Bewitched: How seeds of Japan's 1964 gold in women's volleyball were sewn over a decade

Not tricks, but a process of hard work led to Daimatsu Hirobumi's 'Oriental Witches' capturing the event's inaugural Olympic crown at Tokyo's first Games.
By Shintaro Kano

Fifty-seven years on, it still remains the most-watched sporting event in Japanese television history.

On 23 October 1964, a nation tuned in to witness Japan beat the Soviet Union in straight sets for the women's volleyball gold medal of the Tokyo '64 Olympic Games at Komazawa Olympic Park.

People went home early from work. The streets emptied. Everyone was glued to the set.

According to public broadcaster NHK, ratings at one point in the match surpassed a staggering 80 per cent of the population.

The Oriental Witches, as they would forever be known in Japan, cast a spell on a country that remains unbreakable to this day.

Daimatsu's 12

The making of the dozen women who topped the podium on that October evening started back in 1954 at a factory in Osaka.

That year, textile giant Nichibo created a female volleyball team at its Kaizuka plant, brining in a former company commander of the Japanese army named Daimatsu Hirobumi to run the ship.

A tireless drill sergeant, Daimatsu made instant winners out of Nichibo, sweeping the major domestic corporate titles by 1958.

Nichibo had an incredible six-year run under Daimatsu from 1959, racking up 175 consecutive victories.

In 1960, Daimatsu turned his sights overseas as national coach, taking Japan - featuring many of his troops from Nichibo - to the FIVB world championships in Brazil.

Japan lost only one match in the tournament, to the Soviets in the final round, and finished as runners-up.

Back at the USSR in Moscow

Determined for payback, Daimatsu pushed his team harder than ever.

The workload was legendary. They would practise more than 10 hours a day, sometimes into the wee hours. All this, after their day jobs.

But the hard work paid off.

During a European tour in 1961, Japan won 24 successive matches to tee up their triumph at the 1962 worlds - in Moscow of all places.

Again facing the USSR in their last match in a meeting of the unbeaten, Japan prevailed 3-1 for the country's first-ever major world title in a team sporting competition.

For a nation in need of proof that they had clawed their way through the post-war rubbles and were back on par with the rest of the world, the success of 1962 went a long way.

Said Daimatsu: "To beat the Soviets, we had to practise 1.5 times more than the Soviets. Mental discipline lies at the heart of the amateur sport spirit. The world title is a byproduct of that.

"We don't need heroes in volleyball. If the six spokes in the wheel are aligned behind spiritual strength, that is enough. It's the spirit, the fight that is important," - Coach Daimatsu

Endgame for the Japanese women

The players on the world championship team went on to form the bulk of the squad for Tokyo 1964, where women's volleyball joined the Olympic programme, notably Kasai Masae who served as captain-coach.

Under the gaze of then Imperial Princess Michiko, Japan met their gold-medal expectations for Tokyo's first hosting of the Games, with dominance, dropping just one set in their five matches.

Who could have imagined the finale on the top of a Games podium, of a decade-long process that began in a small town factory in western Japan?

Kasai, before passing away in 2013, said while Daimatsu was indeed demanding, there was love as well.

"He was tough, for sure. But just as much, there was kindness with coach Daimatsu. It's why everyone respected him," she said.

"We are who we are because of his teachings. We learned so much through all the tough training."

The softer side of Daimatsu, who died in 1978, seeped through in a post-Games report he wrote:

"It was difficult. Trying. I could not hold back the tears when I saw the athletes with the gold medals.

"I have nothing but respect and admiration for the fight they showed. I question whether we will see anyone with their spirit ever again."