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‘Witches of the Orient’ symbolized Japan’s fortitude

by Robert Whiting

Special To The Japan Times

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics had a profound impact on the capital city and the nation. In the fourth installment of a five-part series running this month, best-selling author Robert Whiting, who lived in Japan at the time, examines the symbolism of Japan’s gold medal-winning women’s volleyball team.


It was left to the maniacally trained, and wonderfully adept, Japan national women’s volleyball team to salvage the nation’s pride. Its gold medal victory on the final evening of 1964 Tokyo Olympics competition at the 4,000-seat Komazawa Gymnasium would go down in Japanese sporting lore as one of the top 10 great sporting achievements of the 20th century, reaching No. 5 on a list compiled by the Asahi Shimbun at the end of 1999.

Most of the players were members of the Nichibo Corp. team, a powerhouse in the Japan’s domestic industrial volleyball league. Their coach, Hirobumi Daimatsu, a former platoon commander in the Imperial Japanese Army who also coached Nichibo, was known as the “ogre,” or “demon,” for his brutal training methods, which he had employed to guide his charges to 258 victories in a row over one stretch.

Daimatsu had joined Nichibo in 1954, and had worked his players every single day for several years, save for a brief break over the annual New Year’s holiday, allowing no days off for menstrual cycles. He made them practice from 4:30 p.m. to midnight with only one 15-minute break. (From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. they did clerical work at the company).

A prototypical practice drill was the judo-like kaiten reeshiibu (rotate and receive), a tumbling dive-and-roll acrobatic maneuver to defend against the spike, where the girls had to plunge to the floor again and again to retrieve the ball, repeatedly banging their shoulders in the process, until they couldn’t get up anymore and were near tears. At that point, the coach would excoriate them, saying, “Dame. Omae wa yameta hoo ga ii.” (“You’re no good, you might as well just give it up.”) Or “if you would rather be home with your mother, then go.”

Everyone seemed to agree that this practice, which also came to be known as satsujin taiso (homicidal training), was a form of torture.

Daimatsu cheerfully agreed that his training methods were cruel, but said that they were necessary not only to develop physical technique, but also to develop the fighting spirit needed to prevail against the Soviet Union, which had long dominated the sport, and whose athletes were several centimeters taller and physically stronger than the Japanese. Indeed, Daimatsu’s players, to a woman, said they totally understood this, and staunchly defended their coach against any and all criticism.

Japan’s national team, composed of all but two Nichibo players, had surprised everyone when it won the 1962 World Volleyball Championship in Moscow. Russia’s leading newspaper Pravda , which was impressed by the magic of Daimatsu’s “receive and rotate” technique, dubbed them “Witches of the Orient.” However, many regarded their victory as a fluke and few thought they had a chance to repeat.

Team leader and center Masae Kasai, at 170 cm the team’s tallest player, was 29 years old at the time, and had wanted to retire after the Moscow tourney and get married. But the public’s desire for her to lead the team once more against the Russians was so intense that Kasai decided to postpone her ambition and compete in the Olympics.

From then on, Kasai and her teammates practiced even longer hours than before, starting at 3 p.m. and continuing until 2 or 3 in the morning.

Judoka Akio Kaminaga’s defeat to Anton Geesink in the open weight final dramatically increased the pressure on the girls. By late afternoon, the streets of Ginza were almost empty of pedestrians and automobiles as people rushed to be near a television set for the final. “If we lose,” one of the girls was later quoted as saying, “we might have to leave the country.”

As for me, I watched the event with my friend Dr. Sato at Le Rat Mort, a high-class Ginza nightclub. Conversation ceased as everyone, customers and hostesses alike, were transfixed by the TV set. In the crowd that night, and seated in a special Imperial Box, was beautiful young Princess Michiko, a former commoner who set the standards for elegance among Japanese women with her tasteful two-piece dresses, simple pearl necklaces, perfect bearing and deferential manner.

