Kengo Kuma's Staidum
Kengo Kuma’s National Stadium design

One thousand and ninety six more days to the commencement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics!

That’s 365 X 3 + 1. Don’t forget, 2020 is a leap year!

Three years hence from today, July 24, Tokyo will be welcoming the world to the biggest sports fest there is – The Summer Olympics.

The first country to ever host both the Summer Olympics and the Paralympics twice, Japan will be the focal point for sports from July 24 to August 9, 2020.

In 1964, Tokyo hosted the Olympics from October 10 to 24, for a total of 16 days, which was standard in the 1960s and 1970s. However, since Barcelona, the opening ceremonies was pushed one day earlier from Saturday to Friday, likely allowing for two full weekends of sporting events, and an opportunity to maximize television viewership.

Another difference between 1964 and 2020 is the timing. In 1964, the “Summer” Olympics were held in the Fall to avoid September monsoons. But this time, the Olympics will be held in the hottest period in Japan – late July and early August. This has been the general timing for the past eleven Summer Olympics, excluding a September Sydney Games and Seoul Games.

My guess is that the various international federations want consistency in Olympic scheduling so that their own world championships and Olympic trials do not end up in conflict. That would be the same for many school systems that go on holiday break during the summer months. And television broadcasters may also prefer to have the Olympics to fill what are usually filled with summer repeats.

But I speculate.

One thing is certain. The Summer Olympics are coming to Tokyo on July 24, 2020.

Hope to see you here.

And just in case you need to know, click here for the countdown to Tokyo 2020.

See you in Tokyo Rio Olympics
Tokyo’s Presentation at the Rio Olympic Closing Ceremonies
betty Cuthbert 8_Ann Packer extends a hand to Cuthbert
Ann Packer (55) extends a congratulatory hand to Betty Cuthbert (12), after the finals of the 400-meter sprint. Judy Amoore (11) is to Cuthbert’s left.

At 18, Melbourne was a brilliant blur. At 22, in her prime, Rome was a frustrating flameout. But at the experienced age of 26, Tokyo was a blessing.

When Australian Betty Cuthbert won the finals in the 400-meter finals at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and her fourth career gold medal, she was grateful.

I snapped the tape and realised I’d won. I felt so full of gratitude and humility that I clasped my hands in front of me, closed my eyes and said a silent prayer of thanks to God. Never before had I shown my appreciation so openly at the end of a race. I’d been able to control my emotions before. But not this time. I’d just won the final of the 400 metres at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. I couldn’t cry. I was just too happy.

Cuthbert, as she wrote in her autobiography, Golden Girl, had climbed a mountain. She achieved great success effortlessly in Melbourne and then failed to compete in Rome, sending her off into quiet retirement. But her inner passion to run and compete would not die. So she trained for the Tokyo Olympics, demonstrated little performance throughout 1963 and the first half of 1964, and essentially gave the press and the public little reason to believe that their Golden Girl, from Merrylands, New South Wales, was going to have any impact at the first Olympics in Asia.

But she believed. And she wanted to win. Cuthbert wrote of her nervousness the night before the finals of the women’s 400 meter sprint, and how she failed to fall asleep. She was going up against Britain’s Ann Packer, who was considered a strong favorite, and played over and over in her mind how she was running in the dreaded 8th lane.

When she finally got out of bed, and headed to the Australian team HQ, she learned to her delight that she had drawn lane 2, with her teammate and friend Judy Amoore in lane 3. The morning was starting off well

Thirty minutes prior to the start of the finals, Cuthbert hammered in her starting blocks, and took a quick jog to stay warm in the cool, damp October weather. And then she was reminded, by a shout from the stands – “Make use of the wind.” The wind that crossed through the stadium in a way that provided both tailwind and headwind, depending on what side of the track you were running. Most runners had to deal with it, particularly those in the inner lanes. The key was to be mentally prepared for it.

