Could these Tokyo Olympics still be cursed by the Tokugawa shoguns?

Right up to the opening ceremony, the Games have been dogged by trouble

Friday’s opening ceremony takes place at the National Stadium in Tokyo in an  area where there was an  Edo period cemetery. Photograph: Ayano Sato/EPA

Friday’s opening ceremony takes place at the National Stadium in Tokyo in an area where there was an Edo period cemetery. Photograph: Ayano Sato/EPA

 

The Tokugawa shoguns could have warned us all. Say and think what you want about an opening ceremony being staged in an Olympic Stadium in front of 68,000 empty seats, a still global pandemic parade of sporting nations united perhaps by one single act of defiance, in front of a live TV audience of billions and yet no one here in person to cheer them on, only it appears there are some who may have seen this whole cursed thing coming.

Just because you don’t believe in ghosts doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I asked my dad recently what it was like to parade with the Irish team at the first and original Tokyo Olympics, back in October 1964, back when they’d all agreed it was better to stage the thing in the cool of the Japanese autumn and not the crippling heat of their summer, and all he could remember was it being or feeling like some sort out of body experience, a ghostly feeling of some sort, as well it might.

That 1964 opening ceremony which happened in this same National Stadium as it is about to now, only one which once after Tokyo were awarded the 2020 Olympics, back in 2013, was the first venue to be designated sacred, and also in need of a complete refurbishment. Now make that 2021, only what’s another year in the long history of such of place?

Nothing, it seems: the Japan Times just ran a story on this, beginning with the fact that by the time the National Stadium refurbishment was completed, in November 2019, the bones of 187 human bodies had been excavated, between 2013 and 2015, from the construction site of Tokyo’s now newly revamped National Stadium.

It turns out the area where the venue was being rebuilt was also an Edo period cemetery, dating back from 1603-1868. No big deal (old burial sites are frequently unearthed during large-scale infrastructure projects in Japan) only this inevitably unearthed the revival of an old Japanese urban legend: the Tokugawa curse.

Because it turns out the roughly 330,000 square meters of land in present-day Shibuya Ward, right next to where to new National Stadium stands, once belonged to the main lineage of the Tokugawa family, descendants of the Tokugawa shoguns who once ruled parts of feudal Japan.

The shoguns were the old hereditary military leaders, technically appointed by the emperor, believing the real power rested with themselves: when they were overthrown in 1868, members of the clan were chased from Edo Castle and moved to Shibuya Ward, and it was here that Prince Tokugawa Iesato, the first head of the Tokugawa family after the shogun was dissolved, held his residence.

People wearing face masks stand before trees cut in the shape of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics mascots in Tokyo on Thursday. Photograph: Franck Robichon/EPA
People wearing face masks stand before trees cut in the shape of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics mascots in Tokyo on Thursday. Photograph: Franck Robichon/EPA

A powerful figure in Japanese politics and diplomacy, Prince Iesato also happened to be president of the National Organising Committee for the “phantom” 1940 Olympics, first awarded to Tokyo – the same Games which never materialised due to the outbreak of World War II. Prince Iesato also happened to die the same year the 1940 Olympics were meant to be held in Tokyo, his family’s fortunes quickly disintegrating, his vast lands purchased by the Tokyo government in 1943.

Last year, Japan’s finance minister Taro Aso first called these Games “cursed” in reference in part to how all Olympics seem to have been overshadowed by unexpected circumstances in 40-year intervals. (Think Moscow 1980, the boycott etc.)

By 1964, Tokyo was already undergoing an unprecedented infrastructure drive in time for the Games: the medieval sewage system was overhauled, new roads and highways were paved, and they built the first Tokyo Bullet Train in preparation for those Olympics too.

Olympics or not, the area around Shibuya Ward is considered haunted by many Tokyo residents. In that rush to build new roads, developers also dug through land belonging to Senjuin temple, and the concubine of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa. Several reports of supernatural occurrences have since surfaced, often involving a female ghost with long hair hanging upside down from the ceiling of the tunnel. Many Tokyo residents have also claimed to find mysterious handprints on their car windows after driving through the tunnel.

Is this something or nothing to do with these Olympics? Who knows? Yet just yesterday here in Tokyo, Kentaro Kobayashi, the director of the opening ceremony, was unceremoniously removed from his post following news reports about his long past comments on the Holocaust. It turns out Kobayashi had made light of the mass murder of six million Jews by the Nazis in a script for his comedy act back in 1998, including saying, “Let’s play Holocaust”.

This follows the resignation on Monday of the opening ceremony musical director Keigo Oyamada, after he admitted to bullying children with disabilities going back to the early 1990s. Remember, too, that former Japanese prime minister Yoshiro Mori stepped down in February, as head of the Tokyo organising committee, after saying meetings with women tend to “drag on” because they talk too much.

Tokyo’s first Olympic creative director, Hiroshi Sasaki, also resigned in March after it was revealed he had privately suggested local celebrity Naomi Watanabe dress as a pig for the opening ceremony to play the role of an “Olympig”.

Toyota, one of Tokyo’s chief sponsors, have already pulled their ads from all opening ceremony activities, others now staying clear too: Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp, Fujitsu Ltd., NEC Corp, Meiji Holdings Co, Asahi Group Holdings Ltd and Nippon Life Insurance Co chiefs all politely declining their invitations.

The opening ceremony used to be the hottest ticket in every Olympic host city, even if Pat Hickey, former president of the now reborn Olympic Council of Ireland, had a few to spare the morning he was arrested just days after the opening ceremony in Rio at his five-star Winsdor Marapendi Hotel. Or was he just similarly somehow cursed too?

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