Driven Beyond Dignity

by Eric Whitehead

Sports Illustrated Vault, March 16, 1964

A practice session of Japan’s world champion women’s volleyball team is thrown open, for the first time, to a non-Oriental newsman—who is chilled by the fanatical striving that he witnesses.

Just minutes out of Tokyo on the 7 a.m. flight, the great white cone of Fujiyama slides majestically past the starboard wing and then dims in the distance as you drum southward toward Osaka. In Osaka barely an hour later, you hire a cab for the drive to the neighboring town of Kaizuka—a two-hour journey to what will prove to be a profoundly shocking experience.

I had come to see the sensational Nichibo Kaizuka women’s volleyball team: world champions, winner of 137 consecutive contests since 1960 and the favorite to retain its upstart mastery over the powerful Communist bloc—long the hotbed of world volleyball—at October’s Tokyo Olympics.

Wildly acclaimed in packed arenas from Warsaw to Tokyo and now hailed as the new idols of Japanese sport, the girls are nicknamed the Kaizuka Amazons. The name does not remotely prepare you for what you find when you drive through the gates of Kaizuka’s huge Dai Nippon spinning mill, where the Amazons work and play.

Whisked to a cluttered reception room jammed with souvenirs and trophies, I met the coach, Hirofumi Daimatsu. Daimatsu, 43, is a short, lean, muscular man with a shaggy crew cut over cold features. Talking softly through an interpreter, he told about his team.

His 16 volleyballers are the pick of 1,242 girls employed in the Dai Nippon mill in Kaizuka. They live here with the other girls in the austere company dorms, work in the company office, average $50 per month take-home pay after board. They rise each weekday at 7, work from 8 until 3:30, change and are in the company gym by 4. There they practice nonstop until midnight, six days a week, 51 weeks a year—barring road time on competitive tours, when things get, if anything, a little tougher. On the seventh day, Sunday, the office is closed, and practice sessions are even longer.

Except for a one-week break around Eastertime, this is the routine, year in and year out. Says Coach Daimatsu: “There is time for nothing else. The players know absolutely no other life. They do it because they choose to. The preparation for winning is a personal, individual challenge. It is accepted without question.”

Ah, but then, I said to myself, it’s only volleyball, played by girls.

So I had lunch, toured this vast, ultramodern textile plant, and then promptly at 4 adjourned to the gymnasium. It is a bleak, chill, poorly lit building heated by three small charcoal pots. The girls are already on the floor. They are big, strong, rangy, averaging around 5 feet 7. Their fingers are heavily taped and they wear knee and elbow pads. Engaged now in a playful, boisterous scrimmage, they move the ball with an astonishing acrobatic dexterity and slam it across the net with a jarring power, screaming in shrill unison at every “kill.”

The scrimmage switches to a warmup drill in which an assistant drives them through a grueling, nonstop half hour of dives, rolls and tumbles. Then Daimatsu takes over. He mounts a platform at center net, flanked by a huge wire basket filled with balls, tended by a girl assistant. The squad queues in separate lines at opposite ends of the gym’s rear wall, facing the net.

Daimatsu signals, and in rapid rotation the girls charge toward the net, crisscrossing from their respective corners. With the ball girl feeding him swiftly, silently, Daimatsu swings his fist in a swift, rhythmic motion, slamming the balls first to one side and then the other as the girls come charging in. The balls are aimed deliberately short so that the girls must hurl themselves headlong in a desperate, often futile attempt to retrieve and keep them in the air. They land jarringly on their chests and shoulders, then roll out and recover with a sprawling, judolike somersault.

As each girl recovers, she dashes back to the wall to charge in immediately for the next retrieve, sometimes as many as six times before the next girl comes hurtling in.

An hour of this and the girls are sweat-sodden, soiled and gasping with the exertion. After two hours Daimatsu, expressionless, his arm still swinging like a piston, closes the range. He now imparts a vicious spin to the ball. A heavy-set girl lumbers in, overcharges, slams onto her shoulder and grimaces in pain as she hobbles drunkenly back to the wall, where she bends in agony. Daimatsu, his motion unbroken, is now gibing softly.

“If you’d rather be home with your mother, then go. We don’t want you here.”

Another girl hurtles to the floor, goes sprawling across the court and hits an ankle against an iron bench with a sickening crack. She is sobbing as she limps back to the wall.

“There’s a South Korean team in town. If this is too tough for you, maybe you should go and play with them,” says Daimatsu.

It is 7 o’clock now and the girls’ supper is wheeled in in metal urns: rice, meat and fish. Daimatsu ignores it and quickens the pace. His grim, wild-eyed intensity is frightening. His face is still a mask, but it is strained and beaded with sweat. Now many of the girls are openly sobbing, their faces distorted with the agony of effort and the physical punishment. But they keep staggering in, and the food sits for half an hour before Daimatsu gives a curt signal and the first-team girls—always the first to eat—go to the urns. The others shift to a brisk scrimmage as Daimatsu goes to the sidelines for his own meal, which is served to him by a ball girl. As he dines he is even more chilling to observe, for now one seems to see in him the cool arrogance of a despot.

After 10 minutes the first team is back on the floor with Daimatsu, who has left his supper half-eaten. The second-stringers now sit down to the rest of the cold food. Minutes later they too are back. At 10 o’clock—they have been practicing six hours now—they switch to what I was told is a drill to “test the spirit as well as the body.”

In this drill girls are singled out and subjected to a merciless bombardment aimed purposely, diabolically, well out of reach. This goes on until each lurching, sobbing girl is utterly exhausted, plainly driven to the absolute maximum.

It is now midnight, eight hours gone, and it should be all over, but one girl, the weeping wretch who cracked her ankle, has displeased Daimatsu. She is called out and now defends herself desperately with forearms and elbows as he shells her again and again and yet again from close range.

At 9 a.m. the next morning, barely eight hours after the girls had staggered back to their dorms, I visited the mill office and, incredibly, they were already at work. Dressed in neat blue smocks, they have been here as usual since 8, demurely fingering the abacus board, filing, answering the telephone. Daimatsu sits nearby at his office manager’s desk, engrossed in accounts. That these serene young women are one and the same with the wild-eyed creatures I had seen just a few hours ago brutalizing themselves almost beyond human dignity seemed truly unbelievable.

Not quite all of them are here. It is explained that four are at the mill hospital getting treatment. They are expected back at work by noon and, of course, in the gym at 4, with the others.

The team’s captain, tall, graceful Masae Kasai, smiles shyly from her desk. Little stories like hers tell the big one. Two years ago, at age 28, Masae was in love and engaged to a young man from Osaka. She had a choice: marriage and a home, or a continuation of the daily torture under Hirofumi Daimatsu. She chose the latter, for at the 1964 Olympics the glory of Japan will flicker again, and glory is everything.

Perhaps Masae had said it all the previous night when I asked her about the team’s chances at the Olympics.

“You must understand,” she said gravely. “We have never experienced defeat. We must win.”

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