I got a wonderful start and went flat out as soon as I straight­ened up. For the first 100 metres I gave it everything I had and was gaining on Judy with every stride. She was the only one I was worried about at that stage. Ann would come later. As we raced down the back straight I felt the wind whip in behind me. Judy must have sensed me right at her heels because she spurted off a yard or so. I let her go. I told myself not to get flurried and to stick to my plan. I was having that little mental breather before really turning it on. Before I knew it we were coming to the curve. I caught Judy going into the bend, about 180 metres from home.

Halfway through the 400-meter final, which takes the runners around one full lap of the stadium track, Cuthbert saw her rival, Packer, when the wind came into play again.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see Ann just a fraction behind me. Then the wind hit us. It was like running into a brick wall, but I was determined not to let it straighten me up and kept telling myself to lean forward into it. I could still see Ann. The wind was terrible and was like an invisible hand pushing against me. I was awfully tired then but forced myself to keep driving ahead. I didn’t think it would ever come to an end. My legs were getting heavier as the line edged closer. I wondered how Ann was going and if she had the strength to catch me. I felt her right on my heels and knew she must have been just as tired as I was. But I wasn’t going to be the first to give in. Keep going I said to myself…hold her off…it’s not far now. Ten metres, nine metres, eight metres…. An Australian television commentator shouted to his audience: ‘My God, she’s going to win it!’ Then I was just a stride from the tape. I knew I’d done it. I’d won!

Betty Cuthbert 1_ with Tokyo gold medal
Betty Cuthbert and her 1964 Tokyo gold medal

Cuthbert had accomplished something that no man or woman had done before or since – take the gold medal in all three individual sprints: the 100, 200 and 400 meters. As she stood on the award podium, on Saturday, October 17, 1964, Cuthbert was overwhelmed with emotion as she watched her country’s flag rise, with the Olympic flame “jumping and dancing in the breeze.”

Nothing had ever touched me as much as that medal cere­mony. Eight years before in Melbourne I had been too young fully to realise just what I had accomplished in winning three gold medals. But there in Tokyo I had at last achieved some­ thing I’d wanted for so long, sacrificed so much for and worked so hard to get. It was a dream come true.

Over 50 years later, Cuthbert lives in a nursing home near Perth, Australia. Her room is unadorned with her sporting triumphs, except for a single picture of her days as an athlete, according to this article – “a shot of her crossing the finish line in her finest hour, her mighty comeback race in the first Olympic women’s 400m final: Tokyo, 1964.”

Betty Cuthbert 5_young Betty Cuthbert working in the family nursery
Young Betty Cuthbert working in the family nursery

For introverts, people who have a preference for small groups, long solitary periods absorbed in books or thought, success in the glare of the spotlight comes with ambiguity, an appreciation for the recognition, but an annoyance at the loss of private time.

For the shy gangly teenager, Betty Cuthbert, who had emerged as Golden Girl after winning three gold medals at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, the parades, the parties, the celebratory profiles – it was becoming too much, as she wrote in her autobiography, Golden Girl:

All the attention was very flattering, but I also found it terribly draining. I slowly realized that my identity was disappearing. I was no longer Betty Cuthbert, the ordinary girl, but Betty Cuthbert, the athlete. My life wasn’t my own any more. Many people would probably have wallowed in the limelight but frankly I loathed it. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate what people did for me. I did. But how I wished I could have been just one of the crowd watching someone else up on that official platform. Gradually it all became too much for me and I began to have nightmares or dream that I was shaking hands with people. It was terrible but there was nothing I could do. I didn’t want to disappoint everybody who was trying to be so nice to me. But no matter what I did I never became used to the publicity.

Cuthbert continued to train and run in competitions, having a bit of success here, and a bit of disappointment there. As a member of the Australian team at the Cardiff Empire Games in late 1958, Cuthbert said she began to dabble in the 440 yards to help her team get pints. In fact, she ended up winning, equaling the world record time of 55.6 second.

