The Olympic magic of Japan’s “Oriental Witches”

The largest ever TV audience in Japan was for the Witches of the Orient (東洋の魔女  toyo no majo), a female volleyball team which bewitched the country in 1964. That was the year that Tokyo hosted the Olympic Games – an important milestone on Japan’s journey from defeat to its post-War economic boom. The Witches’ story was told by Professor Helen Macnaughtan at SOAS, part of London University, at an event entitled Sport & Diplomacy. The Professor explained that many Japanese people bought colour television sets so they could watch the Olympics and this helped stimulate the electronics industry and the economy. There was great delight when the volleyball team won a gold medal. However, viewers were not just excited by the sport; they were also intrigued by the relationship between team captain Masae Kasai and her strict coach Hirobumi Daimatsu, known as The Ogre. Professor Macnaughtan said the surviving members of the volleyball team do not mind being remembered as The Witches, as it has become a term of affection and respect. Later, Mama San Volleyball was used to describe the sport’s popularity among women following the games.

When Japan hosts the next Olympics in 2020, one of its goals is to encourage more girls and women to take part in sport, according to the Director General of the Japan Sports Agency, Tetsuya Kimura. He told the meeting at SOAS that inclusion and diversity are key to its success. He showed a photograph of female volleyball players in Cambodia. They were leaping in the air on a patch of ground which had previously been planted with landmines. Volunteers from Japan had helped to clear the mines and then encouraged the local girls to take up the sport. It was a powerful image of the positive impact Japan hopes to achieve through the Olympics. Perhaps the magical influence of The Witches lingers on.

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