When the ‘Beatles
typhoon' hit Japan

Steve McClure

Special to The Japan Times

Beatles members (from left) Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon perform at Tokyo’s Budokan on June 30, 1966. | KYODO

Fifty years ago this week, the Fab Four played some of their final live performances ever at the iconic Budokan in Tokyo. We speak to fans in the capital who were ‘swept off their feet’ by the visit

Four young Englishmen conquered Japan 50 years ago — with music. They were, of course, the Beatles — the biggest pop act in the world at the time.

"I have the honour to report that the Beatles, M.B.E., were in Tokyo from the 29th of June to the 3rd of July," wrote Dudley Cheke, charge d'affaires at the British Embassy, to his superiors in London.

Noting that Tokyo had been hit by an exceptionally heavy tropical rainstorm just before the band arrived, Cheke said "the 'Beatles typhoon' ... swept the youth of Japan off their feet."

One of those swept off her feet was Mieko Iwabuchi, who saw all five of the Beatles' shows. The group's visit to Japan coincided with her university exams.

"My grandfather was a doctor," says Iwabuchi, whose photo appeared in a Japanese fashion magazine's feature on Beatles fans. "My mother lied to him (to get a note saying Mieko was sick). I was very grateful to my mother."

Another young Beatles fan with an understanding parent was future Sony Music Japan executive Aki Tanaka.

"I saw the Beatles' show on Saturday, July 2 — the evening show," Tanaka says. "After high school had finished, my father took me and my younger brother from Nagoya to Tokyo by bullet train."

The Beatles flew from London to Tokyo (via Anchorage in Alaska) on Japan Airlines — first-class, naturally. A stewardess persuaded John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr to wear happi coats emblazoned with the JAL logo just before they got off the plane at Tokyo's Haneda airport. The photo of the group waving to their screaming fans upon arrival is an iconic image of the Beatles' visit.

Their shows in Japan came at a pivotal point in the group's career. The novelty of "Beatlemania" had worn off. Cannabis and LSD were taking the four Liverpudlians into new realms of consciousness, and their increasingly complex music was becoming harder to perform live.

The Beatles played at the Nippon Budokan arena in Tokyo on June 30, July 1 (2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.) and July 2 (2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.) as part of a world tour. About 43,000 people saw the band perform in Japan.

Their visit can be seen as part of Japan's postwar re-emergence on the world stage, starting with the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and culminating with Expo '70 in Osaka.

The Fab Four inspired a generation of Japanese rock 'n' rollers.

"The Beatles' shows in Japan were a social phenomenon," Tanaka says. "They led to the birth of a real Japanese rock music scene, where the musicians not only performed songs by somebody else, but also wrote their own material."

Beatles expert Atsushi Noguchi says British musician Vic Lewis suggested the idea of a Japan tour to the band's manager, Brian Epstein. Lewis had gone to school in London with Tatsuji Nagashima, who later became president of concert promoter Kyodo Agency (which produced the Beatles' shows in Tokyo).

Noguchi says Epstein wanted a guarantee of $100,000 (worth around $750,000 in 2016, or ¥78 million) per show and a hall with a capacity of 10,000. Back in 1966, there was only one indoor venue in Tokyo that could accommodate that many people: the Budokan. It had been built for martial arts competitions, not pop music. Ultranationalists were outraged by the prospect of its desecration by "an electric-guitar concert," as Cheke put it in his missive to the mandarins of Whitehall.

(From left) Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison talk to reporters at a press conference in the Tokyo Hilton on June 29, 1966. | KYODO

The extreme left also took issue with the Beatles. Cheke noted that Akahata, the Japanese Communist Party's daily newspaper, labeled the band as "tools of American (sic) imperialism." The ideologues of Akahata may well have revised their anti-Beatles line after Lennon told a press conference on June 30 that the group opposed the war in Vietnam.

Cheke noted that the Japanese media for the most part accepted the Beatles for what they were: "agreeable, talented and quick-witted young musicians."

Despite that, for a time it seemed local right-wing nut cases were going to succeed in intimidating the Budokan into canceling the Beatles' shows. However, as Cheke noted, the Yomiuri Shimbun (one of the sponsors of the Fab Four's concerts in Japan) "published a letter from the chairman of the board of the Budokan saying that 'the respectability of the Beatles was beyond any doubt, the proof being that they had all received decorations from Her Majesty the Queen.'"

That didn't prevent the ultranationalists from mounting protests against them. Cheke noted that while the group was in Tokyo, the Beatles "had to be protected from fan and foe alike" in what the police dubbed "Operation Beatles."

