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A Samurai's Ikigai: Chronicling Japan's Olympic March

A good samurai was born after fetal distress to and excessive bleeding from the womb of the Land of the Rising Sun. This event was momentous in multifarious ways as the overpowering hues of militarization, jingoism, and notoriety had hitherto dyed the image of this island country in East Asia. By virtue of the sheer predilection of the West towards their own interests, Japan, historically and culturally called Nippon, was projected as the progenitor of brutal samurais, but not after 1964. This propitious year of birth came twenty-four years ahead of that forgotten year of 1940 when Japan was supposed for the first time to manifest its international position by means of the most non-controversial channels of diplomacy, namely sports and culture.

The gala event of the Olympic games may be an economic bonanza for other host Nations, but for Japan, it is and has always been akin to a moment of resurrection for its polity, economy, international relations, and most importantly its traditional culture which had been besmirched by the historical events during and after the Second World War. It is hard to swallow the fact that even after the inhuman and disastrous nuclear attacks that they faced, the Japanese were subjected to global wrath and xenophobia instead of sympathy and hospitality. Even during this lopsided phase, the Japanese hoped to clear the misperceptions of the world and the 1964 Summer Olympics proved to be the incipient occasion to redeem, achieve, and conquer. Oh, Heaven, a lot was at stake!

1964 and the Indelible Cauldron

Image Credits: Japan Bullet

The aim was to modernize the appearance of the Japanese culture, while keeping its soul intact, in order to aesthetically appeal to the international community during the Tokyo Olympics of 1964. The organisers endeavoured and the people accepted the replacement of traditional national symbols with modern, abstract and futuristic designs. These cultural symbolisms were explicit and bold enough to be telecasted in all leading international media houses like never before. The bid to host the Olympics was hard-earned as the contenders were tough to crack. But Japan still managed to attain the honour of being the first Asian state to host the Olympic Games.

The Tokyo National Stadium, with all its razzmatazz, witnessed a meaningful torch-bearing march by Yoshinori Sakai popularly called the Atomic Bomb Boy as he was born on August 6, 1945. Yes, the same day when Hiroshima was bombarded. A popular notion is that the Olympic Games transcend international politics as cities are the host and not the nations. Despite that, countries harness these competitions for the benefit of national privilege and meet national goals by securing positions on the podium. This was anything but facile for Japan as the Japanese contingent at that time was not even near to what it is today. Nevertheless, the question for Japan was more about manoeuvring the paltry options of engagement available with the international community. In this light, Japan used its popular cultural activities as an ostensibly non-political means to achieve diplomatic ends and this notion was apparent in the plan and preparation.

The groundbreaking architectural capabilities built to smash the notion of being a technologically backward nation, and the creation of an anomalous ambience of awe by lighting the undying peace flame at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Site, emanated that the good samurai was all set to greet the world with a konnichiwa (hello).

A Mosaic of Soft Power

The projection of Japan's hard power is a farrago of myths and realities, but its soft power is self-imposing and flamboyant in its own ways. Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution renounces the use of offensive military force or a standing army. This is symbolic of the resolve to maintain peace and tranquillity despite the fact that the principal value system of Japan- Bushido- which exists even today, had instructed otherwise. The aforementioned system called for a violent warrior-like attitude and supreme sacrifice of life, just like a samurai. Interestingly, its initial meaning was transformed and even in the post-1964 era, it was seen as the civilised and noble way of life with chivalry as the badge of honour. The Japanese have been clearly the kind of people who adapt and modify their culture akin to the needs of the time. However, let us not be deceived by the mirage of a ‘no army' image of Japan and admit that the self-defence forces of Japan with their non-combat role acts as a deterrent to sovereignty threats on Japan. Besides this Japan has well developed diplomatic channels and an indomitable presence in technology and space to counter possible incursions in its external and internal matters.

In all probability, many aspects of the 1964 Olympics were the first of its kind. Certainly, all these were targeted to portray a friendly, global repertoire of the Japanese. For instance, pictograms were used to communicate with people of diverse cultures and languages. The Shinkansen, a high-speed railway line, the Tokyo Tower, Yoyogi Stadium, satellite networks for telecasting the game in Europe and North America, and several embodiments of science, fiction, and space were constructed to revive the older symbols of nationalism along with the proclamation of a spirit of internationalism and hospitality. One cannot disavow the fact that cultural diplomacy became the kingpin of Japan's soft power and this process began as the good samurai compèred the 1964 mega event.

2021 and the Mt Fuji Cauldron

Image Credits: Sky News

A whopping expenditure of $20 billion has embellished the good samurai this time around. The pandemic procrastinated the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to 2021, but the Japanese government had resolved to demonstrate the resilience and spirit of konjo (never giving up) amidst the state of emergency. From playing music scores of Japanese video games to signboards having the renowned manga comic strips, Japan continues with all forms of cultural symbolism. The account of the preparations are too long to describe and too advertised for anyone to miss, so it would be suffice to state that the marquee of the event dazzled with a lot of gizmo and showcased the very Japanese fascination with anime.

The subconscious intent of displaying the cultural aspect of Japan remains dominant along with the explicit economic concerns of hosting the scheduled event. The 1964 charm seems to be repolished and revisited. The environment-friendly approach has achieved the attention it required. Alas! something is still missing and that has made a stark difference. The enthusiasm of the Japanese and especially the Tokyoites in the 1964 Olympics had amazed the world. However, this time the celebrations are marred by protests and concerns of the people. It seems as if all the Japanese people are not keen to be happily involved in the display of cultural benison, courtesy of the COVID 19 pandemic.


By Anima Singh

She is a first-year student of History Honours. Needless to say that she is collectively fascinated by issues from antiquity to contemporary. She is someone who would choose being sceptical over being extreme.