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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.

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Tsuburaya suicide note 2

My dear Father, my dear Mother, I enjoyed the delicious three-day tororo soup, the dried persimmons, and the rice cakes.
My dear Brother Toshio, and my dear Sister, I enjoyed the delicious sushi.
My dear Brother Katsumi, and my dear Sister, I enjoyed the delicious wine and apples.
My dear Brother Iwao, and my dear Sister, I enjoyed the delicious shiso herbal rice, and the nanban zuke pickles.
My dear Brother Kikuzo, and my dear Sister, I enjoyed the delilcious grape juice and Yomeishu wine. I enjoyed them. And thank you, my dear Sister, for the laundry you always did for me.
My dear Brother Kozo and my dear Sister, I thank you for the rides you gave me in your car, to and fro. I enjoyed the delicioius mongo-cuttlefish.
My dear Brother Masao, and my dear sister, I am very sorry for all the worries I caused you.
Sachio-kun, Hideo-kun, Mikio-kun, Toshiko-chan, Hideko-chan, Ryosuke-kun, Takahisa-kun, Miyoko-chan, Yukie-chan, Mitsue-chan, Akira-kun, Yoshiyuki-kun, Keiko-chan, Koei-kun, Yu-chan, Kii-chan, Shoji-kun: May you grow up to be fine people.
My dear Father and my dear Mother, your Kokichi is too tired to run anymore. Please forgive him. He is sorry to have worried you all the time.
My dear Father and Mother, Kokichi would have liked to have lived by your side.

These were the handwritten words of Kokichi Tsubaraya, one of two notes he left as explanation for why he took his life in his dormitory room of the Ground Self Defense Forces. Tsuburaya was a soldier, but he was also a Japanese icon, winning the bronze medal in the marathon at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. As he wrote, he was simply “too tired to run anymore”. As described in a previous post, injuries and heartbreak may have led to Tsuburaya’s demise.

Kokichi Tsuburaya surrounded by family
Kokichi Tsuburaya, center, surrounded by his family.

Suicide rates, while decreasing in recent years, thankfully, have been traditionally high in Japan compared to other countries. Perhaps there is a romanticism connected with suicide in the deep recesses of Japanese culture. So when some of Japan’s most celebrated writers, Nobel Prize winners Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata, read the suicide note of Kokichi Tsuburaya, they swooned at the simple yet striking words of the athlete. Mishima viewed Tsuburaya’s notes as “beautiful, honest and sad.” And as Makoto Ueda explained in his book, Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature, Kawabata was even jealous of the quality of Tsuburaya’s poetry.

Kawabata was deeply moved upon reading this suicide note. After citing it in its entirety, he offered to explain why: “in the simple, plain style and in the context of the emotion-ridden note, the stereotyped phase “I enjoyed” is breathing with truly pure life. It creates a rhythm pervading the entire suicide note. I tis beautiful, sincere, and sad.” Kawabata then observed that this suicide note was not inferior to similar notes written by reputable writers, despite the fact that Tsuburaya was an athlete who boasted no special talent in composition. Kawabata even felt ashamed of his own writings, he said, when he compared them with this note.

Another giant of Japanese literature, Kenzaburo Oe, was also impressed by the suicide note of Tsuburaya. At a series of talks Oe gave at the University of California, Berkeley in April 1999, he talked about how Tsuburaya’s suicide note was a wonderful cultural marker of the 1960s, a reflection of Japan in a state of transition during a period of intense social, economic and political change. Let me quote Oe at length here:

We know from this note that Kokichi Tsuburaya was from a big family. The many names he mentions probably do not evoke any particular feeling in a non- Japanese, but to a person like myself—especially to one who belongs to an older generation of Japanese—these names reveal a naming ideology of a family in which authority centers around the paternal head-of-household. This family-ism extends to the relatives. There is probably no large family in Japan today where children are named so thoroughly in line with traditional ethical sentiments. Tsuburaya’s suicide note immediately shows the changes in the “feelings” of the families of Japanese these past thirty years.

The many foods and drinks he refers to also tell of the times. Twenty years had passed since Japan’s defeat, and it was not a society of food shortages. But neither was it the age of satiation and Epicurean feasting that began ten years later. The year Tsuburaya died was the year that Nikkeiren, the Japan Federation of Employers’ Association, tried to counter the spring offensives—the annual demand by labor unions for wage hikes and improved working conditions—by arguing that the sharp increase in prawn imports was evidence of a sufficient rise in the standard of living. More consumers were eating imported frozen prawns. Business administrators keep an eye on such trends. And I think that honestly expresses the eating habits of Japanese people at this time.

Domestically, 1968 saw the rage of student rebellions, most noted among which were the struggles at Tokyo University and Nihon University. Outside of Japan, there was the May Revolution in Paris, and the invasion of Soviet troops into Prague. In retrospect, we clearly see that the world was full of premonitions of great change.

Against this backdrop, a long distance runner of the Self-Defense Forces— itself a typical phenomenon of the state of postwar Japan’s twisted polysemous society—turned his back on the currents of such a society, alone prepared to die, and wrote this suicide note. In the note, the young man refers to specific foods and drinks, he encourages his nephews and nieces to grow up to be fine people; he is overwhelmed by the thought of his parents’ loving concern for him and writes that he knows their hearts must never have rested in their worry and care for him. He apologizes to them because, having kept running even after the Olympics with the aim of shouldering national prestige, he became totally exhausted and could no longer run. He closed his note with the words: “My dear Father and Mother, Kokichi would have liked to live by your side.”

