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Heroines of the Court

Story by Eric Madeen

Having originated from a 12th- and 13th-century French handball game called jeu de paume, tennis has gone on to become one of the world's most popular sports — and perhaps nowhere more popular than in Japan. According to the Japan Tennis Association in Shibuya, Tokyo, there are an estimated ten million tennis players here, and the sport ranks third in popularity behind baseball and soccer. In a country where sea and mountain squeeze habitable valleys and coastal plains, a tennis court, unlike a golf course, can fit neatly atop a roof or in the corner of a park, thus making tennis congruent with Japan's predominantly urban lifestyle.

While both sexes enjoy tennis in Japan, it has always been especially popular among women who, from the Meiji Restoration on, turned to the sport as a means of liberation. Today, stroll down just about any street here and you will inevitably cross paths with a young lady on her way to play tennis, racquet case strung over her shoulder. No doubt she's inspired by the recently retired Kimiko Date and a long list of current women's tennis professionals, including Ai Sugiyama, Naoko Sawamatsu, Nana Miyagi, Rika Hidaki, and Mana Endoh. And no doubt she's influenced, however obliquely, by the pioneering efforts of those foreign women who helped introduce tennis to Japan 120 years ago.

Yamate Hon Dori (Main Street) begins just off of Motomachi, Yokohama's most elegant shopping district — the equivalent of Rodeo Drive. From there Hon Dori skirts French Park. Winds up the bluff. Sidesteps Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery, stately Victorian architecture, mansard-roofed mansions and lush verdancy. All the while the enchanted road lives up to its rumored connection to the slang hunky-dori, meaning: perfectly satisfactory; fine. You see, back in the mean streets of late 19th-century Yokohama, what with xenophobic samurai and drunken pirates and sailors on the prowl, things weren't always hunky-dory in the foreign settlement. But they were once you reached the safety of the populated, gas-lit main street and exclaimed, in relief, Hon Dori!

Hunky-dori? A stretch? Regardless of the etymology's veracity, that — perfectly satisfactory; fine — is still the feeling when you stroll Hon Dori then take, at Yamate Catholic Church and down past Ferris Women's College, a lovely turn of road serving as stunning approach shot to Yamate Park and Japan's oldest tennis club, one that originated back in 1878 as the Ladies' Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club. Over the years the name has changed but what is now Yokohama International Tennis Community is a few hundred members, six clay courts, a modest clubhouse with a handsome new addition, and an oasis of azaleas, camellias, palm, cherry and plum trees — and a sublime stand of Himalayan cedars. These God's trees, as they're known in India, are the children of John Henry Brooke, a foresightful Englishman who edited the Japan Herald until his death in Yokohama in 1902. Brooke imported their seeds from Calcutta some 120 years ago and now, as centurions, they shade the number three court and an old stone court-roller, which serves as memorial stone bearing the club's rich history. Which began out of boredom.

Bluff Tennis

After Japan was opened to trade in the 1850s, foreigners began to settle in Yokohama. The majority of them were men, so it follows that a wonderland of men's clubs were born, including the Yokohama Race Club, the Yokohama Jockey Club, the Swiss Rifle Club, the Yokohama Canoe Club, the Nippon Rowing Club, etc. As for recreation for women, there wasn't much.

In 1870, representatives of Yokohama's foreign community, one Mr. Smith, an Englishman (a.k.a. "Public-Spirited Smith" for his energetic contributions to the foreign community, including his management of the United Club) and one Mr. Benson, an American, leased from the Japanese government 22,000 square meters of land in the Myokoji Temple precincts. There they created Japan's first Western-style park, the Bluff Gardens, harbinger of today's Yamate Park, complete with bridal paths, flower gardens, a music auditorium and expanses of lawn for athletic events of various clubs, including the Cricket Club, Race Club, Boat Club and Racquet Club. The last named was established in 1868 as a place where foreigners, with their tennis equipment brought over from England, practiced a variation of today's tennis (the rules of which were established in 1873 by another Englishman, Major Walter C. Wingfield). As for who specifically introduced tennis to Japan, there is only conflicting speculation.

Odd Man In

Nevertheless, just a year after the first Lawn Tennis Championships were held at the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club at Wimbledon in 1877, the Ladies' Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club was created in Yamate Park, leased for the annual sum of $150. The first president was Briton Mary Wheeler, wife of Dr. Edwin Wheeler, who delivered the foreign newborn in Yokohama. Men were allowed to play only as honorary members, excepting the club gardener and court-maintenance man, Mr. Kamekichi Ishida, who may have been the first Japanese to play the game, accepting the invitation of the ladies when the number of players was odd. It's fitting that Ishida's son Yukio, who assisted his father's labors at the LLT&C where he also learned tennis, went on to win major tournaments in Yokohama.

