At 3:40 a.m. on June 30, 1966, the JAL plane carrying John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr landed at Haneda airport after being delayed by Typhoon Kit. JAL’s marketing division had been ready for this moment. Before the four young men could step off the plane, they were asked by the JAL flight attendant to put on a Japanese-style happi robe. They agreed, the letters JAL stitched vertically down one of the lapels. As the men walked down the stairs, they stopped for a moment and waved at flickers of light in darkness.
Yes, they were the Beatles, but by this point they’d become something else — something they could no longer fully control. Their music emanated positivity, their lyrics drenched in calls for love and kindness, but as the sixties marched on, their mere existence as a groundbreaking band often brought anger and protests. Meanwhile, what they loved the most — making music together — had started to take a back seat to professional obligations and that fickle flame we call celebrity. Everyone wanted a piece of them, but all they wanted was a peace they weren’t even sure they could appreciate anymore.
After arriving to what seemed less an appreciative crowd and more a human wall of security and photographers, the group slipped into the backseat of a car and were driven 20 kilometers north to the Tokyo Hilton Hotel (now the newly built Capitol Hotel Tokyu). They were quickly escorted to room 105, a top-floor presidential suite, and told not to leave.
Their three-day schedule was packed with press conferences, media interviews and five concerts at the hallowed Budokan Hall — one on June 30 (at 6:30 p.m.), two shows each day on July 1 and July 2 (at 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.). Sightseeing would be non-existent, unless they decided to break the rules.
Beatles go home!
Security was tight for a reason. A nationalist organization reported by English-language newspapers as the Greater Japan Patriotic Party had been staging protests for the past two weeks.
The party, founded by Satoshi (Bin) Akao and reported by Reuters as having around 4,000 members, had plastered “about 10,000 posters” along Tokyo’s major streets, some reading “Beat Away the Beatles from Japan,” and “The Beatles Should Not Disgrace the Nihon Budokan Hall.”
On June 24 in the heart of Tokyo, Akao stood on a sound truck as around 100 people (according to the Associated Press) listened to his pleas to not allow the Beatles to perform.
“Akao’s chief complaint,” reported the AP, “was against the cost of the extraordinary measures the police plan to control the Beatles’ fans.” Akao also accused the band as spreading “juvenile delinquency,” and “urged shaving their long hair, and expelling them,” as banners draped across the truck read “Beatles Go Home” in English.
At their first press conference, the group was asked for their reaction regarding the complaint that they were performing in an arena labeled as traditionally sacred as the Budokan.
"The thing is,” said McCartney, “that if somebody from Japan... if a dancing troupe from Japan goes to Britain, nobody tries to say in Britain that they're violating the traditional laws, you know, or that they're trying to spoil anything," McCartney said. "All we're doing is coming here and singing because we've been asked to."
McCartney was correct, but the terms negotiated by their manager, Brian Epstein, stipulated that they would only play at a locale that could seat at least 10,000 fans. The Budokan, with an 11,000 capacity, was at that time the only arena in Tokyo big enough to meet that demand, as Tokyo University researcher and Beatles expert Atsushi Noguchi told journalist Steve McClure back in 2016. It’s also worth noting that the Budokan was not some long-standing building with a deep history. Built for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, most of the Japanese public enjoyed believing the Hall would remain a sacred place for aikido, judo, karate and kendo. In short: martial arts only.
As had occurred in their home country, the newness of the Beatles, their sharp wit and cutting-edge personas, angered traditionalists in Japan, and threats were made. At the press conference, if you listen to the audio recording at around the 17-minute mark, someone off camera shouts at the group. Lennon hears it, then mutters to McCartney: “Just had another attack.”
During the same press conference, they were asked how they felt about the old "Yorkshire type" men back in England who were angry at the Beatles being honored with a prestigious medal from the Queen.
McCartney was quick to reply: “Well we don’t like old men in England.” And another member of the group added: “But we tolerate old people, whereas they don’t tolerate us.”
As for the escalating war in Vietnam and their thoughts, Lennon answered first: “Well, we think about it every day and we don’t agree with it and we think it’s wrong. That’s how much interest we take. That’s all we can do about it, and say we don’t like it.”
As for Japan, they were honest. McCartney: “We don’t know much about Japan, except what we’ve read or seen on film. Um..." (Lennon: “And we don’t believe all that.”) McCartney: “But it seemed like a good place. Pretty good...wonderful.”
Locked in their hotel rooms, the Beatles had a few hours to kill until their first show. Their official photographer, Robert Whitaker, watched as the group, sans drugs, girls or alcohol, collaborated on something other than music: “The most creative experience I had with the Beatles was in the Tokyo Hilton,” wrote Whitaker in a foreword to Tim Hill’s 50 Years With the Beatles. “The local promoter asked them to do something for charity; he gave them paper and paints to create a poster. They put a [black table] lamp with a circular base in the middle of the paper and each of them took a corner and created their piece of art, each in his own style.”
