Day 73, June 20 - The Era of Japanese Dominance
“That was the moment I was struck by the important role that ‘sports diplomacy’ could play.”
As the world’s best players are now competing in the Japan Open, today the Countdown looks back at Japan’s debut at the WTTC’s, their dominance in the 1950’s, and the seeds of the connection between table tennis and sports diplomacy.
Despite the fact that Japan first affiliated itself with the ITTF in 1928, the JTTA did not actually participate in the WTTC’s until 1952, when the WTTC’s were held in India. Significantly, it was also the first time the WTTC’s were held in Asia.
Shockingly, the first-timers took four titles: Men’s Singles, Men’s Doubles, Women’s Team, and Women’s Doubles! Hiroji Satoh, who took the Men’s crown, used an extremely thick sponge paddle and caused a huge controversy that wasn’t resolved until 1959.
When the WTTC’s were held in Romania in 1953, Japan did not participate due to Cold War politics.
They returned in 1954. Japan won both the Men’s and Women’s Team events and our future president, Ichiro Ogimura, unseeded, took Men’s Singles at his first appearance at the WTTC’s.
The following year, 1955, the Japanese Men’s Team captured the gold along with the Men’s Singles title.
In 1956, Japan hosted the WTTC’s for the first time. Japan picked up gold in Men’s Singles, Men’s Team and Men’s Doubles.
Growing even more invincible the next year, 1957, Japan swept five titles: the Men’s and Women’s Team events, Men’s and Women’s Singles, plus Mixed Doubles.
At that point, the ITTF decided to play WTTC’s every other year, and when the WTTC’s resumed in 1959, Japan took six of the seven titles: Men’s and Women’s Team, Women’s Singles, and all three Doubles.
Participating in just six of the WTTC’s during the 1950s, Japan had racked up these titles:
5x Men’s Team
4x Women’s Team
5x Men’s Singles
3x Women’s Singles
3x Men’s Doubles
2x Women’s Doubles
2x Mixed Doubles
From having never participated before, the Japanese had amassed 24 world titles in all from 1952 – 1959!
During the same time period, Japan began contributing to the foundation of the connection between table tennis and sports diplomacy. Three side stories illustrate this point.
1954: Hikosuke Tamasu’s Questionnaires Begin
Buoyed by Japan’s dominance, as reflected by their first-ever sweep of both the Men’s and Women’s Team events in 1954, JTTA’s official/Butterfly-founder Hikosuke Tamasu initiated a questionnaire project. For the most part, the seven questions dealt with views about the emergence of the Japanese. Songs of International Friendship, 1993, p. 204)
The second and third rounds of questions were sent out in February and October of 1955. (SOIF, 1993, pp. 204-206)
Beginning with these later rounds, Tamasu sought China’s input. As he recalled later, “I am proud that I was the first Japanese to have contact with table tennis in the People’s Republic of China, and I have developed friendships as a result.” (SOIF, pp. 209 -210)
Tamasu and the Chinese continued to correspond. Tamasu also sent them magazines, photos and a copy of a film Ogimura had made as a university graduation project, “Japanese Table Tennis,” which starred the 1954, 1955, 1956, and 1957 world champions Ichiro Ogimura and Toshiaki Tanaka. (SOIF, pp. 207 – 211, Ogi, p. 160)
Upon reviewing all of the responses, Tamasu noted, “After the questionnaire I now understood the situation in Europe, the birth-place of table tennis, I felt both the will and the method for countering Japan’s forehand attack, sponge racket, and the other special rubbers that Japan had contrived.” (SOIF, p. 214)
He continued, “China was abnormally eager. Their teamwork was to be feared. I was the first Japanese to realize this: I felt at the bottom of my heart that it would not be any easy matter for Japan from then on.” (SOIF, p. 215)
He concluded, “Japan had many talented players. Their fearless attack had both spiritual and technical support. But it was still necessary to establish a good coaching system if we were to think for the ten years ahead.” (SOIF, p. 215)
1955: WTTC’s in Utrecht, Netherlands
Sentiments toward the Japanese, post-WWII, were often still unfavorable, but the following incident made a huge impact. Yoshio Tomita faced Kalman Szepesi, a lefty who “had lost the use of his right hand to childhood polio but had overcome his disability to become the Hungarian champion.” Tomita drove Szepesi far back into the court, causing him eventually to bump into the barriers where the Japanese team was sitting. (Ogi, pp. 158 – 159)
“His momentum caused him to lose his balance, and he toppled over the fence toward the Japanese bench, his body arching backward. As he was unable to move his right hand to regain his balance, the Hungarian appeared certain to crash head-first to the floor. Seeing this, Ogimura, Hasegawa, Tamasu, and Tanaka threw themselves under Szepesi to break his fall. As the Hungarian champion was hauled to his feet by another Japanese player, the Dutch crowd applauded the Japanese team wholeheartedly for the first time.” (Ogi, p. 159)
Upon the team’s return, they paid a courtesy visit to Japan’s Prime Minister Ichiro Hatayama. He said, “I know all about the wonderful results you achieved. That’s nothing special.” Then he referred to the bench incident and remarked, “That is your greatest achievement. As prime minister, that made me happier than anything. I wanted to express thanks to you all for doing it.” (Ogi, pp. 157 – 160)
Shortly afterwards, Ogimura, who had lost his crown in Utrecht to Tanaka, wrote, “That was the moment I was struck by the important role that ‘sports diplomacy’ or ‘private diplomacy’ could play, and that we ourselves were a part of this. This realization gave me another reason for continuing to play table tennis.” (Ogi, p. 160)
The First World’s in Japan: 1956
The following year, Japan hosted the WTTC’s for the first time and it was ITTF President Ivor Montagu’s first trip there as well. His address in the program stated: “Our visit here symbolizes the fact that ‘international’ in the true sense does not mean any one corner of the world. The ‘world’ in the title of a championship … is an instance of a resolve to let no obstacle, even of distance, stand in the way of the contribution of all of us to universal friendship through sport and so, in however modest a degree, to peace among all without exception.” (Ogi, p. 167)
In those days, accordingly, the ITTF still banned raising national flags and playing anthems. And, as a further testimony to the unique character of the ITTF, the Chinese sent a delegation to the event even though the two countries had not yet established diplomatic relations. (Ogi, pp. 166 – 167)
Tomorrow the Countdown will look at the next wave of dominance, as predicted by Hikosuke Tamasu: the Chinese, including the exciting game-changer: PING PONG DIPLOMACY!
Then, just around the corner are another round of interviews with out-going President Adham Sharara and in-coming President Thomas Weikert as well as other key contributors to the ITTF.