After World War II, Japan had to rebuild its society, economy and, most of all, its image and national identity.
Thanks to the bonds with (imposed by, actually. Uncle Sam couldn’t let another big country end up under the communist influence) the United States, the Asian archipelago became the second economy in the world in just few decades. And sports are always an important, global showcase.
Tokyo obtained 1940 Olympics, obviously not held, and, as aggressor in WWII, lost the organization of 1948 edition. The special event will finally occur in 1964 and Japan, being the host, had the chance to add a new sport to the competition. They chose judo, sure to excel.
Their best judoka was Akio Kaminaga,who will play the final with the Dutch Anton Geesink. Problem is, Geesink is 20 cm taller 20 kg heavier than Kaminaga, plus he is technical too. The Japanese defeat in judo in the 1964 Olympics final is a (sport) dishonor only comparable to Brazil 1950 World Cup. Kaminaga is controlled by friends and relatives to avoid his possible suicide, as two other Japanese athletes killed themselves. Even if Bushido was no longer in force since two centuries.
Where the single failed (if we consider failure a second place…), the collective lifted the national spirit, solving the physical lack with an unseen organization. We are talking about female volley, another sport at its first Olympic appearance. Japan was already 1962 world champion – and they will win again – but the Olympics have a major resonance. And they take place at home.
The mastermind behind the triumph is Hirofumi Daimatsu, called “demon”, his disciples are the “Tōyō no Majo”, the “Witches of the Orient”. They are actually factory workers, not professional, therefore, to put together the best team possible, there is an accurate selection in every facility of the country. The chosen ones are put together in the same industrial complex, near Osaka, where they will become a real group.
There’s a reason why Daimatsu is called demon, and it’s about his methods. From 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. the girls work, from 3 p.m. to midnight they train in the gym – apparently labor unions weren’t that strong. On Sundays no work, so they just focused on training. Resting wasn’t an option.
Something similar happened in North Korea before 1966 football World Cup, when the national team defeated Italy 1-0 and scored three times against Portugal, then Eusebio remembered to be one of the best players ever and the match ended 5-3 for Portugal.
Many parts of Asia have a strong Shintoist and Confucian heritage, which left a high sense of collective above the individual. Communist regimes, although atheist, will take advantage of this mindset.
So, no private life, but the Witches of the Orient will score more than 250 victories in a row (or so the legend goes). The Olympic final against the Soviet Union is so important in Japan that two out of three people watched it on television.
In 2011 there’s a situation with some similarities. First one: Japan is qualified to the women football World Cup in Germany and the sport managers see that participation as an opportunity to “recruit” more players in a, until then, not so popular discipline (among women). Every Sunday the multinational Nestlé broadcasts football tutorials, in the commercial pauses between one anime and another.
Second and most important similarity: the need of national unity in a dramatic event. In 1964 Japan was still recovering from World War II, now there’s the Fukushima tragedy. A nuclear disaster in march 2011, caused by a violent tsunami, costs almost 20 thousand lives, not considering the long term effects of the radiations.
In the meanwhile, the national team has to prepare the World Cup, with this particular mood. Two players were TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) employees, the company that owned the Fukushima plant.
The girls are amateur – basically like any woman in football, things are (too) slowly evolving – but not that bad: they arrived third in the Asian championship. Until then, though, only three teams won the five world cup editions, Germany and the United States twice, Norway once.
The Japanese players are called yamato nadeshiko, literally “pink carnation”, a traditional symbol of female beauty. The name dates back to the XI century, when Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting, wrote Genji Monogatari (“Genji tales”), considered the first modern and psychological novel. The term nadeshiko was also used by the national rhetoric of WWII, to indicate the wives of the soldiers. Now it’s another story and the name needed to be reclaimed.
Japan wins the first two tournament matches against New Zealand and Mexico, so the loss with England doesn’t hurt much. Quarter-finals are against Germany, home team and defending champions. Japan resists 0-0 and scores in extra time, gaining the final four. In the semifinals it’s an “easy” 3-1 to Sweden, the last game is against the USA, among the spectators, an exceptional one: Yoichi Takashi, creator of the worldwide popular anime Captain Tsubasa.
The Americans go ahead twice, the Japanese are strong enough to equalize each time in the final minutes with Miyama (81′) and Sawa at the end of extra time (117′) and they win after penalty kicks. Homare Sawa will be awarded with the Golden Ball 2012 and, at the ceremony, will outshine Lionel Messi with a spectacular kimono.
Japan had been the only Asian national football team, male or female, to win an intercontinental competition (so far), pride of a country that wanted to include the nadeshiko among the reasons that permitted to overcome a drama like Fukushima. One step below the imperial family, no need to mention it.
These 1964 and 2011 victories are two sport achievements which stem from gender and equality issues but, at the same time, go beyond them, for a redemption that spread all over the country.
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