Cheke wrote that the security "was of almost the same magnitude as the arrangements for the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964." He noted that some 35,000 policemen were mobilized, at an estimated cost of £30,000 (worth around ¥58 million).

The heavy security cordon around the band meant that John, Paul, George and Ringo were virtual prisoners in the Tokyo Hilton (later the Capitol Tokyu Hotel) during their stay.

During the press conference at the hotel, a reporter asked the Beatles how they felt about that. McCartney's reply was typically diplomatic.

"If the security is strict, then it is probably best for us and the people as well," McCartney said. "Sometimes it's too strict, but the best situation is when it's just strict enough so that nobody gets hurt."

McCartney was also on form when asked what he thought about people who said that by playing at the Budokan the Beatles were setting a bad example for Japanese youth and leading them astray from traditional values.

"The thing is 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."

Lennon followed this up more succinctly — and acerbically: "Better to watch singing than wrestling, anyway."

Kimi Aida (center left) and Tetsusaburo Shimoyama, manager of the Shochiku Central movie theater and head of the Beatles Fan Club of Japan, pose for a photo with Paul McCartney, George Harrison, John Lennon and Ringo Starr during their visit to Tokyo in 1966. | COURTESY OF KIMI AIDA

During their stay at the hotel, the Beatles received all sorts of visitors. They included merchants (Lennon reportedly bought a chess set), representatives of the media and Tetsusaburo Shimoyama, manager of the Shochiku Central movie theater and head of the Beatles Fan Club of Japan. The club wasn't an "official" fan club, and Shimoyama wanted to get the Beatles' imprimatur for the club while they were in Japan.

Kimi Aida was his interpreter. She was working at the Tokyo office of an American film-distribution company at the time. Aida had studied English in college, specializing in Laurence Sterne's "A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy."

"I was asked suddenly — maybe the day before — to go to the Tokyo Hilton," Aida says as she embarks on her own sentimental journey into the past. "When I met them I was nervous. I wasn't so crazy a fan."

Aida says she liked Harrison best.

"He was so sensitive. He gave me his autograph," she says, proudly displaying the framed keepsake.

Shimoyama's interview with the Beatles lasted two hours. Aida says it was mainly about business.

The atmosphere was hardly one of decadent rock 'n' roll excess. Aida says tea, cookies and sandwiches were served.

The Beatles, she recalls, "were all happy and handsome and kind gentlemen. They were stylish."

Aida was one of the first people to see the painting that the Beatles had worked on together to pass the time while cooped up in the hotel. "It was still wet," she recalls.

John, Paul, George and Ringo gave their colorful abstract composition, titled "Images of a Woman," to Shimoyama, who sold it in 1989. It fetched just over $155,000 when it most recently went up for sale at an auction in 2012. That seems a bit low, given that "Images of a Woman," while not exactly a masterpiece, is the only known painting on which the Fab Four collaborated.

Fans of the Beatles watch the band perform at Tokyo’s Budokan on June 30, 1966. | KYODO

Two Beatles managed to escape the hotel and get out to see the "real" Tokyo — briefly. On July 1, Lennon reportedly borrowed the ID of the band's photographer, Robert Whitaker, banking on the theory that most Japanese wouldn't know one young Englishman from another.

"John got out of the hotel to go shopping," Noguchi says. "He went to Asahi Bijutsu in Azabu and Oriental Bazaar in Harajuku. I interviewed a lady who met him and got his autograph in Azabu."

Word quickly spread that a Beatle had flown the coop.

Lennon was hauled back to the safety of the Hilton, where he was no doubt admonished by the ever-paternal Epstein.

McCartney also managed to leave the hotel — for all of five minutes, before police caught up with him.

While hordes of (mainly female) fans surrounded the hotel day and night during the Beatles' stay, it seems the strict security cordon prevented any local groupies from having fleeting liaisons with the members of the band.

"There were a few reports (of groupies having sex with the Beatles) by some magazines like Shukan Jitsuwa (Weekly True Stories), but they were not true," Noguchi says.

One of the enduring myths of the Beatles' Budokan shows is that the band could hear how sloppy their live playing had become because their Japanese fans were quiet compared with Western audiences.

Tanaka says the crowd was indeed more restrained than the British and American audiences he'd seen on TV.

"However, that does not mean Japanese were not excited about the show," he says. "The way we express ourselves is rather mild."

But Tanaka disagrees with those who say the Beatles played badly.

