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Olympic memories demonstrate U.S.-Japan ties

It’s official! The Olympics will be held in Tokyo in 2020. Since the selection on September 8 of Tokyo as the host of the Summer Olympic Games, expectations have been growing for revolutionary changes in Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan to prepare for welcoming foreign athletes and other guests. But before envisaging the changes to come over the next seven years, let’s take a moment to look back at the legacy of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics.

How many of you know that Washington Heights, a housing complex used by U.S. military personnel and their dependents during and after the American occupation of Japan, was returned to Japan in 1963 to make way for the 1964 Olympics? NHK TV’s weeknight “News Watch 9” (9/9) took up the reversion of Washington Heights, saying that then President John F. Kennedy decided to completely return the area in response to a request from Japan. A large chunk of the complex was razed to make way for a new Olympic gymnasium and swimming pool, and residential units at the site were renovated to accommodate the 6,000 athletes and officials from 93 countries. After the games were over, the area used for the Olympic Village was transformed into Yoyogi Park, one of the most popular parks in central Tokyo today.

Stroll through Yoyogi Park and you may happen upon a white bungalow with peppermint green trim nestled among a grove of trees. Once part of Washington Heights, the house has been preserved by Tokyo to commemorate the role of the complex in the 1964 Olympics. Although the house stands alone, it is adjacent to another symbol of goodwill and friendship between the United States and Japan. On November 16, 2012, 100 dogwood trees were planted in the front garden of the house as part of the “Friendship Blossoms – Dogwood Tree Initiative.” The initiative is a public-private partnership between the Department of State and the U.S.-Japan Bridging Foundation to commemorate the centennial anniversary of Japan’s gift in 1912 of 3,000 cherry trees as a token of friendship between the two nations. The new symbol of friendship now joins the legacy of bilateral ties at the park.

In his autobiographical work titled Washinton Haitsu no Kaze (The Wind in Washington Heights), popular novelist Ichiriki Yamamoto describes the excitement he felt as a teenager when he encountered American culture in Washington Heights. He said in an interview with Sankei (9/13) that the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo will provide young Japanese with opportunities for eye-opening experiences through firsthand encounters with foreign guests. He said: “It’s easy to obtain information online, but there are things you can’t get from the Internet alone. I would like to tell young people to learn from the world.”

Another person with a story to tell about the 1964 Olympics is Mariko Nagai (at left in the photo), one of Japan’s top English-Japanese simultaneous interpreters. In addition to her work for a number of senior Japanese and U.S. officials, Nagai recently worked with Tokyo Governor Naoki Inose to help him win Tokyo’s bid to host the 2020 Olympics. Nagai told Yomiuri (9/12) that her experience of working as an interpreter during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, when she was a student at International Christian University in Tokyo, was the start of her professional career. She still has vivid memories of how exciting it was for her to be involved in the Olympics.

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