Tokyo preparing for 2020 Games

TOKYO — Mariko Nagai walked outside Yoyogi National Stadium — the late-architect Kenzo Tange’s masterpiece from Tokyo’s 1964 Olympics — and pictured the city in that era.

She was a university student from northern Japan who landed a job as an interpreter at the dazzling swimming venue, where American Don Schollander would win four gold medals.

“I wouldn’t say Japanese people were confident about the ability to become one of the advanced nations,” Nagai said. “But we wanted to show how much recovery we had made.”

Tange’s jewel, with a soaring roofline that still defines modern architecture, symbolized Japan’s revival just 19 years after the ravages of World War II. A centerpiece in ’64, it will host handball in Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics, a link between the now-and-then in the Japanese capital.

Tuesday will mark two years before the opening ceremony of the 2020 Games. A new National Stadium is rising on the site of the demolished one that hosted the opening in 1964. Tokyo organizers, though, chose to re-use several older buildings, partly to cut costs. They include the Nippon Budokan, the spiritual home of Japanese judo and other martial arts that became a well-known rock concert venue in the ensuing decades.

For Nagai, the theme of recovery also links now and then. She grew up in Sendai, a city near the northeast coast that was devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The 9.0 quake destroyed the house where she lived until she was 18. No one was living there at the time, but family treasures were lost or destroyed.

“Again, this is an opportunity to showcase to the world how much recovery we have made,” she said.

Nagai still has her blue Olympic blazer, now faded and minus a breast-pocket patch that she removed after the games — and has since lost, possibly in the earthquake rubble. The embroidered emblem featured Japan’s rising sun, the Olympic rings and “TOKYO 1964” etched across the bottom.

Few foreigners walked Tokyo’s streets back then, unlike in today’s tourism boom. Japan had 29 million foreign visitors last year and expects 40 million in 2020.

“A lot of ordinary people who were not used to seeing foreigners felt extraordinary that they could be surrounded by so many non-Japanese,” Nagai said. “It was something very extraordinary, very special.”

She was an exception more than 50 years ago, having picked up English as a high-school exchange student in Dallas.

“In 1964, you could say almost nobody was able to speak English,” she said. “So the organizing committee had a very hard time recruiting interpreters.”

She laughs about it now. The job didn’t even involve interpreting.

“The text would be handed to me in English. All I had to do was read it aloud. I remember that announcing the names was very difficult,” she said, still able to recall the tricky pronunciations of some Swedish swimmers.

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