The Olympics were moving to Rome, Italy in 1960. For an Aussie, that means Northern Hemisphere. And when you’re down under, the summer months in Europe are the winter months in Australia, traditionally an out-of-season rest period athletes. But the Australian team had to gear up for the Olympics in July, so train they did. And unfortunately for Cuthbert, the worst possible thing happened. At an impromptu tune up for the Rome Olympics, Cuthbert and other women were invited to run against the fastest Australian man, Denis Tipping, during the half-time of a Rugby League game. As she wrote in her book,

Around the 75 yards mark I was leading when I heard Denis drawing up on me. I was trying hard to stay in front of him when … BANG … my right leg went on me. I’d torn a hamstring muscle. I missed about three weeks’ competition while I was treated by a physiotherapist.

Cuthbert was on the road to recovery, but on the plane to Italy, her legs stiffened badly on the long flight. And when she began running on the cinder tracks in Rome, the injury began to re-emerge. Practice and marching in the Opening Ceremony were out of the question. When she lined up for her first heat in the 100-meters, she had a bad feeling. And when she tried to push it, she felt her hamstring pull back. She finished fourth and was out of the competition for the 100. She tried to make the 200s, but the pain in her leg told her no. And just like that, she was out of the Rome Olympics.

Rome was a bitter blow to me. I shouldn’t have rushed back to competition as soon as I did after tearing the hamie’ but there was nothing else I could do. Another week or a fortnight and I probably would have been as good as gold. But there hadn’t been the time for that. If I had stayed out much longer than I did theres not much doubt that I would have had to be dropped from the Olympic team.

Betty Cuthbert 6_on the medal stand at the 1956 Olympics
Betty Cuthbert (center) on the medal stand at the 1956 Olympics

Many people have said that Cuthbert retired after the Rome Olympics because of her injuries or disappointment. But she emphasized in her book that she was tired of being the Golden Girl.

I hated being a public figure to be looked at, talked about and pointed out every time I stepped outside my own front door. I’d been secretly nursing that hatred for four long years, ever since my wins in the Melbourne Games. Few knew how I felt. I’d never whispered a word to anybody but my family and closest friends. But finally it became unbearable. There were few places I could go without people recognizing me, wanting to touch me, shake my hand or get my autograph. It got to the point where I didn’t want to go out. I realized that being a successful athlete went hand-in-hand with being a public figure, but how I wished it hadn’t. I wanted to become just an ordinary girl like Midge (her twin sister). I wanted to go to dances, shows and parties whenever I felt like it, to wear a dress more than a track-suit, to play other sports where I didn’t have to worry about hurting my legs. I wanted to become a normal twenty-two year-old girl.

And so for a year, the retired and retiring Cuthbert, discovered what life was like as an ordinary girl. And the public began to ignore her. And she loved it. Until she didn’t. And then, as she was working in a nursery, her family’s business, “it suddenly occurred to me that maybe I needed to take up athletics again. I thought: ‘What a dreadful idea!’ But I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It was like a voice in my head that kept saying over and over: ‘Run again. Run again. Run again.'”

She would hear that voice again on other days over a two-month period, and she began to believe that God was speaking to her. And once she realized that she was speaking to God, she finally relented, and said, “Okay, you win. I’ll run again.”

That was January, 1962. That was two years and nine months prior to the 1964 Tokyo Games. That was a fateful decision that would take her to Japan and cement her legacy as one of the greatest women’s track athletes of the 20th century.

Betty Cuthbert 4_winning gold in the 200-meters at the 1956 Melbourne Games
Betty Cuthbert edges Christa Stubnick in 200-meter finals at the Melbourne Games

No one’s ever done it – man or woman.

Betty Cuthbert won gold in the 100-meter, 200-meter sprints and 4×100 meter relay at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, and then added another in the 400-meter sprint 8 years later at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

The Merrylands, New South Wales native, was Olympic champion in the three major individual sprints. Think of it. Usain Bolt and Carl Lewis never did it. Florence Griffith Joyner came somewhat close, winning silver in the 4×400 at the 1988 Seoul Olympics to complement her individual 100 and 200-meter golds. But no one has shown such individual sprinting virtuosity over a career as Cuthbert.

Ever since winning local carnival picnic races as a primary school student, the shy tomboy was hooked on winning footraces. By the time she turned 18, Cuthbert had a reputation not only for winning, but for high knee lifts, long strides and wide-open mouth during her sprints.