As they painted, their unreleased album, Revolver, played on acetate disc. Humming along with “Eleanor Rigby” and other tracks, the group casually finalized the order they wanted the songs on what would be their seventh album. “When they finished [their painting],” Whitaker recalled, “they took the lamp away and signed their autographs in the central space. It really was a spontaneous work of art.”
The painting, titled “Images of a Woman,” was sold at an auction in 2012 for $155,000 dollars.
But one can only paint for so long. As Noguchi related to McClure, Lennon managed to find a hole in the security and headed downtown by foot: "He went to Asahi Bijutsu [an art shop] in Azabu [a wealthy suburb] and the market in [the vibrant district of] Harajuku.”
McCartney managed a brief escape as well, but was intercepted by security after only a 5-minute walk.
These close brushes with actual Japanese culture reflect the trip as a whole — restricted. When the Beatles performed, these restrictions were taken to another level.
To protect the band, the floor of the Budokan was kept empty and only balcony seats were sold.
Encircling the band in all spots were 3,000 policemen, standing motionless with white gloves.
The crowd had been prohibited from standing for long periods, their seats far from the stage.
Those in attendance may have simply felt fortunate to be there, due to how difficult it was to be awarded a ticket. As Tim Hill put it, “Tickets were allocated by ballot, and the lucky winners [close to 44,000 in total] who saw one of the five shows celebrated their good fortune.”
For ¥2,100 (¥8,500 in 2021), a fan was able to see the Beatles play 11 songs in 30 minutes.
Here is an example of how one of the shows went:
In hindsight, the group’s experience in Tokyo was tame compared to what was to come.
Immediately after their fifth show, they traveled to Manila, a nightmarish experience that prompted Lennon to say that “If we go back, it will be with an H-bomb. I won’t even fly over the place.”
Less than a month later, an interview Lennon gave the London Evening Standard in March 1966 came back to damage the band’s reputation in the United States, where they were set to tour.
His comment, (“We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first – rock 'n' roll or Christianity.”) taken out of context by Datebook, a teen magazine, prompted numerous radio stations in the American south to stop playing their music. Such was life for the Beatles in late 1966 — a lightning rod for controversy, whether they wanted it or not.
Our next Japan Yesterday will feature U.S. President Gerald Ford’s trip to Japan in 1974.
Other stories in the Japan Yesterday series:
Volume 2 (September 2019 – July 2021)
- William Elliot Griffis resists temptation in feudal 1871 Japan
- Marian Anderson sings for the Empress of Japan
- Robert Kennedy confronts communist hecklers at Waseda University in 1962
- Commodore Perry’s black ships deliver a letter to Japan in July 1853
- The story of Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s trip to Shuri Castle in 1853
- Japanese journalist witnessed the death of Malcolm X
- Muhammad Ali fights Antonio Inoki at the Nippon Budokan in 1976
- Eleanor Roosevelt visits ‘burakumin’ and Emperor Hirohito in 1953
- Charles and Anne Lindbergh fly 7,000 miles to Japan in 1931
- A young Douglas MacArthur visits Japan in 1905
- J. Robert Oppenheimer father of the atomic bomb visits post-war Japan
- Alexander Graham Bell falls asleep meeting Emperor Meiji
- Frank Lloyd Wright designs Japan’s Imperial Hotel during a midlife crisis
Volume 1 (November 2018 – May 2019)
- The ‘Sultan of Swat’ Babe Ruth visits Japan
- Charlie Chaplin tramps his way past a Japanese coup d’état
- When Albert Einstein formulated his Japanese cultural equation
- Mrs and Mr Marilyn Monroe honeymoon in Japan
- American President Ulysses S Grant talks peace in Meiji-Era Japan
- Helen Keller brings hope and light to Japan
- Margaret Sanger brings 'dangerous thoughts' to Japan in 1922
- Bertrand Russell’s blinding Japanese resurrection
- Audrey Hepburn casts a spell over post-war Japan
- Ralph Ellison makes himself visible in 1950s Japan
- John Hersey visits the ruins of Hiroshima in 1946
- Russia’s Nicholas II is scarred for life in 1891 Japan
Patrick Parr’s second book, One Week in America: The 1968 Notre Dame Literary Festival and a Changing Nation, was released in March 2021 and is available through Amazon, Kinokuniya and Kobo. His previous book is The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age, now available in paperback. He teaches at Lakeland University Japan in Tokyo.© Japan Today