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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.

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APTOPIX Japan Rugby WCup Japan Ireland Japan’s players celebrate after beating Ireland during their Rugby World Cup Pool A game at Shizuoka Stadium in Shizuoka, Japan, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

The taxi driver couldn’t help it. He started talking about Japan’s incredible upset over Ireland in rugby on Saturday. Then he talked about the Japan women’s volleyball team come back win over Serbia a day before that. And how about those Japanese boys in Doha at the World Track and Field Championships? He said that if he could, he would be ditching the taxi and watching sports all day and all night.

Something’s in the air in Japan.

The 2-month 2019 Rugby World Cup taking place in Japan is a huge hit – stadiums are packed with fans from all over the world. And Japan, which entered the tournament ranked ninth in the world, pulled off an incredible upset of second-ranked Ireland, which set the country on fire. As The Guardian put it:

Japan have done it again, this time against the team ranked No 1 in the world two weeks ago. The World Cup hosts came from nine points down to win after playing with pace, skill and fervour that the humidity and time could not dim. Such was the thunderous roar when the final whistle sounded it would have caused the nearby Mount Fuji to wobble.

Over the weekend, Japan watched the Japanese women’s volleyball team win the last three games of an 11-game FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Cup. They had fallen into a funk and ran their record to 3 – 5, losing to regional rivals China and South Korea, but defeated Serbia, Argentina and the Netherlands in the final three days to take fifth place in the tournament.

Like the rugby matches, all games were on national television, and the volleyball arena in Osaka was packed with enthusiastic, cheering fans.

In the late evenings and mornings, Japanese track and field fans watched Japanese sprinters and long jumpers at the 2019 IAAF World Championships in Doha, Qatar. Fans watched rising stars Yuki Koike, Abdul Hakim Sani Brown and Yoshihide Kiryu compete for 100-meter glory. After Japan’s incredible silver-medal feat in the 4×100 relay sprint at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Japan’s men have raised their games and hope to equal their prospects in 2020.

Unfortunately, Japan’s sprinters were all eliminated in the semi-finals. But that did not dampen the mood of a nation electrified by the accomplishments of their national teams over the weekend.

Japan’s rugby team showed that on your home turf, anything’s possible. Japan’s volleyball team showed that on their home court, they can be as dangerous as any other team – in fact they took number 2 USA to five sets last week.

Japan’s athletes are competing at the highest levels. They look to smash their record of 16 gold medals at an Olympics at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

There’s something in the air. And to the Japanese, it’s a tailwind, and it’s just beginning to build.

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That instant when the weight of a nation fell off their shoulders, from Tokyo Shimbun.

October 23, 1964 was a momentous day for Japan. Two of the most memorable sports events in Japanese history took place on that day, both which left irrevocable imprints on the Japanese psyche.

That afternoon, hulkingingly tall Anton Geesink of the Netherlands handily defeated Akio Kaminaga of Japan in the open weight class of the judo competition at the Budokan, thus denying Japan to win gold in all four weight classes in judo’s debut at the Tokyo Olympics.

That evening, the Japanese women’s volleyball team closed out the Soviet Union in three straight sets to win gold at the Komazawa Indoor Ball Sports Field, thus fulfilling the expectations of an entire nation.

The Japanese judoka did their country proud by dominating and winning in the other weight classes of a sport that was born in Japan. But despite the fact that Geesink had already defeated Kaminaga in the past, including in this particular Olympic tournament, the shock to the nation of a non-Japanese winning a judo competition was significant.

In comparison to the “West”, the Japanese saw themselves as underdogs. After all, it was only 19 years earlier when the Allied Forces flattened Japan with its superior weaponry, and then ruled over Japan as occupiers for over 5 years. Judo was a Japanese creation, and yet a taller, stronger Westerner easily defeated Japan’s best. Was Geesink’s victory yet another symbol of Japan’s “inferiority”?

But only a few hours later, the national psychology was already undergoing a shift, as people all over the country completed their day’s work, settled down to meals, or gathered in public places to watch the finals of the women’s volleyball competition. The Japanese team had never lost since joining international competition and losing to the Soviet Union in the volleyball world championships in 1960. This very team had already defeated the Soviet Union at the 1962 world championships…in Moscow. And so, the weight of an entire country pushed heavily on the shoulders of these Japanese women, particularly after the jarring disappointment of that day’s judo finals.

