Alan Hubbard

My late father-in-law Jack often spoke with understandable bitterness about his experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war (POW) during his four-and-a-half-year sojourn in the notorious Changi POW camp in Singapore, and later on the Burma Railway where brave soldiers were disgustingly treated like slaves.

“Hate the bastards,” he would say, recounting horrific tales of barbaric cruelty and atrocities. “Absolute savages.”

However he admitted a grudging admiration - or rather an acknowledgement - of the innate Japanese pride in their nation, ruthless efficiency and determination to succeed at all costs. For failure to do brought shame and often for the perpetrators the act of hara-kiri. “Obstinate buggers too,” he would add.

That fear of national failure and consequent shame was also brilliantly highlighted in a recent Daily Mail article by Ian Herbert, an outstanding journalist with whom I had worked on the Independent on Sunday, describing why the Japanese Government was so defiantly reluctant to postpone the Olympic and Paralympic Games scheduled to begin in July. He wrote that the culture of shame attached with things going wrong - haji in the Japanese vernacular- is no less part of life in the country now. 

"It will not be Japan’s fault if the Tokyo Olympics are cancelled as a result of a coronavirus epidemic which the country has contained more than most. But it will still be a national embarrassment with all the associated shame.

“It is impossible to overstate how much the nation has invested, literally and financially in the Games. The Olympics are fundamental to Japanese Premier Shinzō Abe’s ‘Japan is back’ narrative. They are intended to foster a patriotism whose absence among ordinary Japanese he laments; to demonstrate Japan’s innovation, modernity, openness and to crown his seven year rule.”

The Olympic Opening Ceremony was due to take place on July 24 ©Getty Images
The Olympic Opening Ceremony was due to take place on July 24 ©Getty Images

Ironically, just a few weeks after I married Jack’s gorgeous daughter Jeannie, now sadly my late wife, I was dispatched to cover the 1964 Olympics - in Tokyo! I remember Jack sniffing at the time: “Good luck son - you’ll end up detesting them. But I’ll tell you what. They will hold a bloody good Games.”

He was quite wrong on the first count - but absolutely right on the second. Virtually every Japanese I encountered was the very essence of charm, friendliness, politeness and hospitality, even though most spoke little or no English. Very efficient, too. Those Games, fragrant with cherry blossom and the first I attended, went like clockwork and were certainly high among the most pleasant and trouble-free of the dozen I have now covered. I was sad to say sayonara to Tokyo.

I have no doubt that Tokyo 2020, as it will still be called, will be just as a memorable when it eventually happens. But those Japanese traits of national pride and obstinacy are among the principal reasons why the Japanese Government has been so tardy in realising that to hold the event this coming July was a no-brainer. It was left to the International Olympic Committee to inevitably pull the plug and no doubt that happening will invoke both anger and shame rather than relief among the majority of the Japanese people. And their Government.

In the circumstances it was unavoidable that Games had to go - for the time being anyway - for the sake of the athletes.

Australia and Canada had pulled out and British Olympic Association chairman Sir Hugh Robertson had made it clear that holding them next July was untenable, and that Team GB would follow suit.

Postponement of the Games, probably until next year, is a personal blow for Abe, who had been adamant that his country would overcome the spread of the global infection and that the Olympics would go ahead in all their glory. As Herbert pointed out, the Japanese Government had been intoxicated by the idea of national duty.

With it increasingly difficult and dangerous for athletes to train, postponing Tokyo 2020 was the only realistic option ©Getty Images
With it increasingly difficult and dangerous for athletes to train, postponing Tokyo 2020 was the only realistic option ©Getty Images

Now Japan faces a fiscal disaster not of its own making, but how much more shameful would it have been had the Games gone ahead and the killer virus returned and spread throughout the Olympic Village? The national humiliation would have been as intense as that which followed the defeat in World War II. And no doubt the recent memory of the levels of infection on the Diamond Princess cruise liner moored for weeks off the Japanese coast played its part in the ultimate decision.

Of course back in 1964 there was a different, more enlightened generation in charge from the hateful, unforgiving regime of war time. And there is yet another new generation, and hopefully an even wiser one, now.

So when the Games do go ahead they will be fabulous, and we look forward to that.

By the way, Jack’s abhorrence of all things Japanese did not last forever. Eventually he acquired his Sony TV and several other household accoutrements from the Land of the Rising Sun. He did not drive but he never demurred when offered a lift in my Honda car.

In the mid-1980s, when I worked for a while as a deputy editor of the English-language newspaper The Straits Times in Singapore, my wife and I invited him and his missus for a holiday. A Singaporean friend arranged for us to visit Changi, now the tiny but well-run nation’s civilian prison. A corner of the jail near the entrance is a small prayer room, with a memorial plaque to Changi’s wartime use dedicated to the many who perished there under the harsh Japanese rule. Jack wept as he studied it. “What a waste,” he murmured. “What a bloody waste.”