass the 1960 extension of the security treaty, which kept U.S. soldiers in Japan over the widespread opposition in the country at large. (At one point in May 1960, 86 percent of the population had opposed the treaty).

Yakuza bosses helped suppress protests and were in the Diet building on the night the treaty was passed in a special Diet session, successfully barring the doors to opponents of the ratification massing outside.

Among other things, they had come in for a share of construction contracts, labor supply, traffic control, lodging, bento (boxed lunch) and on-site security — as well as exclusive domain over off-site entertainments such as brothels and gambling dens.


Part one: Olympic construction transformed Tokyo
Part two: Opening Ceremony ushered in new era for Japan
Part three:  Schollander, Hayes were spectacular at Tokyo Games
Part four:  ‘Witches of the Orient’ symbolized Japan’s fortitude
Part five:  Negative impact of 1964 Olympics profound