Tsuburaya was a man of his times, celebrated in 1964 for his accomplishments as an athlete. Today he is also remembered for his eloquence in representing the Every Man in Japan, a poet who is said to have captured the essence and the angst of those times.

Kokichi Tsuburaya afer the marathon
After the grueling marathon

Do your best. Persevere. Never give up.

Ganbatte! Akirameru na!

These are values that resonate with the Japanese. You see it in the office worker who stays late to get things done, night after night. You see it in the high school baseball player who dives left and right after dozens if not hundreds of ground balls in the rain. You see it in the artist who tirelessly works the pottery wheel until she gets the exact curvature in the clay she sees in her head.

Kokichi Tsuburaya exemplified those values. And when he drove toward the finish line of a grueling 42-kilometer marathon race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, on the verge of grabbing a silver medal in track and field, where Japan had found no success, 70,000 Japanese shouted and screamed their encouragement, attempting to will Tsuburaya on to a strong finish. And yet the drama laid out before the spectators had the sickly feeling of inevitability. Just as Tsuburaya emerged from the shadows of the tunnel entrance, a few meters behind so too did Basil Heatley, a Brit hot on the Japanese’s heels.

When Heatley accelerated past a depleted Tsuburaya like a biker passing a pedestrian, the growing balloon of hopes an entire nation held for Tsuburaya seemed to deflate in those seconds it took Heatley to get to the finish line. It must have been a tremendous disappointment.

But then again, that’s OK. To the Japanese, Tsuburaya was not a loser. He was one of them, a man who tried so very hard, who did his very best, who never gave up. As he said in interviews after the marathon, “I will practice hard towards Mexico City.”

Of course, Tsuburaya was a product of his national cultural traits. But more impactfully, he was his father’s son, as described in Ichiro Aoyama’s book, The Lone Runner – The Kokichi Tsuburaya Story.

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Kokichi Tsuburaya 7 years old
Little Kokichi at 7 years old, smiling front and center.

The seven children in the Tsuburaya household had to work hard, cleaning the house, preparing the bath, cooking, planting the rice, raising the livestock when they hit the age of 10. These were not easy tasks, and the head of the household, Koshichi Tsuburaya, believed that his children needed to be disciplined to ensure they did their chores. He ordered his children around military style, shouting directions like “Attention!” “Right face!” “Go Forward!” He made them wear shorts in the winter. He made his children repeat chores if they weren’t done properly, and of course he would hit them to make sure they knew they had done something improperly. Training included bayonet skills, just in case.

As a child Kokichi liked to run, and when his dog ran, little Kokichi liked to try to keep up with the dog. But one day, when he was 5, Kokichi felt a sharp pain in his legs and his back. The father (named Koshichi) then noticed that their boy’s left leg was shorter than his right. Knowing how little their little Kokichi would complain about anything, the parents took him to the hospital, where they learned that their boy also had tuberculosis arthritis, which causes pain in the weight-bearing joints of the hips, knees and ankles. So from an early age, Kokichi felt pain whenever he ran.

And yet, Kokichi loved to run. He looked up to his older brother, Kikuzo, who ran competitively. Kokichi often joined his older brother, and the elder brother saw the kid brother keep up, despite being 7 years younger. The brothers would often go for runs in the evenings. But their father didn’t approve of running for the sake of running. “You can’t live off of running,” he would say as a warning to his sons.

One time the brothers came home a little later than usual, and the entire family was seated at the dinner table quietly, waiting to start eating until the two boys sat down. The father kept quiet until the boys returned late again from running, and again told his boys angrily, “You can’t live off of running.” In order to avoid the glare of their father, the boys would sneak out for a run while their father was taking a bath.

Finally, one night, Koshichi the father confronted Kokichi the son and asked him, “If you run, will you stick to it?” The son said yes, to which Koshichi said, in the approving way of gruff dads, “Once you decide to do this, don’t quit halfway through.”

Kokichi never quit. In fact, he took his commitment to running very seriously. In high school, he trained very hard for a national 5,000 meter competition. He did not win, and without anyone’s urging, shaved his head to account publicly for his loss.

When Kokichi graduated from high school, he did something that made his father proud – he joined the Ground Self-Defense Force and became a soldier like his father had been. Japan has a long tradition of long-distance relay races, and Kokichi was slated to join the team representing the Self-Defense Forces in a national long-distance race. At the time of the race, Kokichi was in the hospital with a high fever. On top of that, Kokichi kept the fact that a slipped disk in his back was also causing him tremendous pain. Despite all that, Kokichi Tsuburaya insisted on running the longest leg of the race.

It was this commitment, this perseverance that eventually endeared Tsuburaya to the public. And through it all, even his father, who thought nothing would ever come of his running, was quietly very proud of his son.  His father would often send Kokichi letters of encouragement, saying how worried he was for his son. And when Kokichi returned home from his bronze-medal finish at the Tokyo Olympics, he was surprised to find that his parents kept all sorts of newsclippings, medals and trophies of his accomplishments , or could not sleep on the eve of the Olympics, and worried deeply about his health.

They were deeply proud of their little Kokichi. And likely, so was an entire nation.

 

Note: Special thanks to my researcher, Shiina Ishige, for her in-depth research that contributed heavily to the writing of this post.