The 1964 Olympics hailed a new Japan. There is less to applaud this time around.

TOKYO – Under bright blue skies in October 1964, Emperor Hirohito of Japan stood before a resurgent nation to declare the Tokyo Olympics open. A voice the Japanese audience first heard announcing the country’s surrender during WWII now echoed through a crowded stadium, living with impatience.

Tokyo will inaugurate new Summer Olympics on Friday, after a year of delay due to the coronavirus pandemic. Hirohito’s grandson, Emperor Naruhito, will be in the stands for the opening ceremony, but it will be closed to spectators as an anxious nation grapples with a new wave of infections.

For 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 for the generation of Japanese who fondly remember the 1964 Games, the prospect of a diminished and largely unwelcome edition of the Olympics is a serious disappointment.

“Everyone in Japan was burning with enthusiasm for the Games,” said Kazuo Inoue, 69, who vividly remembers being glued to the new color television at his family’s home in Tokyo in 1964. “ It’s missing, so it’s a bit sad. “

Still, boredom isn’t just about pandemic chaos and plenty of scandals leading up to the games. The nation today and what the Olympics mean to it is very different from what it was 57 years ago.

The 1964 Olympics showed the world that Japan had recovered from the ravages of war and rebuilt as a modern, peaceful democracy after an era of military aggression. The highways and the high-speed train were hastily completed. With the increase in income, many Japanese families like Mr. Inoue’s have bought televisions to watch the games, the first to be broadcast live via satellite around the world.

This time around, Japan is a mature and wealthy nation. But its economy has stagnated for much of the past three decades, leaving a growing number of people behind. One in seven children live in poverty, and many workers have contract or part-time jobs that lack stability and pay few benefits.

It is also a much older nation now. When Hirohito opened the Summer Games, only 6% of the population was 65 or older. Today, that figure is over 28% and the fertility rate is almost half that of 1964. The population has been declining since 2008.

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics are often seen as the moment when Japan turned to prosperity. In four years, Japan has become the second largest economy in the world, behind the United States, its former occupant. (It has since fallen to third, behind China.) As many Japanese entered the middle class, they bought not only televisions, but other modern appliances like washing machines, refrigerators, and vacuum cleaners. .

Japan is once again approaching a watershed, the outcome of which depends on how government, business and civil society respond to a shrinking and aging population.

In 1964, there was “a feeling of Japan on the move and a feeling of a country with a future,” said Hiromu Nagahara, associate professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. From now on, it is “a country which has lost confidence and a country whose political elites feel this loss of confidence very intensely”.

Longtime observers from Japan say it should revise some sclerotic practices and cultural norms. While the country’s rise as an industrial power has been built on strong social cohesion, this aspect of society has tended to suppress women, ethnic minorities and other groups who do not live up to expectations. traditional.

“The strengths of Japan are clear – it’s the fabric of society,” said Carol Gluck, historian of modern Japan at Columbia University. “But it can become a weakness if it makes it difficult to change.”

“There is a lot of potential there,” added Professor Gluck. “But the question is whether this will be understood and realized before things get so bad.”

With the international spotlight on Japan for the Olympics, many of its societal warts have been exposed.

In February, Tokyo organizing committee chairman Yoshiro Mori, 84, was forced to resign after saying women spoke too much in meetings, but not before receiving a firm defense from traditionalists. In a country that ranks 120th out of 156 nations in a gender gap ranking, many Japanese women admitted her comments reflected attitudes that were all too familiar.

Despite pressure from activists to seize the Olympic moment to advance gay and transgender rights in Japan, a modest bill calling discrimination “unacceptable” has failed to even make it through the conservative parliament. And this week, a composer for the opening ceremony resigned after it emerged that he confessed to severely harassing his disabled classmates at school. Japan’s education ministry calls bullying one of the biggest social challenges in classrooms.

When Tokyo applied for the 2020 Games, then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe presented him as a symbol of triumph over a devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in 2011. This post has been overtaken by a new narrative: that the Games represent a global effort to overcome the pandemic.

The Japanese people, who are mostly opposed to holding the Games, do not buy either message. The nuclear cleanup is far from over and the games are taking place in a state of emergency as coronavirus cases peak in six months in Tokyo. These increases have been compounded by daily announcements of positive cases in the Olympic Village, reminding everyone of the enduring power of the virus.

And with spectators excluded from all but a few events, there is little benefit to hotels, restaurants, retailers, and other businesses.

“I’m sorry about the tourism or the hotels,” said Ikuzo Tamura, 84, who sold commemorative cloth envelopes at the Olympic stadium in 1964. “They don’t have the same opportunity as us. I don’t think so. someone is to be blamed, but in this situation people have no choice but to endure. ”

At this point, perhaps Japan’s best hope is to show off its crisis management skills by hosting the large-scale epidemic-free events.

“Whether you agree with the Japanese government or not, these Games are being played with a very high degree of risk,” said Roy Tomizawa, author of “1964: The Greatest Year in Japanese History”.

“It’s like Simone Biles is attempting a double pike, a move no other woman will do except Simone Biles,” he added. “I don’t know how many countries would have gone ahead with this.”

Historians point out that the 1964 Games did not go as well as wispy-eyed citizens might remember. Two senior officials resigned as the public criticized Japan’s decision to send a team to the 1962 Asian Games, which host country Indonesia excluded athletes from Israel and Taiwan, Yuji Ishizaka said, sports sociologist at Nara Women’s University. And until a year before the 1964 Olympics, only about half of the countries publicly supported hosting the Games.

Yet the hope of all the Olympics is that once the Games have started, athletic competition will come to the fore. What people remember best of 1964 was 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 a live audience, the drama will still be present and televised. But it will be tempered.

“For athletes, for me, having spectators gives you so much power,” said Shuji Tsurumi, 83, a gymnast for the 1964 team who also won three individual silver medals.

“You have to feel the breath of the athlete on your skin, the air in the stadium, the tension of others around you while waiting for a successful landing,” he added. “Without it, it’s not the same.”

Yoshiko Kanda, a member of the winning volleyball team in 1964, said the cheering crowd was “the biggest reminder of why I was competing.”

“Without that feeling in the air, I bet a lot of athletes are struggling,” said Ms Kanda, 79, who competed under her single name, Matsumura. “In 1964, the environment, the air, the feeling in society was burning with excitement,” she added. “Compared to the Olympics in ’64, it will be so lonely.”

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