Fortunately, the women of the Japanese volleyball team restored their country’s faith in themselves by easily defeating the Soviet Union in three sets. The shorter, less muscular team from Asia defeated the taller, more powerful team from the West, on the biggest sports stage in the world, on the final competitive day of the 1964 Olympics.

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The Japanese women’s volleyball team sharing their success with one of the owners of a hotel the team often used on their trips around the country, from the Asahi Graf.

In fact, the way the Japanese women – aka, The Oriental Witches – won became a symbol for Japan and its dramatic turnaround, from a nation defeated and devastated to a nation most resilient and proud. Christian Tagsold of Heinrich Heine University describes this symbolism in his article entitled, “Remember to Get Back on Your Feet Quickly: the Japanese Women’s Volleyball team at the 1964 Olympics as a ‘Realm of Memory’.”

… the Oriental Witches were clearly linked to the economic and technological progress of the 1960s. This success replaced the more classical notions of the nation in Japan and supported a new type of nationalism. Economic achievements were vital for regaining international standing as a nation, because the GNP acted as a yardstick for national pride. The Oriental Witches embodied this new self-assurance.

Tagsold is referring in his title to a particular maneuver developed by team coach Hirobumi Daimatsu, a technique called “kaiten reshibu” (receive and rotate). Players were trained to dive for balls, using their momentum to roll as they hit the ground, like a judoka would, so that they could emerge back on their feet quickly to take on another attack. This technique was a competitive advantage as Japanese players were more willing to dive to the hard court floors and quicker to their feet than players on other teams.

Tagsold highlights this technique as a symbol of how the underdog Japanese can outperform bigger stronger foes, not only on the volleyball court, but also on the global economic stage.

(The kaiten reshibu) was a symbol for the means in which Japan had invested to regain her economic strength only two decades after suffering the worst. The invention of clever technical solutions was imperative to the country, which saw itself as small island without natural resources to offer. Daimatsu did for volleyball and Japanese sports, in general, what Morita Akio did as a leader of Sony and what Ohno Taiichi achieved at Toyota by introducing the Toyota Production System. The rolling dive recovered lost time and reduced the burden on Japanese bodies caused by their inferiority compared to Western athletes.

… the kaiten reshıbu could be read very naively as the story of post-war Japan. The Japanese fell, but they got back on their feet again quickly. It had taken the country only 19 years to be back on top, both economically and in women’s volleyball…. The women overcame all hard attacks and rolled on the ground only momentarily. But falling was part of the success in the end. Many conservatives in the 1960s began to stress the sacrifice that the country had made in the Second World War as a cause for their current prosperity. In their opinion, it seemed inevitable to stumble once in order to be in a much better position in the future.

 

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Geesink and Kaminaga, from the book, “Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha”

It was Friday, October 23, 1964.

The Nippon Budokan was packed. But perhaps there was a sense of resignation at this, the penultimate day of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Despite the fact that three Japanese judoka, Takehide Nakatani, Isao Okano and Isao Inokuma had already taken gold in the first three weightclasses over the previous three days, there was considerable doubt that Akio Kaminaga could defeat Dutchman, Anton Geesink, in the open category.

After all, Geesink shocked the judo world by becoming the first non-Japanese to win the World Championships in 1961. More relevantly, Geesink had already defeated Kaminaga in a preliminary bout. So while the Japanese, including Crown Prince Akihito and Princess Michiko who were in the Budokan, were hoping Kaminaga would exceed expectations, all they had to do was see the two judoka stand next to each other to be concerned – the 2-meter tall, 120 kg foreign giant vs the 1.8-meter tall, 102 kg Japanese.

Even though judo purists know that skill, balance and coordination are more important to winning than size, deep down many likely felt that the bigger, stronger foreigner was going to win. After all, the bigger, stronger US soldiers and their allies had defeated the Imperial forces of Japan in the Pacific War.

And so Geesink did, defeating Kaminaga handily, sending the Japanese nation into a funk.

That was late in the afternoon on October 23. About 13 kilometers southwest of the Nippon Budokan and the site of Kaminaga’s defeat, the Japanese women’s volleyball team was preparing for their finals at the Komazawa Indoor Stadium. They too were going up against bigger, stronger adversaries, from the USSR.

In this case, however, there was a lingering sense that their magical women of volleyball would defeat the Soviets. They had in fact already done so at the World Championships in 1962, walking into the lioness’ den in Moscow and winning the finals. So when nearly every citizen in Japan had settled in front of their televisions that Friday evening, having the choice of four channels to choose from to watch the match, they were gearing up to explode in celebration.

