In the final episode of NHK's year-long historical drama "Idaten," which ended on Dec. 15, one scene concerned the 1964 Tokyo Olympics torch relay.

A woman sitting in her living room suddenly springs to her feet, holds up a cucumber and mimics a torch runner.

The scene bought back vivid memories of the nationwide exuberance of that era.

In the weeks leading up to the Games, The Asahi Shimbun's news about the "unofficial selection of the torch relay anchor" topped the paper's Vietnam War coverage.

When one of the men chosen as a torch bearer was arrested for getting into a fight, it made headlines nationwide.

A Gifu Prefecture man who had been nominated as a torch bearer was offered a bribe of 2 million yen ($18,250) to sell the privilege, according to a colleague of mine who interviewed him.

All would-be Olympic flame bearers attended a training camp, where they were taught how to run while holding up an empty 1.8-liter glass bottle, said to weigh about the same as the Olympic torch.

Obviously, the torch relay was taken very seriously.

According to "10-nin no Seika Ranna" (10 flame bearers), a special feature that ran in The Asahi Shimbun's Tokyo local news section in 1995, the youngest female runner was showered with hundreds of fan letters after she was featured in a magazine for young girls.

But there also were runners who felt they were being "used to boost the national prestige."

The 1964 torch relay's starting point in Japan was Okinawa, which was still under U.S. occupation.

Only 19 years before, Okinawa was a bloody World War II battleground and a veritable "living hell." Some local citizens lining the relay route held up photos of loved ones who died in the war.

In Hiroshima, citizens showed up in droves in front of the iconic A-Bomb Dome, "willing the world to witness a Japan reborn as a pacifist nation."

Spewing smoke copiously like a steam locomotive, the 1964 Olympic torch embodied Japan's nationwide ardor of that era.

For the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Tohoku region residents whose families perished in the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami have been chosen as torch bearers. In Kyushu, Kumamoto Prefecture's Kumamon mascot was reportedly eliminated from the list of candidates.

I wonder who will be passing the flame from community to community around the nation, and what messages they intend to convey to the world.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 17

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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.