"Tokyo Olympiad," a documentary film about the 1964 Tokyo Olympics directed by Kon Ichikawa (1915-2008), contains a memorable scene.

With Mount Fuji in the background, the Olympic torch belches out copious white smoke that billows in the wind, as if from a steam locomotive.

This torch certainly differs in type from its more recent, less showy counterparts.

"Nowadays, the key is eco-friendliness," said Masayuki Sato, 62, managing director at Tokyo-based Nippon Koki Co. "The mainstream Olympic torch today has a small flame and produces little smoke."

The torch that appears in Ichikawa's film was made for the 1964 Olympics by Showa Kaseihin (Showa chemical products), the predecessor of Nippon Koki.

At the time of this torch's development, the organizing committee of the Tokyo Games attached two tough conditions: One, that the flame remains impervious to rain and wind, and two, that the smoke be white and rich enough to be visible at dusk.

The project team was headed by Sataro Monma, an engineer at this company that developed artillery shells during World War II. Monma sent for torches from past Olympics, added various chemical agents by trial and error, and conducted test runs with them.

After making 1,000 prototypes, the company delivered 8,000 finished products.

According to company history, more than 100,000 torchbearers participated in the 26,000-kilometer torch relay in 12 nations.

A passage from the corporate history book reads, "The excitement and the tremendous sense of relief over the mission's successful completion, felt at the moment the last torchbearer lit the Olympic cauldron, were seared forever in the memory of every company employee."

Tragically, Monma died in 1966 in a plane crash on his way back from a business trip. But the technology he developed lived on and upgraded-model torches were used in the Winter Olympics at Sapporo and Sarajevo.

During my visit to Nippon Koki's Shirakawa Plant in Fukushima Prefecture, I held the torch made by Monma 55 years ago.

The gleaming silver shaft was much heavier than it appeared, and it made me think of the "weight" of the heart and soul poured into it by the artillery shell engineer who had survived the wartime and postwar eras.

On July 24 exactly one year from now, the Olympics will kick off again in Tokyo.

--The Asahi Shimbun, July 24

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.