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?

The film, over 54 years later, can indeed make one cringe.

The male coach, throwing a volleyball to the right and to the left of a young woman whose sole mission is to get a hand on the ball, do a somersault on the hard court over her shoulder or across her back, land on her feet in order to begin running the other way so she can desperately get her hand on the ball, back and forth, down and up, over and over again….until she’s so tired she does not realize her body is simply moving on its own.

This technique is called “kaiten reshibu” (receive and rotate), and was one of the secret weapons that made Japan’s women’s volleyball team so effective in the sixties. When they marched into Moscow to take on the mighty Soviet Union in the 1962 world championships, where the Soviet team was not only on their home court, but had a distinct height and strength advantage, the Japanese entered the arena as underdogs, and left the arena as world champions.

It is said that the Soviet press were so amazed by the Japanese that they called them “The Oriental Witches”, a moniker that the international press took up with relish. Interestingly, the Japanese press and the team itself took to that title with pride.

“In Japan, ‘witch’ (majo) is a scary thing,” said team captain, Masae Kasai in an interview with Helen Macnaughtan of SOAS, University of London. “But the nickname wasn’t meant to reflect this. It was a word to describe our volleyball play, which had never been seen before: techniques such as ‘receive and rotate’ (kaiten reshibu).”

The domineering head coach of the women’s national team of Japan, Hirobumi Daimatsu, knew that the Japanese had to find a way to compensate for their weaknesses. The Japanese women were smaller, so they had to be quicker, more efficient, more willing to sacrifice their bodies.

And while the end seemed to justify the means – the women’s volleyball team under Daimatsu had never lost – some wondered whether the coach was crossing the line, and abusing his players. In a Japanese documentary cited by Iwona Mewrklejn in her article, “The Taming of the Witch: Daimatsu Hirobumi and Coaching Discourses of Women’s Vollevball in Japan”, the labor union of the company that employed the members of the women’s volleyball team criticized Daimatsu for his training regimen. But “the union’s objections did not seem to matter, either to the coach or to the management.”

Overseas journalists also thought that the women were being abused, as you can tell in the title of a Sports Illustrated article, “Driven Beyond Dignity.” In this March 16, 1964 article, the writer, Eric Whitehead, described the punishing practices that Daimatsu put his players through. When a player looked so exhausted that she wanted to quit, Whitehead quoted Daimatsu as saying:

If you’d rather be home with your mother, then go. We don’t want you here.

There’s a South Korean team in town. If this is too tough for you, maybe you should go and play with them.

Driven Beyond Dignity SI photo 1
From the March 16, 1964 Sports Illustrated

Whitehead goes on to describe the evening meal break from practice as terse, something that more or less interrupts the coach’s training timeline.

It is 7 o’clock now and the girls’ supper is wheeled in in metal urns: rice, meat and fish. Daimatsu ignores it and quickens the pace. His grim, wild-eyed intensity is frightening. His face is still a mask, but it is strained and beaded with sweat. Now many of the girls are openly sobbing, their faces distorted with the agony of effort and the physical punishment. But they keep staggering in, and the food sits for half an hour before Daimatsu gives a curt signal and the first-team girls- always the first to eat – go to the urns. The others shift to a brisk scrimmage as Daimatsu goes to the sidelines for his own meal, which is served to him by a ball girl. As he dines he is even more chilling to observe, for now one seems to see in him the cool arrogance of a despot.

One could also say there is a bit of “arrogance” in Whitehead’s writing. In response to a comment by Daimatsu about the importance of this kind of training, Whitehead editorialized directly in his article with a single, dismissive line.

Except for a one-week break around Eastertime, this is the routing, year in and year out. Says Coach Daimatsu: “There is time for nothing else. The players know absolutely no other life. They do it because they choose to. The preparation for winning is a personal, individual challenge. It is accepted without question.

Ah, but then, I said to myself, it’s only volleyball, played by girls.

If this were high school football in Texas, where football has been religion for decades, my guess is that Whitehead would never write “Ah, but then, it’s only high school football, played by boys.” Never mind that many of the women on Daimatsu’s team were in their mid to late 20s, he may not have fully understood the expectations that the entire nation of Japan had of this women’s team, although he gives a nod to the notion, albeit in a somewhat patronizing way:

The team’s captain, tall, graceful Masae Kasai, smiles shyly from her desk. Little stories like hers tell the big one. Two years ago, at age 28, Masae was in love and engaged to a young man from Osaka. She had a choice: marriage and a home, or a continuation of the daily torture under Hirofumi (sic) Daimatsu. She chose the latter, for at the 1964 Olympics the glory of Japan will flicker again and glory is everything.

Perhaps Masae had said it all the previous night when I asked her about the team’s chances at the Olympics. “You must understand,” she said gravely. “We have never experienced defeat. We must win.”

Oriental Witches_2_Driven Beyond Dignity SI photo 3
Captain Masae Kasai and Coach Hirobumi Daimatsu during a practice in early 1964, from Sports Illustrated

Whether they were chasing glory or just trying to meet the heavy expectations of their country, Kasai and her teammates bought into Daimatsu’s approach, as explained by Macnaughtan. After all, they tried his methods and won, and never believed that he was treating them with disrespect. In fact, they trusted Daimatsu explicitly.

I had a lot of trust and respect for Coach Daimatsu. The team was happy to take direction from him because we trusted him. He was a volleyball player himself when he was a university student. He joined Nichibo (the name of the team’s company) after being a soldier in the war. The team and I followed his hard training because of his great human nature. He was a man we could trust and respect as a human being. Whenever our team won, we were convinced that his hard training was the right way to go, and so we would practice and train hard again, and then we would win again. There was a very close bond between him and the team.