At the Australian track and field championships in 1956, Cuthbert got eliminated in the 100-yard sprint, but won the 220-yard sprint, earning her a berth on the Australian squad headed to the Melbourne Olympics later that year.

After an overwhelming opening ceremony, witnessing her country’s biggest splash in the international arena, Cuthbert got ready for the 100-meter heats. After zipping through a very fast 11.4 in the first heat, the 18-year old eased up in her semi-final heat, letting East German Christa Stubnick fly by her at the end. Finishing second qualified her for the finals, but more importantly, the shock of losing the race at the end, even in a qualifier, was the motivation she needed to keep her focus.

Two days later, Cuthbert jumped to a lead, her mouth in her customary gape, and never relinquished it. One gold down.

A few days later, Cuthbert lined up for the finals of the 200 meter sprint. She had set the world record in the 200 (23.2 seconds), her first of many, only a few months earlier in an Olympic tune up. Having just won gold in the 100 meters, she was the favorite for the 200. And as it turned out, the winners of the gold, silver and bronze – Cuthbert, Stubnick and fellow Aussie, Marlene Matthews – were the same winners in the same order as the 100 meter race.

Two gold down for Cuthbert. And suddenly, she was dubbed in the press, “Golden Girl.”

Betty Cuthbert 7_Australia's Golden Girls of the Melbourne Olympics
Australia’s Golden Girls of the Melbourne Olympics: Flour Mellor, Norma Croker, Betty Cuthbert and Shirley Strickland with gold medals

Golden Girl had a chance for the trifecta – gold in the 4×100. In the heats, both Germany and Australia set world record times at 44.9 seconds. In the finals, Australia fell behind in the first leg. When Shirley Strickland handed the baton over, Norma Croker made up the time on the British team that had started out in the lead. Fleur Mellor held her own against her British counterpart until Cuthbert took the baton for the anchor run. Running ahead of Heather Armitrage of Britain, who was slowed by the handoff, Cuthbert held her slight lead all the way to the end and won gold for Australia. Here’s how she describes the feeling in her autobiography, Golden Girl:

We were stride-for-stride all the way down the straight till just before the tape when I managed to inch clear and win it. The four of us danced for joy and did an extra little jig when the time was called at 44.5s. We’d knocked seven-tenths of a second off the world record and four-tenths off the time we’d run in the heat!

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Tokyo Olympic volleyball gold medalist Masae Kasai’s wedding in May 1965 attracted national attention, and Prime Minister Eisaku Sato (left) and his wife were on hand for the ceremony. | KYODO

The year 1962 was a fateful year for Masae Kasai and her teammates on the national women’s volleyball team.

The Japanese team won the world volleyball championships by defeating then champions, the Soviet Union, in the finals match in Moscow. The team was at the top of their game, but the practices were punishing (as related in this post), and some of the team members were getting older – in fact, the captain, Kasai, was 29 years old when the team captured the world championship crown.

In the 1960s, it was considered unfortunate if a woman did not marry by their mid-20s. In fact, it used to be a bit of a slur to a woman if she were considered a “Christmas Cake” – in demand until the 25th (of December), but no longer of value after the 25th. Thus family and society constantly reminded the women of Japan’s undefeated and champion volleyball team that true success in life for them would come with marriage. The coach, Hirobumi Daimatsu, believed that part of his responsibility included to help arrange marriages for his team members after retirement from the game.

And in 1962, after the world championships, Daimatsu, Kasai and other members of the team intended to retire so they could go on with their lives and leave behind a life of harsh training nearly 7 days a week, 51 weeks a year.

However, in 1962, it was announced that volleyball would debut at the Olympics in 1964, the year that Tokyo would host the Olympics. After their victory in Moscow, the public and the media strongly called for the coach, Kasai and the entire team to fight on through 1964, with the goal of winning gold at the 1964 Olympiad, as Helen Mcnaughtan explains in her article, The Oriental Witches: Women Volleyball and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

…the public expectation was immense, and the team received some 5,000 letters from fans urging the ‘Oriental Witches’ to continue. In early 1963, the team members got together after the New Year holiday, and most of the players decided to stay until the Olympics. Kasai decided to give up her ambitions to marry for the time being and to aim for the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. In interview, Kasai recollected that she decided to continue because she felt that the public at that time would ‘not allow her to retire’, and that the only way to respond to the public’s expectation that the national team could win the gold medal was to try to give them that victory.

