They say it is the highest rated television program in Japan’s history. It was 7pm on Friday, October 23, 1964, and it may not be an exaggeration to say that almost anyone near a television was watching the gold-medal match of the women’s volleyball championship at the Komazawa Indoor Sports Arena.
It was a day before the ending of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, a fortnight during which all of Japan was collectively holding their breath, simultaneously hoping that their young men and women would exceed expectations, and that nothing horribly embarrassing would happen during Japan’s debut on the global stage.
In this particular case, the Japanese women’s team were expected to win. They had already steamrolled through the US, Romania, Korea and Poland, conceding only a single set during the entire two-weeks of round-robin play. Their opponents in the final round, the Soviet Union, had done the same, winning every set against the same teams.
Despite the fact that volleyball was making its debut at the Olympics at the 1964 Tokyo Olympiad, Japan had a rivalry. In 1960, Japan lost its debut in international competition to the Soviet Union in the championship match in Brazil, thus igniting volleyball fever in Japan. Two years later in 1962, Japan again made it to the finals of the world championships against the Soviet Union, in Moscow. Somehow, the women from Japan won.
When it was also announced that volleyball would become an Olympic event at the ’64 Olympics, the Japanese public wildly agreed that their women’s team had the best chance at gold in the 1964 Games to be held in Tokyo.
The pressure on the team was immense. One of the players was quoted in the Sankei News a day before the finals as saying, “if we lose, we might have to leave the country.”
To say the weight of an entire nation was on the shoulders of these women would be an understatement. To make matters worse, the finals match didn’t start anywhere close to the scheduled time of 7pm, so the players had to wait around and stew in their tension for an extra 30 minutes. And yet, when the game finally began, the women of Japan simply went about their business, taking the first two sets 15-11 and 15-8.
As team captain, Masae Kasai, recalled in her autobiography, Okaasan no Kin Medaru, (Mom’s Gold Medal), she reminded herself to stay calm, but couldn’t help but wonder, “What the heck is wrong with the Soviets?”
In the third set, Japan raced to an 11-3 lead, and Kasai thought in that instant, “It’s possible, victory is possible.” But then in the next instant, Kasai got mixed up with a teammate when attempting to receive, and according to the team captain, the Soviets seemed to catch a second wind. Still Japan battled to a 13-6 lead, and got to match and championship point at 14-8. But then momentum switched suddenly to the Soviets, as they clawed their way back to within a point – 14-13.
The team’s coach, Hirobumi Daimatsu called time out. “What are you doing? Calm down. All you need is one point to win, right. Take it easy.”
It was Kasai’s turn to serve, and she hoped to decide the match then and there, but the Soviets got the serve back. (This was a time when you could only win points on your serve.) And back and forth it went, both teams failing to capitalize on their own serve five times in a row.
Emiko Miyamoto, whipped her super slim left arm through the air, rocketing the ball across the net to the Soviet back court with such velocity that the Soviet receiver’s return, which should have been a pass to a teammate in the frontcourt, ended up flying across the net. The Soviet player in the front court saw it heading towards her and hoped to change the ball’s direction, but when she tapped it, the ball had already passed over the net. A Japanese player reacted and sent the ball back to the Soviets, but the referee ruled a stoppage of play.
And in that moment, 9:01 pm, the players realized that they had finally reached the peak of a very tall mountain, coming together with jubilant hugs and tears, as a nation erupted in celebration.
Note: Special thanks to Marija Linartaite, for her help in the research for this article.
- Japan’s Team – The Oriental Witches of the 1964 Olympics Part 2: Was the Training of the Women’s Volleyball Team Abuse or Tough Love?
- Japan’s Team – The Oriental Witches of the 1964 Olympics Part 3: A Symbol of a Nation Rising from the Ruins
- Japan’s Team – The Oriental Witches of the 1964 Olympics Part 4: Japan’s Great Novelists Reflect
- Japan’s Team – The 1964 Olympics Women’s Volleyball Team Part 5: First Comes Gold, Then Comes Marriage