And yet, Geesink had just sunk Kaminaga, as well as Japan’s hopes of sweeping gold in the only sport at the Olympics native to Japan. Maybe we just aren’t big enough, or strong enough, some may have thought.

Hirobumi Daimatsu, coach of the women’s volleyball team, accepted the challenge and worked over the years to train his players to compensate for relative weaknesses in size and strength, with speed, technique and guts. And much to the relief and joy of the nation, the Japanese defeated the Soviet Union in straight sets: 15-11, 15-8 and a tantalizingly close final set, 15-13.

Japan's Women's Volleyball team victorious 1964_Bi to Chikara
Japan’s Women’s Volleyball team victorious from the book, Bi to Chikara

And on that Friday evening, the day before the final day of Japan’s two-week Olympic journey to show the world that they were a nation to be recognized and respected, a team of diminutive Japanese women took down the larger Soviet women.

Whatever lingering sting from Kaminaga’s loss remained, whatever bad feelings of boycotts by the Indonesians or the North Koreans may have left, even perhaps, whatever shame that came from “enduring the unendurable” after the nation’s defeat in the Second World War, may have washed away in that moment the ball fell to the ground for the final point of the match.

On that day, Japan was a nation re-born – young, confident, world-beaters.

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The women’s volleyball team victorious, from the book “Bi to Chikara”

The Japanese were buying televisions, this magical device that brought the world into their homes. And with the Tokyo Olympics arriving in October, 1964, sales for color television were soaring like their pride in hosting the Olympics.

The Tokyo Games had a massive impact on the psyche of the Japanese – no event in the history of Japan was viewed as much by as many people. Reports of television ratings in Japan vary wildly depending on the source. One source explains that over 75 million people watched some part of the Olympics over the two-week period, for a rating of 97.3%. That’s amazing since the population in Japan at the time was about 100 million.

Another source explains that three of the four highest rated programs in Japan in 1964 were related to the Olympics:

  1. 15th NHK Red and White Song Battle (NHK General, December 31) 72.0%
  2. Tokyo Olympic and Volleyball Women’s Final “Japan vs Soviet Union” (NHK General, October 23) 66.8%
  3. Tokyo Olympics Closing Ceremony (NHK General, October 24, 16: 52-18: 20) 63.2%
  4. Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony (NHK General, October 10 13: 43-15: 20) 61.2%

But I suspect this list from Wikipedia is misleading as it focuses on ratings for one channel. The number one program, the annual new year’s eve programming (Red and White Song Battle) was broadcast only on NHK. But the Tokyo Olympics, on the whole, was broadcasted on multiple channels, sometimes up to five channels covering the same event. That was the case for the Opening and Closing ceremonies, as well as the highest rated event during the Olympics – the women’s volleyball final – when the Japanese defeated the Soviet Union to win gold.

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Japan Television Program on October 23, 1964

One can say, with little exaggeration, that nearly everyone in Japan was watching that match.

Think about that – when was the last time an entire nation’s eyes were watching the same exact thing, united in their attention and feelings? In recent years, I can think of only moments of disaster and distress: 9.11 in the US or 3.11 in Japan.

In terms of uplifting moments, never was Japan more united, or prouder, than at 9 pm on October 23, 1964, when the final point sealed the victory for the Witches of the Orient, as the women’s basketball team was affectionately called.

I must admit. I believe I felt a bit of that unity and pride 55 years later, in September and October 2019. The Rugby World Cup is currently being held for the first time in Asia, and the host country, Japan has the only Asian representative in the tournament.

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Japan supporters at a public viewing site in Tokyo celebrate after Kenki Fukuoka scored a try. Photo: Kyodo

Japan kicked off the tournament on September 20, 2019, defeating Russia 30-10. The television rating was 18.3%, attracting a peak of 26 million viewers. On September 28, Japan pulled off an upset, upending Ireland 19-12, igniting celebrations across the country, and sending ratings higher with 29.5 million viewers. As excitement and expectations noticeably grew among casual and non-rugby fans, viewers of the Japan-Samoa match on October 5 climbed to 47 million.

With three wins in hand during the tournament pool plan, a Japan victory against Scotland would send Japan into the Top 8 for the first time. Nervous but hopeful, over 54 million people were tuned into to watch, attracting a peak rating of 53.7% at the end of the match, when Japan realized their dream of advancement into the elimination round.