Fortunately, as related in this blog post, the Oriental Witches swept through the round-robin matches and dominated the Soviet Union in the finals to win gold for Japan. So finally, it was time for the women to get married. Kasai, as the captain and star of the team, was given extraordinary help in finding a mate. Coach Daimatsu asked Japan’s newly minted prime minister, Eisaku Sato, to help. After meetings with three other men, when Kasai failed to experience that spark of possibility, the prime minister’s wife introduced Kasai to an officer in the Japan Self Defense Forces named Kazuo Nakamura.

 

okaasan no kin medaru_Kasai Masae cover
Cover of Kasai’s autobiography.

 

In Kasai’s autobiography, Okaasan no Kin Medaru (Mom’s Gold Medal), she wrote how her first meeting with Nakamura involved a considerable number of other people, including the prime minister, and thus there was practically no conversation between Nakamura and Kasai during that first meeting. But Kasai felt something in Nakamura’s voice that seemed to speak to her heart. And so she told the prime minister that she would like to meet Nakamura again. Nakamura agreed to meet again. According to Kasai, Nakamura was nervous about the idea of marrying Kasai, and she appreciated his willingness to explain himself in a straight manner.

Nakamura: Does Kasai-san intend to get married?

Kasai: Why?

Nakamura: Well, you said you would give up volleyball at the age of 29. However the world didn’t let you to do it. So you decided to live until 31 as a volleyball player and give up on marriage. So now that you won the gold medal, I think people are just making noise about your marriage.

Kasai: No, this is not true. I quit volleyball after the Olympics, and I strongly wish to get married.

Nakamura: I am sorry, I was rude. However, I think I am unsuitable for Kasai-san as a husband. Even though I hate war, if anything happens, I will need to fight on the frontlines. In that time, if I have children or a wife, I will unfortunately be drawn back home. So I think being single is more convenient for me. The Self-defense forces, different from our domestic troops, cannot settle down to domestic lives. And I would have no inconveniences in the military, and thus have no need for help with cooking or laundry.

Kasai: ….

Nakamura: Of course, there are some senior officers who are married, but I don’t think that it is a happy life. This is why, even though I am 33 years old, I believe, in principle, that military men like me should not marry.”

My assistant regimental commander said that I should stop thinking this way and just go see you. In fact, the day we had our first omiai meeting, I did not even know where I was going, since he just took me there. Once we arrived, I found myself in the prime minister’s private residence, I was so scared my legs froze up, ha ha ha…,” Nakamura laughed. “In fact, they still are! My parents were surprised when I got home and told them that I was in the prime minister’s home and that my matchmaking pair was that volleyball player Kasai, hahaha….

Kasai was hooked. She wrote that she had never a man who would speak so frankly with her, which made him even more attractive to him. Once she realized that Nakamura may be the man for her, she attempted to explain that she was a simple person, that the gold medal did not go to her head. “Even though I won a gold medal, I am still just a very ordinary woman from a farmer family in Yamanashi. I did not become rich because of the gold medal, and without volleyball I am just a woman, although admittedly, a very tall woman.”

Nakamura replied that for people of their age, a person of her height is beautiful. It was a sign to Kasai that Nakamura was interested, that he would speak to his admiration for a quality – her height – that Kasai has spent a lifetime being embarrassed about.

About 5 weeks after their initial meeting, Kazuo Nakamura and Masae Kasai were married on May 31 at Ichigaya Kaikan in Tokyo.

 

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

Oriental Witches_9_ XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964-Asahi Shimbun
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.

Oriental Witches_10_ XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964-Asahi Shimbun.jpg
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.

Oriental Witches_4_Tokyo Shimbun
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.

Oriental Witches_5_Asahi Graf
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 Tasgold 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.

Tasgold 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.

Tasgold 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.