Officials seized their chance to turn a war-scarred city into a modern metropolis.

By Max Zimmerman
June 3, 2021, 5:00 PM GMT-4

Even as this year’s Olympics draw nearer, the Tokyo Games of 1964 remain a not-so-distant memory for the city’s residents. From the iconic bullet train to the snaking Metropolitan Expressway and the expanses of Yoyogi Park, the games’ legacy is all around.

These ambitious projects captured the spirit of their age, the urban planning component of an unprecedented regeneration effort. In much the same way, more modest preparations for Tokyo 2020 (the name stuck despite postponement due to the pandemic) are a reflection of their economic times.

The 1964 Olympics were a rare chance for officials to implement the kind of rapid, sweeping changes that would disrupt lives and require cultural sacrifices. Visitors found not a war-scarred city but a modernizing metropolis, with state-of-the-art transportation whizzing between an upgraded airport and smart new hotels. More than that, the enormous footprint of military facilities in Tokyo’s southwest became the city’s new economic and cultural center—emblems of a peaceful, prosperous future.

“The slogan of the 1964 Olympics was ‘faster, higher, stronger,’” said Shunya Yoshimi, author of “Olympics and Postwar” and a professor of Sociology, Cultural Studies and Media Studies at The University of Tokyo.

“But it also became a major slogan for the Japanese government, which strove for Tokyo to be a faster city, higher city and stronger city.”

Frenetic Pace
When Japan won its bid for the games in 1959, the country’s boom had just kicked off and Tokyo was still caught between devastation and recovery.

Poor sewage systems meant polluted rivers. Drinking water was bad. Air quality was low, while a poor road network and rising car culture meant endemic traffic. As the population soared to 10 million by 1963—from just 3.49 million in 1945—growth in housing stock struggled to keep up.

The overall impression was an “unsightly urban sprawl of rickety wooden houses” and “scabrous shanties,” wrote journalist Robert Whiting, who landed in the city in 1962 as an American GI.

Bagging the Olympics was viewed in a less skeptical light than it might be today, and above all as a development opportunity. With the promise of the games ahead, the already frenetic pace of construction stepped up a gear.

The government accelerated work on roads including the Metropolitan Expressway, which weaves between buildings, balances over rivers and ducks underground—a cheaper and quicker building method than buying up private land. It improved water systems and expanded the subway. Buildings sprouted up like weeds and luxury hotels—such as the 17-story Hotel New Otani, Japan’s largest building at the time—were built to accommodate foreign guests. Western-style flush toilets, then uncommon, were promoted.

The city was still marked by several U.S. army camps. The Olympics gave Japanese leaders an opportunity to press for the return of more land at a point when the U.S. was ready to reduce the conspicuous evidence of its presence in the country.

Japan’s Olympic organizers targeted the spacious Camp Drake in the city’s far northwest. The U.S. offered to return Washington Heights, which was smaller but built in a prime location next to the shrine of Emperor Meiji, modern Japan’s patriarch. Organizers initially resisted the idea of building sports facilities on such coveted real estate, before the area ultimately became home to the Olympic Village and the National Gymnasium. The pioneering design of its now-famous spiraling suspension roof let architect Kenzo Tange forgo columns and open the space under a swooping ceiling.

“The conversion of imperial and military facilities concentrated in Tokyo’s west into new infrastructure would advance the urban renewal of these areas while expanding disparities” with the city’s traditional center in the east, wrote Takashi Machimura, a professor of Sociology at Hitotsubashi University.

The games attracted young people to Shibuya, Yoyogi and Harajuku—neighborhoods that today remain ground zero for Japanese youth culture. National broadcaster NHK built new headquarters nearby, drawing in other networks, businesses and shops. Eventually the Olympic Village was converted into Yoyogi Park, one the few large city parks suited to activities like jogging and picnicking, and hugely popular for its proximity to Shibuya and Harajuku. Luxury hotels also helped turn the area into a destination for leisure and business travelers.

“Looking at the grounds occupied by the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, one can see that the games both replaced history and were themselves placed in a historical context by their closeness to the Meiji Shrine,” wrote Christian Tagsold, a professor at Heinrich Heine University Dusseldorf’s Department for Modern Japan.

Falling Short
In 1964, Japan was determined to use the Olympics to prove its economic and technological prowess. The urban planning agenda for Tokyo 2020 is far less ambitious, by design.

Facing mounting criticism about the games' cost and negative impacts, the International Olympic Committee was eager to show that mature cities can hold the event with minimal disruption. Tokyo’s bid in 2013 pitched a “compact” games in which the main venues would be kept within eight kilometers of the Olympic Village.

But the city’s projects have largely fallen short of even these modest aims.

A scheme to rebuild the aging National Stadium was scrapped in the face of consternation at its $2 billion price tag and incongruity with the historic Meiji Jingu Gaien district around it. A more modest structure was completed in 2019, but the controversy dampened enthusiasm for the games. Meanwhile efforts to cut bloating costs by using existing, more remote sports facilities undermined the goal of a limited ground plan.

Developments at Tokyo Bay in the city’s southeast have also failed to capture the national imagination. A hydrogen-powered Olympic Village on the landfill island of Harumi—which was supposed to be up and running as a residential development already—has been hit by delays as a result of the pandemic. It will remain as a ghost town, closed to the public, until the athletes finally arrive.

More positively, the government has improved accessibility for wheelchair users and others across the city. But most of Tokyo’s efforts have been perceived as commercial real-estate opportunism, at odds with revitalization efforts in cities like 2012 host London.

In fact Tokyo’s most dramatic redevelopments have been in Shibuya, driven mainly by private businesses drawn to the area’s economic and cultural primacy—a major legacy of 1964.

Projects around the station include mixed-use commercial facilities like Shibuya Hikarie and Shibuya Scramble Square, both more than 30 stories tall. The Shibuya River has been redirected and a pedestrian promenade installed. Miyashita Park, once known for its homeless population, has become a mall with green space on its roof.

Tokyo’s unprecedented urban transformation in the lead-up to 1964 provided a roadmap for rising cities like Seoul and Beijing, Olympic hosts in 1988 and 2008 respectively, that sought out the games for economic benefits and an introduction to the world stage. As criticisms about Olympic-related development mount—from the costs to gentrification—organizers have been looking for a new model. The Japanese capital seems to have missed its chance to provide that vision this time around, and strengthened questions about the games’ value for mature cities.

“We need to change our idea of the city from ‘faster, higher, stronger’ toward ‘more enjoyable, more resilient, and more sustainable,’” Yoshimi said. “The Olympic Games are not necessary for that purpose.”