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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.