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 Diamatsu. Diamatsu, 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 Diamatsu: "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 Diamatsu 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.
Diamatsu signals, and in rapid rotation the girls charge toward the net, crisscrossing from their respective corners. With the ball girl feeding him swiftly, silently, Diamatsu 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.