March 28, 2023

In October of 1964, Tokyo played host to the very first Olympic Games ever held. As a way to commemorate this occasion, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games will re-create for you some of the most incredible and momentous events that occurred 56 years ago. In this most recent installment of the series, we take a look at the historically significant gold medal that was won by Japan.

Historical context

At the Olympic Games held in Tokyo in 1964, the level of pressure placed upon the Japanese women’s volleyball team to win gold reached new heights.

In the women’s volleyball competition at the World Championships two years before the Olympics, Japan won its first gold medal by defeating the Soviet Union, which had previously held the dominant position in the sport for a significant amount of time. In point of fact, the Soviet Union hadn’t suffered a defeat at the World Championships since the competition’s inception in 1952.

Some of the players, including the head coach DAIMATSU Hirobumi, wanted to hang up their cleats and move on with their lives once it became clear that the team would not repeat its previous performance. But when it was revealed that volleyball would make its debut at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 1964, there was a strong desire on the part of the public to see the team compete against the Soviet Union once more.

IDOGAWA Kinuko (nee TANIGAWA), who was a spiker on the teams that competed in the World Championship in 1962 and Tokyo 1964, recalled in an interview:

“The sentiment that “I really want you (the Japanese team) to participate at the Tokyo Olympics” was expressed to us by a great number of people… Additionally, a significant number of letters had been delivered to us. Some of the letters said things like, “You really ought to compete in the Tokyo Olympics,” and it was clear that the majority of the letters expressed their desire for us to compete.”

It is believed that approximately 5,000 letters were sent to the team in an effort to convince them to compete in Tokyo in 1964.

Idogawa continued by saying, “[However] because we were at an age when we could get married, we were considering getting married.”

“In the end, the captain, KASAI Masae, declared, ‘I’ll do it,’ and everybody agreed that they should continue.

We believed that it was absolutely necessary for us to win a gold medal and that if we were unable to do so, it was possible that we would not be able to continue our trip to Japan.

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

This occurred during the 1960 World Championships when the Soviet Union was competing.

Although Daimatsu was aware that his training methods at the time were extreme, he believed that they were necessary in order to develop the necessary physical technique and fighting spirit to defeat the Soviet Union, which was the dominant power at the time.

One of these drills was known as kaiten reeshiibu, which literally translates to “rotate and receive.” This particular ability has evolved into a formidable covert capability for the team.

In order to protect oneself from a spike, the defender would perform a judo-inspired tumbling dive-and-roll move. Players were required to perform a diving grab in order to retrieve the ball and then immediately get back up on their feet in order to launch an attack. This would be practiced over and over again, and it would involve the players falling repeatedly onto their shoulders while they were on the floor.

Although the team put in a significant amount of work in the gym leading up to their victory at the World Championship, the preparation for the Olympic Games was entirely different. It meant working longer hours on the court, beginning at 3 p.m. – after they had finished their clerical work at their company – and sometimes lasting until the wee hours of the morning.

This particular time and place

The Komazawa Gymnasium in the Setagaya Ward of Tokyo was completely packed the day before the Closing Ceremony. The venue had a capacity of four thousand people. Princess Michiko, a member of the Japanese Royal Family, was also present and watched the event from a unique Imperial Box.

As a result of the judoka Anton Geesink’s victory in the open final over the fan favorite KAMINAGA Aki, the level of pressure was increasing prior to the beginning of the match. Now that they had the opportunity, it was up to the Japanese women’s volleyball team to bring back the nation’s pride.

In the matches leading up to the championship, Japan had defeated their competitors with little to no difficulty, losing only one set over the course of the four matches they had played.

It was reported that the streets of Ginza were nearly empty as the late afternoon hours approached in the city that was hosting the event and as salarymen began their journey home. According to the national broadcaster in Japan, NHK, the audience rating for the final that was broadcast on television was greater than 80 percent.

It was a match that, quite literally, brought the country to a standstill!

The first two sets, which Japan won with relative ease, were 15-11 and 15-8, but in the third set, the Soviets began to fight back. Japan won both sets with relative ease. The nation that was playing host held the championship point with a score of 14-8, but the Soviet Union managed to win five points in a row to pull within one point of Japan.

In spite of this, Japan was successful in acquiring gold.

Idogawa, who is now 81 years old, recounted his experience, saying, “The match ended with a foul by a Soviet player, but I didn’t know what happened for a moment.” “After I realized that we had won, I exclaimed, “We won!” Wow’.”

The entire arena had erupted in cheers as the Japanese women’s volleyball team made history by becoming the first nation ever to win an Olympic gold medal in the sport.

The team’s tears of elation and joy summed up what is widely regarded as one of the most memorable sporting moments in the annals of Japanese history.

What happened after that?

The victory in 1964 is still very important to the Japanese people because it helped popularize the sport in the country.

Japan not only went on to win another Olympic gold medal (Montreal 1976), two silver medals (Mexico 1968, Munich 1972), and two bronze medals (Los Angeles 1984, London 2012), but they also became the permanent hosts of the FIVB Volleyball World Cup, which is held every four years.

However, Japan, which is currently ranked seventh in the world, will be looking to return to their glory days and capture the hearts of the nation as they did 56 years ago.

In 2016, NAKADA Kumi, a former Los Angeles 1984 volleyball bronze medalist, told the 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’ve wanted to do my best as Team Japan’s head coach to unite the team with a fighting spirit and aim for a medal.”

ARAKI Erika, captain of Japan’s volleyball team, told Tokyo 2020 earlier this year that the team is aiming for a medal at the Games next year.

“I believe Japan’s tenacity and organizational strength will become its strong points,” she predicted. “I really want to work hard as a team to achieve medals.”

Will the Tokyo 2020 Olympics be another turning point in Japan’s sporting history?