The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan


April 2014
Getting Ready for the Games
Tokyo was completely transformed for the 1964 Olympics
By Robert Whiting

With the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games approaching, a lot of construction is slated to be done to get ready for the big event.

However, when I first came to Tokyo in 1962, two years before the ACCJ Journal was established, the city was nothing like the gleaming hi-tech megapolis it is today.

Rather, it was an unsightly urban sprawl of rickety wooden houses, scabrous shanties, and cheaply constructed stucco buildings in the process of being razed to make way for the modern infrastructure the city needed to host the 1964 Olympics.

Everywhere you looked construction was going on. Crumbling sidewalks were ripped apart in favor of new ones, roads were torn open to make room for subway lines. Trucks—some of them three-wheeled—constantly lumbered by carrying dirt, rubble, and building materials. Overhead were elevated highways, in various stages of completion, with cables exposed.

Municipal plans called for 10,000 new office and residential buildings; half a billion dollars’ worth of new roads; 62 miles of new elevated superhighways along vital arteries from Haneda International Airport; a new $55 million monorail from the airport to downtown Tokyo; 25 miles of new subway lines; and a billion dollar, 160-mile-per-hour bullet train and railway that would halve the existing six-hour-forty-minute travel time between Tokyo and Osaka.

It was a contact high just to be there and try to absorb it all. The energy sucked you in. It was an overwhelming assault on the senses. Dust, soot, smoke, and smog were pervasive.

The pollution from exhaust fumes from the thousands upon thousands of cars jamming the streets was so noxious that traffic policeman carried small oxygen cylinders, while Tokyoites wore face masks and bought oxygen from vending machines. Sidewalk cafés were encased in large plastic screens.

An electronic sign near Ginza displayed the time and temperature as well as the current sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide levels. A police box nearby set up a temporary oxygen station for pedestrians overcome by the toxic air.

The reek of setting cement was everywhere, and the noise was unending—a constant cacophony of car horns, jackhammers, pile drivers, bulldozers, and streetcars. Honk Honk. Rat-a-tat-tat. Wham. Boom. Clang-clang-clang.

An electronic billboard at a Nishi Ginza intersection in downtown Tokyo measured the phonic damage. Beside it stood a sign proclaiming: “Be more quiet! The noise at this moment: 88. Standard for residential area: 50 phons. Busy corners: 70 phons.”

The pace of life in Tokyo was dizzying. According to Time magazine, it was double that of New York and “thrice as noisy as Chicago.” Already the world’s most populous city, with a population exceeding 10 million as of February 1962, Tokyo was growing by leaps and bounds, bursting at the seams.

In fact, 500 new residents flowed into the city every day, many of them on jam-packed shadan-sha, group trains that ran from Tohoku and further north into Tokyo’s Ueno Station, which handled some 800,000 commuters a day. The trains were loaded with teenage workers destined for the city’s factories and numerous construction sites, and salaries that were twice those of anywhere else in the country.

At night, the city stepped up the pace of construction. Blinding work lights and diesel compressors were switched on, traffic on Tokyo’s main thoroughfares was rerouted, and a new set of air hammers and pile drivers started, opening up the streets until dawn, when temporary wooden planks were used to cover the streets.

Most of Tokyo’s citizens stoically put up with the annoyances, but I remember a newspaper article about a college student, unable to study because of the constant pounding near his accommodations, becoming so agitated that he marched down to the construction site, put his head underneath the offending pile driver and ended his misery.

Last but not least in the construction frenzy was the laying of new sewers. This allowed flush toilets to replace the non-flush variety, prevalent in certain sections of the city, that were cleaned out by vacuum trucks called kumitoriya.

Now, decades later, Tokyo is famous for its high-tech toilets with their automated lids, water jets, blow-dry functions, and computer analyses that headline an impressive sewerage system.

