The Fascinating Link of Japanese Women’s Volleyball and the Textile Industry: From Silk to Gold

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Kanebo ad form the 1964 Tokyo Olympics Official Souvenir Book

One of the biggest cosmetics brands in Japan is Kanebo. But its corporate origins were in textiles. Established in 1887 as the Tokyo Cotton Trading Company, a few years later the name was changed to the Kanegafuchi Spinning company, or Kanebo. As you can see in the above ad, printed in the Tokyo Olympics Official Souvenir book from 1964, Kanebo was primarily a major exporter of cotton, silk, wool and non-natural textiles.

The cotton and silk spinning industry, born of the age of industrialization that hit Japan in the late 19th century and early 20th century, was a huge employer of young women, most of them teenagers. As industry was transforming the state of the family, companies wanted to reassure parents that their daughters were well cared for. The textile companies would provide educational and social opportunities for their employees, as well as in sports so that they could stay physically fit.

Helen Macnaughtan, who wrote an article called The Oriental Witches: Women, Volleyball and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and in it she explains how volleyball became the sport of choice for the textile factories:

Sport and recreation activities developed alongside key educational initiatives as a way not only of keeping young girls busy and occupied during non-working hours within factory residential compounds but also as a way of promoting the physical health of workers. The sport of volleyball was introduced by textile companies as it offered the chance to encourage team work amongst young female workers, required minimal equipment and could be played both indoors and outdoors. Over time the increased popularity and indeed strength of these female corporate teams from the large Japanese textile companies became notable, and developed into an investment beyond mere recreation.

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Nichibo ad from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics Official Souvenir Book

 

In the 1950s, women’s volleyball had become a highly popular sport in Japan, resulting in the first national volleyball tournament in 1951. According to Macnaughtan, six teams were from Kanebo, one of the earliest adopters of volleyball in textile factories, and five from Nichibo. In 1960, Japan sent a male and female volleyball teams to the world championships held in Brazil. The women’s team took second place, which was a surprise. It happened to be a team completely from the Kaizuka factory of the Nichibo Company, the logic being that instead of trying to put a team of all stars together very quickly, they should probably send one of their best teams. This team, buoyed by the success in Brazil, was then funded to compete in Europe, where they won 24 straight matches.

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the first female team competition was debuting – women’s volleyball. Nichibo’s team from Kaizuka was now considered one of the best in the world, if not the best. Ten of the twelve members of the Japanese women’s Olympic team were selected from that Nichibo team, with two coming from other corporate volleyball teams.

And on the last day of competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, all of Japan exploded in joy when Japan beat the Soviet Union in three straight matches. How did the Japanese achieve this monumental victory? You just need to pull the thread that leads you back 100 years ago, at the emergence of the age of industrialization in Japan.