Alas, the Brave Blossoms could not survive the South African python that squeezed the life out of the Japanese ruggers. Ratings during the course of the match suffered as viewers realized that the impossible dream was indeed just a dream.

But the dream is the thing. Japan was living a dream vicariously through the incredible energy and surprising skill of the Brave Blossoms – these upstarts turned world beaters.

Is the 2019 Rugby World Cup a sign of things to come? Will the 2020 Tokyo Olympics raise expectations of triumph and pride? Will Japanese heroes emerge to capture the imagination of children and adults across the nation? Will the Olympics unite Japan in a way that exceeds the unity inspired by the Japanese ruggers?

There is little doubt in my mind – the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will bring the nation together.

 

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Japan’s Women’s Volleyball team victorious from the book, Bi to Chikara

As I drive towards the first draft of my book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, I wrote extensively on some of the greatest as well as some of the lesser known dramas of those Games, some of these based on interviews I’ve had with Olympians. Interviewing Olympians, as well as reading about them, has been such an inspiration to me. I hope they are to you too.

 

Billy Mills at Haskell Institute
Billy Mills at Haskell Institute, from the collection of Billy Mills.

 

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Celebrating their gold medal victory, from the book XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964 Asahi Shimbun

The best novelists see the world more through their characters’ eyes and hearts. Japanese publisher, Kodansha, assembled a collection of essays of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics by some of Japan’s most prominent writers in the book, A Literary Writers’ Record of the Tokyo Olympics.

Their particular reflections on the triumphant women’s volleyball team are fascinating – not so much about the competitions, the strategies, the changes in momentum as a sports writer would note, but more about their impressions of the players’ appearances, and their own feelings toward the players and their accomplishment. I believe their views might be speaking to the state of mind of the rest of the Japanese population.

Calm and Collected

Novelist Tsutomu Minakami, whose works have been turned into many movies, observed an unexpected calm during the women’s team’s finals match against the mighty Soviet team.

At first, Soviets took the lead by four points. However before the game started I felt something strange, seeing the expressions of the Japanese team. There was no tension to be seen on those faces, giving no indication that they were entering a decisive battle. Before the game, the faces of (captain Masae) Kasai and her teammates were pale, with little smiles on their faces. There was no indication of tension. Coach Daimatsu was sitting on the bench looking like he was taking a short break. He sometimes raised his head, but kept still, expressionless – a swarthy look. He looked like he was interested only in the weather.

Novelist Hiroyuki Agawa, renowned for his post-war novels on Hiroshima, watched the Japanese women’s team in their penultimate match against Poland. And even though Poland was the only team to take a set from Japan, both sides, according to Agawa, understood that Japan was on a mission and that Poland was merely in their way.

At the beginning of fourth set, the ball rolled over the net without me understanding where it would fall, and when it finally fell on the Poland side, it was good that the Polish girl with the golden hair of a lioness, had the wherewithal to laugh. However, the Polish team looked exhausted. They couldn’t jump so well as they had used up all their energy in the third set, falling behind 9 to 1, then 14 to 2. The match finished with a Japanese victory – 15 to 2. Both teams shook hands, but the Poles were all smiling. For the Japanese team, there was no excitement of victory. The win appeared to be a customary outcome, quite natural to them, so they simply walked off the court.

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The medal ceremony, from the book XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964 Asahi Shimbun

Proud of our Feminine Warriors

1964 was the first time in the Olympics that featured female team competitions. And it just happened to be a sport where Japanese women were favorites. The entire country rallied around this powerful women’s team, amazed that this relatively shorter, less muscular collection of women could take on the Amazonian women from the West. The novelists who observed these matches likely reflected the views of the masses – not only were Japanese women to be praised for their impressive athletic accomplishment on the volleyball court, they were able to triumph while retaining the ideal characteristics of Japanese femininity – sweetness, restraint, and quiet fortitude.

Here again is Agawa, comparing the sweetness of the Japanese women versus the coarseness of the Polish women.

Members of the Poland team were wearing red pants and white shirts and Japanese were in white shirts and green shorts. The Japanese girls would shout in curt strong voices, “Come on, let’s go,” and their teammates would answer with “hai, hai!” Those sweet “hai’s” were impressive. On the Polish side, voices called out what sounded like “yassera”, “buraa!”. All these voices sounded like big birds croaking in the woods. When our girls shouted, “hai”, their little faces in the court looked very beautiful. Besides that, even though these girls were playing sports, they didn’t look like boyish – they looked very feminine.