Superior teamwork helped Kasai and company throw off the timing of the larger Soviet team and they won the first two sets with ease, 15-11 and 15-8, to thunderous cheers within the arena and repeated shots of a smiling Princess Michiko on the TV screen. The Soviet girls fought back in the third set to take the lead at 14-9, but the Japanese squad rallied and ripped off an impressive seven straight points to take the gold.

At the end, the players jumped and wept for joy. Commentators, spectators in the crowd, Princess Michiko (temporarily losing her famous composure) and millions watching on TV stood up and applauded them, including the coiffed and perfumed Le Rat Mort girls, who cheered and wept with an abandon I had never seen in them before.

The stunned Muscovite ladies, it was reported, retreated to their dressing room where they locked the door and cried out their frustration. According to Video Research, 94.5 percent of all TV-owning households in the land with television sets watched the final point on television. The average rating of 66.8 percent makes it the second-most-watched TV program in Japanese history.

I was particularly struck by the image of the stiff taskmaster Daimatsu standing alone on the sidelines as his girls celebrated at mid-court, holding back from embracing or even shaking hands with his charges. The same scene provided a memorable moment in Kon Ichikawa’s landmark film on the Tokyo Olympiad.

Daimatsu’s “Witches of the Orient” became a metaphor for the Tokyo Games and the subject for a raft of academic treatises spanning the next 50 years. Their patented kaiten reshiibu was seen to symbolize the dogged resurgence of the Japanese economy, short on resources but full of fighting spirit, in the wake of the games.

The coach himself enjoyed enduring fame, authoring best-selling books on that same fighting spirit — reaffirming the message that judo was supposed to have sent — and later winning election to the House of Councillors, where he would serve 10 years.

Kasai’s story also had a happy ending. When the team met with Prime Minister Eisaku Sato in the wake of their victory, she found occasion to lament that the years of Spartan training had left her no time to find a husband. The P.M., and later Nobel Peace Laureate, lost no time in introducing her to a young officer from Japan’s fledgling Self-Defense Force, first organized in the 1950s.

Surprisingly, she did not complain that she had already had enough military-style influence on her life, and the wedding, with Sato and his wife there as the official matchmakers, took place in May 1965. It was a national event, with banner headlines in all the media.

In his congratulatory speech at the ceremony, Sato remarked that Kasai was more popular in the country than he was. In fact, she remained so for the rest of her life.


My personal favorite in the Olympics was Australian swimming champion Dawn Fraser. Only days after her victory in the 100-meter freestyle — her third such Olympic gold medal in a row — the high spirited Australian swimmer was arrested for stealing a five-ring Olympic flag from in front of the Imperial Palace, in the heart of downtown Tokyo, then appropriating a police bicycle to make her getaway, leading the police on a spirited chase. She was tackled as she appeared to be ready to make a dive into the Imperial Moat. Tokyo Metropolitan Police officers later released her when they realized who she was.

Dawn was not the first person to attempt a dip in Imperial waters. I knew a group of American airmen who had done it a couple of years before, when one of their number fell into the moat by accident. The others, all as inebriated as the first, jumped in to rescue him and found it so pleasant that they continued paddling around until the police fished them out and sent them off with a stern admonition to do their swimming elsewhere. As I recall, the four individuals were quite proud of what they had done.

Fraser later wrote a book about her Olympic experiences, in which she said that stealing souvenirs — silver salt and pepper shakers, crystal wineglasses and other items was as common among Olympians as getting sloshed after events and having sex in the Olympic Village. She wrote that some countries — Japan and Sweden among them — had an earthy approach to sex, and coaches and officials were known for simply providing girls (both amateur volunteers and pro) to any male athletes who wanted them.

She did not say what those coaches and officials provided for female athletes who wished to relieve their own tensions after a hard day of competing.

On publication of the book, she was suspended for 10 years by the Australian Swimming Union.

And then it was time to go home: 75,000 people stood and applauded as the Temple Bells rang, the lights dimmed, the butane Olympic flame was extinguished and a blazing gold “Sayonara” flashed on the big electronic scoreboard in National Stadium during the Closing Ceremony.