"They were always a great live band, having performed so many times in so many different places starting from small clubs in Hamburg," Tanaka says. "The Beatles seemed rather relaxed by the warm response from the Japanese audience."

Ronald "Gene" Saltzgaver was working at the Asahi Evening News when the Fab Four descended on Japan. The Maryland native doesn't remember which show he and his wife attended, but he describes the experience as "unbelievable."

"It was well-produced," Saltzgaver says. "It was so noisy. That in itself was electrifying. The music was loud — they had a beautiful sound system. I became a Beatles fan."

Kei Ishizaka was a university student when he saw the Beatles play at the Budokan. "People who say the Beatles were sloppy don't know what they're talking about," he says. Ishizaka went on to work in the music industry, eventually becoming head of Universal Music Japan and later Warner Music Japan.

"I was too excited to notice whether they were bad or not," Iwabuchi admits.

No fewer than six domestic acts preceded the Beatles onstage: the Drifters, Yuya Uchida, Isao Bito, Hiroshi Mochizuki, the Blue Comets and the Blue Jeans.

Tickets cost ¥2,100 each — twice as much as what other foreign acts charged, says Iwabuchi, who had already seen the Animals, Herman's Hermits, and Peter and Gordon perform in Tokyo.

One of the July 1 shows can be seen online ( The Beatles, wearing identical dark-green suits with wide jacket lapels and dark-red shirts, look relaxed and assured. The band's performance is tight and professional.

Songs such as "Day Tripper" and "She's a Woman" are looser and funkier than on record. "Paperback Writer" — the band's latest single at the time — is a bit rough, but overall the Beatles come across as a great live act. The group's vocal harmonies are superb.

Citing its technical complexity, Ishizaka believes "I Feel Fine" was the band's best number.

"'Yesterday' was my favorite," Iwabuchi says. "I cried."

Iwabuchi has seen every show McCartney has since played in Japan. "When I saw him at the Budokan in 2015, I had the same feeling as before," she says. "I cried again."

Those who attended the Beatles' Budokan shows agree that, at around 30 minutes, they were not exactly over-lengthy. "It was like a dream," says Beatles fan Chiyoko Watanabe. "But it was too short."

The Beatles perform at Tokyo’s Budokan on June 30, 1966.| KYODO

"According to the police, who seem to be emerging as the leading Japanese authorities on Beatlemania, the Beatles boom will go on," Cheke noted in his report.

Cheke wrote that the police believed this was because Beatles' fans felt “unfulfilled” due to the shortness of the group’s performances and the fact they were not able to get close to their idols.

The Beatles flew to Manila after their dates in Tokyo. In contrast to the Fab Four's rapturous reception in Japan, the band and their entourage barely escaped the Philippines with their lives. They were set upon by angry, violent mobs after they unintentionally snubbed an invitation to a reception hosted by the infamous Imelda Marcos, wife of then-President Ferdinand Marcos.

The Beatles would never again perform in Japan as a group. They played their last-ever live show (except for their 1969 London "rooftop" concert) at San Francisco's Candlestick Park on Aug. 29, 1966.

"The visit is seen not as the peak of a boom, but as one stage in its development," Cheke noted presciently.

Links between the Beatles and Japan stayed strong. Lennon would meet Yoko Ono at a London gallery in November 1966, and visited Japan with her several times after their marriage in 1969.

McCartney would be an involuntary guest of Japanese law-enforcement authorities for a week in January 1980 after being caught trying to smuggle half a pound of marijuana through immigration. He has since made Japan a regular stop on his touring schedule, as has Starr. Harrison played a series of dates in Japan in 1991 with Eric Clapton and his band.

And far from "desecrating" the Budokan, the Beatles' shows conferred on it a quasi-sacred status in rock mythology. Acts as varied as Bob Dylan, Cheap Trick, Chic and Ozzy Osbourne have all released "live at the Budokan" albums.

Beatles' songs are now karaoke staples and provide the soundtrack to Japanese people's lives, just as they do all over the world — or maybe across the universe. And the lucky folks who saw them play in Tokyo will never forget that magic yesterday.

Special thanks to Atsushi Noguchi for his help with this story. Noguchi and Kunihiko Fujimoto have written a book on the Beatles' visit to Japan titled "Beatles wo Mita" ("I Saw Them Standing There"), which will be published by Ongaku Shuppansha on July 12.

Beatles members (from left) Paul McCartney, George Harrison and John Lennon perform at Tokyo’s Budokan on June 30, 1966. | KYODO

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