The weight of Japan on the women’s volleyball team

In October 1964, Tokyo hosted their first Olympic Games. To celebrate, Tokyo 2020 will bring you some of the most incredible and historic moments that took place 56 years ago. In the latest part of the series, we take a look at Japan’s historic gold medal.

Picture by © 1964 / Kishimoto/IOC

The background

For Japan's women's volleyball team, the pressure to win gold reached new heights at the Olympic Games Tokyo 1964.

Two years prior to the Olympics, Japan had won its first women’s volleyball World Championship gold after defeating the Soviet Union, who had long dominated the sport. In fact, since the inaugural World Championships in 1952, the Soviet Union hadn't lost.

With the win in the bag, some members of the team wanted to retire and move on with their lives including coach DAIMATSU Hirobumi. But with the announcement that volleyball would make its Olympic debut at Tokyo 1964, there was a strong public desire to have the team battle the Soviet Union again.

IDOGAWA Kinuko (nee TANIGAWA), a spiker from the 1962 World Championship and Tokyo 1964 team, recalled in an interview:

"We got told from many people that 'I really want you (the Japanese team) to participate at the Tokyo Olympics'... Many letters had arrived for us as well. Some saying, 'You should definitely participate in the Tokyo Olympics,' and it was certain that majority of letters were hoping for us to participate."

It's believed that some 5,000 letters were sent to convince the team to take part in Tokyo 1964.

"[However,] we were thinking about marriage because we were at a marriageable age," Idogawa continued.

"Eventually, the captain, KASAI Masae said, 'I'll do it,' and everyone decided to continue.

"We thought that we absolutely had to win a gold medal and that we might not be able to stay in Japan if we couldn't win the gold medal."

Under the guidance of head coach Daimatsu, a former platoon commander - who also coached Japan’s leading domestic industrial league team, Nichibo Corp., where most of national team played - Japan had only lost one match since their international debut.

That came against the Soviet Union at the 1960 World Championships.

Daimatsu recognised that his training methods then were extreme but believed they were necessary to develop the physical technique and fighting spirit needed to overcome the dominant Soviet Union.

One of these drills was called kaiten reeshiibu (rotate and receive) – a skill which has become a secret weapon for the team.

It was a judo-like tumbling dive-and-roll manoeuvre that was used to defend against a spike. Players had to dive to the ground to retrieve the ball and land on their feet to begin an attack. This would be practised over and over again and saw players repeatedly fall on their shoulders on the floor.

While the team trained extensively prior to their World Championship win, training for an Olympic Games was different. It meant longer hours on court, starting at 3 p.m. - after their clerical work at their company had finished - and sometimes last until the wee hours of the morning.

Japan Women's Volleyball Team Tokyo 1964
Picture by © 1964 / Kishimoto/IOC

The moment

It was the day before the Closing Ceremony and the 4,000-seat Komazawa Gymnasium in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward filled to the brim. Also watching on, from a special Imperial Box, was Princess Michiko of the Japanese Royal Family.

The pressure was rising before the match even started after judoka Anton Geesink won in the open final over local favourite KAMINAGA Aki. It was up to Japan's women's volleyball team now to restore the pride of the nation.

In the lead up to the finals, Japan had beaten their opponents without much threat - dropping just one set throughout the four matches they played.

As late afternoon approached in the host city and salarymen began their journey home, the streets of Ginza were said to have been almost empty. NHK, Japan's national broadcaster, reported that the audience rating of the final on television exceed 80 per cent.

It was quite literally a match that stopped the nation!

Japan had won the first two sets with relative ease, 15-11 and 15-8 but in the third set the Soviets started to fight back. The host nation held championship point at 14-8 but the Soviet Union managed to win five consecutive points to get within a point of Japan.

However, Japan came together and secured gold.

"The match ended with a Soviet player's foul, but I didn't know what happened for a moment," said Idogawa, who is now 81-years-old. "After I realised our victory, I said: 'We won! Wow'."

Cheers had rung out around the stadium – Japan became the first nation to win Olympic gold in women’s volleyball.

Tears of elation and joy from the team summed up what is considered one of the top sporting moments in Japanese history.

Japan Women's Volleyball Team Tokyo 1964
Picture by © 1964 / Kishimoto/IOC

What happened next

The win in 1964 still holds much significance to the Japanese people and helped popularise the sport in the country.

Not only has Japan gone on to win another Olympic gold (Montreal 1976), two silvers (Mexico 1968, Munich 1972) and two bronze medals (Los Angeles 1984, London 2012) but they also became permanent hosts of the FIVB Volleyball World Cup, an event held every four years.

However, Japan, who are currently ranked seventh in the world, will be looking to return to their glory days and capture the nations heart just like they did 56 years ago.

After the appointment of former Los Angeles 1984 volleyball bronze medallist NAKADA Kumi in 2016, she told media at a press conference: “Volleyball started with a gold medal, [it’s a sport that] has tradition and history. Since we won the gold medal in 1964, I want to do my best as the head coach of Team Japan, to become one team with a fighting spirit and aim for a medal.”

Speaking with Tokyo 2020 earlier this year, captain of Japan’s volleyball team ARAKI Erika said the team is working towards a medal at the Games next year.

“I think that Japan's tenacity and organisational strength will become their strong points,” she said. “I really want to work hard as a team toward the goal of medals.”

Will the Tokyo 2020 Games once again be another significant moment in Japan’s sporting history?