The American Occupation of Japan and the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Village

The American Occupation of Japan and the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Village

The 1964 Olympics had a profound impact on the urban landscape of Tokyo as the city restructured itself to host the Games. The cost of the Olympics were substantial, ballooning to nearly half a billion dollars compared to the modest 30 million dollar spending on the 1960 Rome Games. The Japanese government saw the Games as means to re-enter the global stage and present an advanced and peaceful Japan to the world. New venues were constructed while existing facilities were repurposed or renovated. However, for the Olympic Village, the housing meant for the athletes, a ready made solution presented itself to the planning committee courtesy of the American Occupation of Japan.

After Japan’s surrender on August 15 1945, 350000 U.S. troops entered the island nation as part of the Occupation force. With Tokyo devastated, housing was required for American military personnel and eventually their tens of thousands of dependents. In Shibuya a former Imperial Japanese military parade ground was turned over to U.S. authorities and renamed Washington Heights. Japanese workers built hundreds of homes and Washington Heights quickly became a small enclave of America within Tokyo. Aside from over 800 houses, Washington Heights held schools, stores, churches and all the amenities of home for the soldiers and their families. Streets were given names like Chestnut and Sycamore while Japanese citizens were not allowed within the tightly guarded community, which was separated from the rest of Shibuya.

The last remaining house of the Washington Heights complex in Yoyogi Park.

The Washington Heights military housing area remained under U.S. control even after the 1952 Treaty of San Francisco ended the Occupation a short seven years after it began and returned the Japanese government to power. Despite the end of the Occupation, the U.S. retained a sizeable number of troops within Japan, a state of affairs that was exacerbated by the ongoing Korean War. By 1961 however, the successful bid by Japan to host the 1964 Games meant that the large amount of land occupied by Washington Heights, encompassing nearly a million square meters, was needed for Olympic facilities. American military families were moved to new housing to the west of Shibuya in Chofu. Some homes were then converted into the Olympic Village for athletes while the rest of the community was leveled to make room for the new National Gymnasium and annex building, which hosted the swimming, diving and basketball events.

The National Gymnasium

Washington Heights was not the only such complex in Tokyo. Narimasu airfield in Nerima ward was similarly handed over to U.S. authorities and was transformed into the Grant Heights community for American military families. Grant Heights was also eventually returned to the Japanese government and is now the site of modern day Hikarigaoka Park and related housing developments.

High rise buildings now occupy the land where the 1964 Olympic Village and the Washington Heights military housing complex once stood.

After the Olympics the Village was demolished to make way for new construction–and despite the successful Games, erase a highly visible reminder of the American Occupation. A large swatch of land north of the National Gymnasium was turned into modern day Yoyogi Park in 1967. The only existing remnant of Washington Heights and the Olympic Village is a single house, preserved in a corner of Yoyogi Park. A commemorative plaque explains the use of the building during the Olympics and the origin of the surrounding garden but leaves out any mention of the American Occupation or of the Washington Heights complex.

The commemorative plaque in front of the sole surviving Washington Heights/Olympic Village building.

References and further reading

  • The 1964 Tokyo Olympics: A Turning Point for Japan –¬† https://blogs.wsj.com/japanrealtime/2013/09/05/the-1964-tokyo-olympics-a-turning-point-for-japan/
  • Olympic construction transformed Tokyo¬†– http://www.japantimes.co.jp/sports/2014/10/10/olympics/olympic-construction-transformed-tokyo/#.WUZd6NwlG00
  • Washington Heights Housing Complex – http://www.narimasu.net/memory/candid/candwh.htm
  • A Look Back at When Tokyo was Awarded 1964 Olympics – http://www.japantimes.co.jp/sports/2013/08/24/olympics/a-look-back-at-when-tokyo-was-awarded-1964-olympics/#.WUaVrNwlG00
  • The Games of the XVIII Olympiaid Tokyo 1964: The Official Report of the Organizing Committee

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