Masae Kasai: What it took for women to lead in 1960s Japan

The captain of the 'Oriental Witches' put off her life to give Japan the women's volleyball gold at Tokyo 1964. 

By Shintaro Kano

On 3 October, 2013, Japan bid farewell to a legend who would have been 88 at Tokyo's second Olympic Games this summer.

Kasai Masae (her married name Nakamura), captain of the Tokyo 1964 gold medal-winning women's volleyball team, passed away due to cerebral hemorrhaging.

More than 500 people including her former teammates and prime minister Koizumi Junichiro attended her memorial service a week later.

Kasai captivated an entire nation in October 1964 when she, as the spiritual lynchpin, led a Japanese team that would forever be known as the Oriental Witches to the gold, over the Soviet Union in straight sets in the final.

The victory sparked a massive volleyball boom in Japan - especially among women - which lasted for years with traces of it still visible to this day through the game's popularity.

And it almost didn't happen.

What if

The Witches before they were the Witches had had enough.

Under head coach Daimatsu Hirofumi, Japan beat the Soviets in Moscow to capture the 1962 world championship, the nation's first major international title in a team sport.

But it did not come without sacrifice.

Kasai and the team regularly practised 10 hours a day, every day - this after their day jobs - and had no life.

They may have won 24 consecutive matches on a European tour in 1961 that earned them confidence and respect but were far from home.

As women in their mid- to late-20s in 1960s Japan, most of them wanted to retire, to get married and start a family. Kasai was 29 in 1962 and felt she was going to miss her window.

Kasai Masae (Photo by Jiji Press)

Yet with volleyball set to be integrated into the Olympic programme at the Tokyo Games, winning the worlds heightened public expectations beyond anything they could have imagined.

There was pressure from the Olympic Organising Committee, Japan Volleyball Association, the corporate teams they played for and above all, the fans.

Kasai could not say no, and neither could her teammates.

"I felt like I was done with volleyball", she recalled. "I was thinking about quitting and getting married.

"But at the time, I couldn't quit. And I knew my family, my parents couldn't tell me to quit either.

"When I told them I was in, they just said, 'Do what you have to do' and sent me off with a smile".

Leading by example

The rest is history as we know it.

While it paid off, Daimatsu pushed his team harder than he did in the run-up to the 1962 championships for the Games. Of his starting six, five including Kasai finally called it a career after Tokyo 1964.

Kasai is largely credited for keeping that Japanese team together amid intense public scrutiny as they romped to the gold, dropping just one set on the way.

The final against the USSR on 23 October drew astonishing ratings of 66.8 per cent according to public broadcaster NHK and still remains the most watched sporting event in Japanese television history.

Despite the fever at the time, Kasai looks back on it all with a smile.

"I still can't forget the cheers from all around the country. It never felt like pressure to me. We had so much support that our only was option was to win the gold".

Former teammates and the female players who would follow Kasai in her footsteps speak of what she brought to the game.

Kasai, who was inducted to the International Volleyball Hall of Fame in 2008 for her work around volleyball, passed away before Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Olympic Games but her spirit lives on.

"She was a very demanding person but I'm glad I went through with it and that's because of her", said Miyamoto Emiko, a member of the Witches team.

Added three-time Olympian Obayashi Motoko from 1988 to 1996, "She was like a mother to me, someone I can trust and depend on. I loved her and looked up to her.

"We have to keep the fire she lit in the game going, all of us together".