Macho-man and literary giant, Yukio Mishima, also framed the volleyball team in terms of gender, somewhat playfully referring to the Japanese captain as the hostess of a party.

Kasai is a wonderful hostess as she notices almost instantly if the glasses of the guests (he means her enemies) are getting empty or any guests have a stiff muscles and takes care of that with splendid service. The Soviets became tired of such painful attention. However, the Russian player Riskal was amazing. The blond girl with loose hair and big breasts flew like an arrow and strongly hit the ball.

Even novelist, Sawako Ariyoshi, a woman who championed women in such novel’s as The Doctor’s Wife, The Twilight Years, and The River Ki, found herself praising the Japanese players as domestically minded and potentially good future wives.

Japanese athletes have not forgotten the elegance of Japanese women. It was a hot battle and the sweat was falling to the floor. As soon as they noticed it, they would wipe the floor with a cloth. That was a pretty sight. I was applauding to them thinking that they would be wonderful wives when they get married. I think that their attitude towards the game also made a strong impression about our country. They behaved very well.

But at the end of her essay, Ariyoshi seemed to assert more feminist views, praising these symbols of Japanese women power, where marriage was merely an option, and that they could accomplish anything. Having said that, the only person she gives thanks to is the male coach, Hirobumi Daimatsu.

Please don’t say such gloomy words to girls as marriage and love. From now on, be confident because you can do anything. If you go back to work or start a life in marriage, you will be fine. Because you showed everybody in Japan how smart you are to master those sports techniques and skills. I am praying for your happiness in the future to have all three – pretty appearance, physical fitness and a strong spirit. But at the same time, I must thank a man who brought up these women. Thank you, coach Daimatsu.

 

Note: Special thanks to Marija Linartaite, for her help in the research for this article.

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.

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Olympic champions at last, from the book Bi to Chikara

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?”

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The Soviet Team after their loss to the Japanese, from the book Bi to Chikara

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.

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Coach Hirobumi Daimatsu lifted in the air in celebration, from the book, Bi to Chikara

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.

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.

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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.

 

synghman-rhee-line
Syngman Rhee Line: a boundary established by South Korean President Syngman Rhee to demarcate the South Korean maritime border, a line disputed by the Japanese government and one that Japanese fishing boats would persistently cross.

Korea and Japan has history. Over 1500 years of cultural exchange, trade and military conflict has shaped an affinity and a rivalry that goes from love to hate and back.

In the days before the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, before they would face off in men’s and women’s volleyball, the two nations were facing off in the high seas. On Monday, October 7, 1964, according to The Japan Times, a Japanese fishing boat was stopped by a South Korean patrol ship. The Korean authorities were attempting to stop the Japanese boat from fishing in what South Korea claimed were their territorial waters.

The seven Japanese fishermen were escorted onto (taken prisoner by?) the South Korean patrol boat. Apparently the seas were rough, and the two boats collided, creating damage to the fishing boat. Eventually, the 77.5 ton fishing boat, named No. 58 Hoyo Maru, sank.

captured-fishermen-koreans-exchanged
Japan Times, October 6, 1964

The Korean boat also suffered some damage and apparently a Korean coast guard was sent to do repair work, according to The Yomiuri. The man fell into the water, but was fortunately picked up by another Japanese fishing boat close by. A second Korean coast guard was in a boat looking for the first one and found him being cared for (captured?) on the Japanese boat, and boarded (was taken prisoner by?) the Japanese boat.

Which set up the “prisoner exchange”.

When the Japanese realized that the Koreans were holding 7 Japanese fishermen at the same time the Koreans realized that the Japanese were holding 2 Korean coast guard personnel, they probably thought they had spent enough time in the tense choppy waters of the Pacific Ocean. A trade was made and all parties went to their respective homes.

But this maritime battle would continue for another year, until the approval of the Japan-Korea Fishery Agreement in 1965. Until that time, nearly 4,000 Japanese had been arrested and over 300 Japanese boats by South Korean authorities. Additionally 44 people had died in these fishing conflicts.

The Japanese men’s and women’s volleyball teams handily defeated their South Korean opponents, but you can bet the fans and the teams in those matches were a tad more pumped up to sink the players on the other side of the net.