Despite the frantic rebuilding, in 1962 less than a quarter of the city’s 23 wards had sewage systems, making Tokyo one of the world’s most primitive megalopolises. This meant about 7.5 million people didn’t have access to flush toilets in their residences.

Assuming the average person produced two pounds of waste a day, that meant 15 million pounds of fecal matter had to be sucked out every day from under buildings by the vacuum trucks. Since the vehicles visited most neighborhoods only once or twice a week, there was a continual, pervasive stench in vast parts of the capital, which explained the wide use of face masks in certain residential areas.

Most observers thought that Tokyo would never make it. By February 1963, only half the target deadlines for road construction had been met. Some 30,000 visitors were expected for the Olympics, but there were only enough beds in the city for half that number.

In the last, frantic days before the Games, pile drivers and bulldozers were still tearing up roads around the clock. But one month before the Games, amidst dust and pollution, glimpses of the new Tokyo began to appear.

Four of the eight super highways opened, bringing a sense of order to chaotic traffic, two of the three subway lines were opened, while the main Olympic structures were completed.

In mid-September Wenner-Gren’s Tokyo Monorail opened for business and on October 1—two weeks before the start of the Games—the shinkansen made its first run, and the Tokaido line became the busiest commuter corridor in the world, busier even than the route between New York City and Washington D.C. Arrival and departure times were so accurate that the Japanese National Railways offered a refund to passengers if their train was late.

Also opening were two five-star hotels: the huge Tokyo Prince Hotel (1,600 rooms), and the 17-floor Hotel New Otani—the tallest building in the city—with a revolving cocktail lounge on its roof and a 400-year-old garden.

But not everything was finished or went smoothly. Some alert bureaucrat noticed there were not enough public restrooms in the original plans to prevent the common practice by Tokyo males of relieving themselves on the streets, so a fleet of temporary mobile public toilets were put up, along with signs that said, in Japanese, “Let’s refrain from urinating in public.”

On the day the Olympics started, only four of the eight main expressways had been completed. The elevated highway from Roppongi to Shibuya wasn’t finished for another four years, earning it the nickname among foreign journalists of the “Burma Road.” The completed expressways caused huge overhead traffic jams because they were based on a design that merged one two-lane expressway into other two-lane expressways.

Nonetheless, on the day of the opening ceremony, the newly reconstructed city was largely ready—although to long-time residents, almost unrecognizable—in more ways than one.

Menacing yakuza had virtually vanished from the streets. At the request of the government, gang bosses ordered “unpleasant-looking” mobsters in their ranks to undergo “spiritual training” in the mountains or at the seaside for the duration of the Games.

Also magically disappearing were the beggars and vagrants who had occupied Ueno Park and other parts of the city, as well as the streetwalkers who normally populated the city’s entertainment areas.

As an added bonus, taxi and truck drivers had been persuaded by the authorities to stop honking their horns in the interests of making Tokyo sound good. As a friend, in the city at the time, put it, “It was like a debutante’s ball.”

Two weeks later, following the closing ceremony, the International Olympic Committee Chairman Avery Brundage declared that the Tokyo Olympiad was the “greatest ever.”

An entirely new Japan had been introduced to the world, thanks to unprecedented satellite telecasts. No longer was it a wartime enemy and a shattered nation, but a peaceful country and an emerging economic powerhouse, looked up to by the rest of the international community.

The most explosive urban transformation known to man was history.


Robert Whiting, 71, is an author and journalist who has written several books on modern Japanese culture, including You Gotta Have Wa and Tokyo Underworld.


Whiting first came to Japan in 1962 with the US Air Force Intelligence, where he worked for the National Security Agency in the U-2 program. He graduated from Tokyo’s Sophia University in 1969 with a degree in Japanese politics.


He went on to became an informal advisor with the Higashi Nakano wing of Tokyo’s second-largest criminal gang, the Sumiyoshi-kai, and worked for Encyclopedia Britannica Japan as an editor until 1972.

His first book was The Chrysanthemum and the Bat.