As the participants from 94 nations made their final tour around the track, in the glow of torchlight, a group of athletes from the New Zealand contingent broke ranks and began prancing around free style. They stopped to mug in front of a startled Emperor Hirohito, known as an introverted soul who was happiest when pursuing his botanical research. Distance runner Bill Baillie blew Hirohito a kiss, perhaps the first time in the sovereign’s cloistered life anyone had done that. The Emperor surprised everyone when he stood up and tipped his hat, an English bowler.

To the very end, Japanese kept their manners toward their foreign guests. During the two weeks, 194 pickpockets were arrested in Tokyo, but only four in the Olympic area had copped a foreign wallet.


When it was over, the American president of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, citing the emotion-filled Opening Ceremony, the high quality of competition and the pervading goodwill, called the 1964 Games “the greatest ever.”

For the Japanese, all of this was a tremendous source of pride. A new Japan had just been introduced to the world, and it was nothing like the old. No longer a militarist pariah shattered by war, it had successfully reinvented itself as a peaceful democracy on its way to becoming a world economic powerhouse.

The games had demonstrated to the West that Japan was now their equal and was going to be a force to be reckoned with. The Emperor, the flag of the Rising Sun, the unofficial anthem “Kimigayo” and the use of Japanese soldiers (in the form of the Japan Self-Defense Force), once symbols of the menace Japan had posed to its Asia-Pacific neighbors, now stood forth in an entirely different and far more salubrious light.

That the transformation had been accomplished in a mere two decades served as an example to other countries in Asia and the developing world seeking to modernize their own societies.

For Tokyoites, the Olympic success was doubly important because their city had now been transformed from a struggling third-world capital into a shiny international metropolis that would be a magnet for foreign tourists, businessmen, scholars and others. Indeed, as if to put the final stamp of approval on the place, the most popular franchise in screen history would choose Tokyo the following year as the central location for one of its most famous films, “You Only Live Twice, “produced in 1966 and released in 1967.

The Hotel New Otani would appear as the Osato Chemical and Engineering Co. Building, Tokyo headquarters of the infamous SPECTRE. Also featured were the adjoining garden as well as the Tokyo subway system, the Ryogoku Kokugikan and the neon-lit Ginza nightscape. In the film, that keen Japanologist, James Bond, also gave out the secret of the precise temperature to which food had to be warmed to please the demanding palate.

The New Otani management had given the James Bond film crew free rein to use its building, assuming that the ensuing publicity would be worth any inconvenience caused by the production. It proved to be a false assumption, as during the finished movie, when Bond is asked “Where are you staying in Tokyo?” he replies, “Hilton.”


For periodic stretches during the games the world had seemed to be in harmony, as though its only conflicts were those played out on the track or in the gymnasium. But world events intruded often enough to pop the illusion. It was during the games that China conducted its first nuclear bomb test, and the Soviet Union deposed its leader, Nikita Khrushchev.

The games also marked the close of a brief but extraordinary period of pro-Americanism in the country, highlighted by an outpouring of affection for Bob Hayes, Don Schollander and other gold-medal winning American athletes, who appeared with some frequency on Japanese television. In Ginza there was a huge picture of Hayes in red-white-and-blue neon lights with the message: BOB HAYES, USA, WORLD’S FASTEST HUMAN.

The gush of chauvinistic pride from both Olympic success and the steadily growing GDP, which replaced the shame of defeat in war, combined with the undercurrent of resentment toward the United States because of its economic and military dominance of Japan, served to fuel a growing anti-American feeling.

The onset of the Vietnam War further damaged the image of the United States, although the Japanese economy profited greatly from it.


Part one:  Olympic construction transformed Tokyo
Part two:  Opening Ceremony ushered in new era for Japan
Part three:  Schollander, Hayes were spectacular at Tokyo Games
Part four:  ‘Witches of the Orient’ symbolized Japan’s fortitude
Part five:  Negative impact of 1964 Olympics profound