On a still, tropical evening in April 1934 the liner Hakone Maru, recently out of Singapore, steamed through the Malacca Strait toward Penang. Passengers mingled in the main lounge and bar after dinner, gossiping, ordering nightcaps, reading, playing cards. But lawn-tennis champion Jiro Satoh, the most celebrated Japanese sportsman of the day, confined himself to his first-class cabin, below. There, dressed in white flannels and the official blazer of his national Davis Cup team, he humbled himself before an improvised shrine. On a small table that served as an altar were a vase holding orchids, photographs of his father and fianc�e, and two burning candles. A bowl of Japanese sweetmeats was placed in the center as an offering. In the background hung the national flag of Japan, the rising sun.
On the muscular shoulders of this small chunky student of Waseda University rested all the hopes of a nation fired with new ambition in world tennis. Not since the days of the tenacious little wizard Zenzo Shimizu in the early '20s had Japan been able to take pride in so gifted a tennis player. In 1932 and 1933 at Wimbledon Satoh had twice reached the semifinals of the men's singles championship. Even in that brilliant period of superlative performers, Satoh had become internationally known as a giant-killer, with victories over such champions as Fred Perry, Jack Crawford, Bunny Austin, Henri Cochet, Sidney Wood and Ellsworth Vines. Now he was bound for Europe to lead Japan against Australia in the second round of the Davis Cup and to make his fourth bid for that most coveted tennis prize, the Wimbledon crown.
Fervent Japanese nationalism, reaching a pitch of hysteria, invested Satoh's task with a responsibility that he felt himself to be incapable of bearing. He knelt ceremoniously in the solitude of his cabin, on this peaceful evening at sea, and prayed not for victory but for forgiveness. The game in his mind was already lost.
It was almost incomprehensible that such a brilliant sportsman should abandon hope in this way. Ostensibly he had every reason to cherish life. He was famous, admired, respected. He was to be married in the spring to Sanaye Okada, a beautiful Japanese girl who was also his mixed doubles partner. At 26 he was approaching the peak of his playing power. Moreover, there had never been a world-class tennis player of more serene temperament or a champion more popular with his rivals.
Imperturbable was the most overworked adjective in any news story about Satoh. He never questioned a decision, not even by a glance at a sideline or baseline, much less by a stare at the umpire. He had no idiosyncrasies, except that he might occasionally make a small bow to acknowledge the skill behind an opponent's winning shot. His sportsmanship was held up as the perfect example to budding young amateurs. Yet, against all reason and in complete contrast with his public image, Jiro Satoh was a deeply disturbed personality.
It was 11:30 p.m. when Satoh's cabinmate Jiro Yamagishi retired to his bunk to find Satoh missing. Two letters placed by the improvised shrine were the only traces of the presence of the captain of Japan's Davis Cup team. One, addressed to the Davis Cup team as a whole, revealed how deeply Satoh was concerned about his health. "I would have been unable to help our team. On the contrary, I would have been a source of trouble and worry to you all. Strive your utmost to do better than I would have done. I pray and believe you will. I shall be with you on the courts in spirit." The other, addressed to the ship's captain, humbly apologized for any inconvenience and embarrassment caused by the writer's contemplated action. The letter left no doubt as to the nature of that action: Satoh was resolved to take his own life.
For the next seven hours the Hakone Maru retraced her course while crew members scanned the sea in the hope that Satoh might not yet have drowned. The search was in vain. Later it was discovered that two heavy iron davit-winding handles were missing; also a skipping rope that the tennis team used for deck training. Satoh, it was presumed, had ensured with dreadful efficiency that his body would plummet to the bottom of the sea.
Eventually a radio message went out from the liner stating that Japan's finest tennis player and national hero was believed to have committed suicide by throwing himself overboard. It added, "On April 6, as the sun set, his friends assembled on deck to pray for his soul."
News of the suicide shocked Japan and stunned the entire tennis world. What terrible soul-searching anxiety could have driven a champion in his prime to the ultimate act of despair? It seemed so utterly out of character. In paying tribute to his skill and sportsmanship, numerous tennis stars remarked on Satoh's essentially happy nature. "He was one of the cheeriest men I have ever known," said Fred Perry. "He had a great sense of humor." "He always gave the impression that he would be the last man on earth to come to such an end," said Bunny Austin. Ryuki Miki, Satoh's successor as cup captain, added that "he loved jokes and making people laugh."
Were they all deceived? It seemed so. The temperamental and impulsive outbursts of other tennis stars at defeat had never been noted in him. On court Jiro Satoh had been the most inscrutable of players, his demeanor so controlled, his countenance so immobile that critics often remarked that it was virtually impossible to guess from his appearance whether he might be winning or losing. It was the same in life.