Ashes to Gold is a documentary in pre-production on Tokyo's dramatic rise as seen through the lens of the '64 Olympics.
Today we take it for granted that Japan is one of the wealthiest, most technologically advanced countries in the world. Its industries have revolutionized everything from electronics to banking to fashion. And its capital – the gleaming megalopolis of Tokyo – sits firmly in the first rank of global cities by almost any measure. Yet there was a time, not so long ago, when none of this power and prestige seemed probable, or even possible. Now that the Olympics are returning to Tokyo in 2020, it is the perfect time to tell this forgotten story of how the ‘64 Tokyo Olympics sparked one of the most spectacular physical, and spiritual, transformations in recent memory.
At the end of World War II, Japan was a pariah in the international community. Many of its cities lay in rubble, including the capital, which had been flattened by American fire bombs. The prospects for the future seemed bleak, and for years afterwards, Tokyo was a crime-ridden slum, its people demoralized, and the very phrase “Made in Japan” carried a connotation of products that were cheap and unsophisticated.
Then, almost overnight, all of that changed. For two weeks in October 1964, the world came for the Olympics and was shocked by what it saw. Japan and her people had put everything into preparing for the Games, determined to prove themselves to a skeptical global audience. Tokyo would be their shining example. Where just 20 years earlier there had been miles upon miles of devastation, there now sprouted modern highways, subways, skyscrapers, and department stores bursting with luxury goods - as well as the now-iconic Bullet Train, the first and best high-speed rail network in the world.
Japanese culture had been personified by its fearsome kamikaze pilots; now visitors found a confident people eager to share smiles and peaceful good wishes. The past may not have been completely forgotten, but the focus was now firmly on the future. (That Tokyo was chosen shortly after the Games as the sleek backdrop of James Bond's You Only Live Twice exemplifies the rapidity with which the bombed-out cityscape was transformed.)
Many in the West doubted a backward country like Japan could pull this off, after all this was the first time an Asian country hosted the Games. Although those skeptics were proven wrong in spectacular fashion, the story is of course not that simple. Foreshadowing many of the Games that followed, corruption drove up the costs, the environment was often sacrificed in the name of construction, and whole neighborhoods were displaced.
From the Opening Ceremony, the ‘64 Games set about expunging the demons of the past. The Olympic Flame was lit by the “Atomic Bomb Boy” - a Japanese runner who had been born in Hiroshima on the day of the atomic bomb. And the once-villainous Emperor Hirohito personally welcomed the athletes to Japan, a sight that would have been unthinkable just a few short years earlier.
Most Japanese had only seen Americans in uniform, and in 1964 tens of thousands of GIs remained in the country even though the U.S. occupation had ended a few years before. But now the Japanese public fell in love with new American sports heroes. There was Native American Billy Mills, who pulled off one of the great Olympic upsets in the 10k, later immortalized in the film Running Brave. And the blond-haired, Adonis-like American swimmer Don Schollander, who proved himself the Michael Phelps of his day, was worshipped almost as a demigod in Japan for years afterwards. Other prominent Americans who won gold medals include Bill Bradley (Senator), Donna De Varona (TV sportscaster), Larry Brown (Hall of Fame coach), Bob Hayes (NFL Hall of Famer), and Joe Frazier (boxing heavyweight champion).
The host country had its share of heroics and heartbreaks. More than nine out of every ten people in Japan witnessed the stunning upset as the petite Japanese “Witches of the Orient” over the towering Soviet women’s volleyball team for the gold medal, driven by their coach - a pitiless former army sergeant whose harsh style echoed Japan’s militaristic past. Marathoner Kokichi Tsuburaya barely lost the silver medal in a dramatic final stretch, and later committed suicide for the disgrace. Japan's mighty heavyweight judo champion lost the heartbreaking gold medal match to an unheralded Dutchman in a sport the Japanese invented, but the winner conducted himself with such grace that he earned the enduring respect of the Japanese people.
When it was over, Life Magazine raved that the Games were the “greatest Olympics ever held,” not only for the excitement and the sporting achievements, but also the host’s level of preparation. And many historians still consider the ‘64 Olympics one of the most successful ever staged.