It wasn't until 1899, though, that foreign men began to join. They soon composed some 50 percent of the membership, which then sold for a pittance but today requires ¥100,000 for foreigners and ¥800,000 for Japanese to enter (after passing an English test, interview, three visits, and securing the signatures of two sponsors). While all members pay monthly dues of ¥8,200, Japanese are required to pay the higher entrance fee since they often join for life, while most foreigners eventually return to their homeland.

A Formal Affair

Back in the heady day of the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the arrival of foreign-flagged vessels in the Port of Yokohama was occasion to throw a welcome party in the flower gardens and host goodwill tennis matches between the club members and crew. To the LLT&CC, by horse and carriage or rickshaw, they came to tennis. But not before packing a picnic basket and donning their finest attire, since tennis, that export of Victorian England, was a formal affair back then.

Women squeezed themselves into the same dresses for tennis as for social gatherings. It's a wonder they could hit the ball under the stricture of bustle, corset, long-sleeved blouses of lace, frills and hard collars, broad scarf and bonnet blooming with feathers, not to mention the little prissy rackets that look borrowed from badminton. Cutting a bello-figuro themselves on the courts, men got themselves up in the Wingfield style: long boots, pressed white slacks, white vest or waistcoat, under a blue swallowtail coat with brass buttons. Then there were the pearl-colored gloves, requisite cravat and dandy silk or derby hat. So extreme was this dress code to certain men of the foreign settlement that one of them felt obliged to lampoon it.

Indelibly associated with Yokohama, the English artist Charles Wirgman was a man of infinite jest, as reads his Shakespearean-inspired epitaph in the Foreign General Cemetery. Of bonhomie and much wit, Wirgman caricatured Victorian men in formal wear on their way to tennis in an 1876 issue of Japan Punch, where he wrote: "This sublime sublunar globular game with nets deserves all the praise lavished on it... if we were allowed to take off our coat and remove our cravat no one would enjoy it more."

Tennis, Everyone!

Meiji Period Japanese were at first baffled by the spectacle of foreign women in Yamate Park hitting balls with baskets, which they confused with imoage-zaru, an implement used for retrieving sweet potatoes from wash water. But it wasn't long before tennis spread throughout Japan. This was helped by the Meiji government, which thought that the bodies of Japanese women were more frail than those of Western women. Tennis seemed the ideal way to strengthen Japanese women so that they could give birth to strong soldiers. Thus, in 1894, came this official dictum to schoolgirls: "The physiques of our nation's women are inferior. Learn from foreign women. Eat more than just sweet potatoes; exercise more. Play lawn tennis, for example."

Since the cost of imported tennis balls and rackets was prohibitive, the Japanese developed their own form of tennis. Played with cheap rackets strung with cow tendon (since sheep gut was hard to come by in Japan) and soft toy rubber balls, nanshiki or "soft tennis" was perfect for any flat schoolyard of elementary and junior high schools throughout rural Japan where the sport was propagated. Japanese schoolgirls were captivated by soft tennis during Meiji but, ironically, not for the purpose of bearing strong soldiers. Tennis was, in short, a means of liberation from the strictures of an educational system designed to mold attentive, submissive wives.

Smashing Stereotypes

Aside from Japan's 1921 Men's Davis Cup team who reached the finals in both singles and doubles in New York, and more recently Shuzo Matsuoka who made it to the final eight in the 1996 Wimbledon, the sport has been dominated by Japanese women. And some of them in particular stand out in Japan's sexual discrimination skirmishes. There's Raicho Hiratsuka (1886-1971), Kikue Yamakawa (1890-1980) and Fusae Ichikawa (1873-1981). All were fanatic players of soft tennis in their school days.

Regarding her third year of girls' high school, Raicho Hiratsuka wrote in her autobiography: "Reacting against the kind of education that separated boys from girls and taught us to be obedient as befitted our gender, I became passionate about tennis in my third year. Losing at tennis was somehow mortifying, so whenever I had time I would go into our garden and hit tennis balls against our sliding door. I was quite slender and didn't have much strength, so to compensate I learned how to slice the ball and do other tricks. As I practiced, my skinny arms gradually grew strong."

In 1911, Hiratsuka founded Seito (Bluestocking), in which she introduced her manifesto entitled Genshi josei wa taiyo de atta (In the Beginning Woman Was the Sun). "The new woman wants to smash this old moral code that has been created for the convenience of men," she wrote. "I am a new woman."

More Than a Game

Fusai Ichikawa went on to become a leader of the women's suffrage movement in Japan as well as a popular member of the postwar parliament. One of her old rackets is now on display at the memorial hall of the League of Women Voters of Japan.

As the Meiji Period ended, girls were increasingly drawn to tennis and its connotations of a new age and way of life. Playing tennis also illustrated a dissatisfaction with the old, paternal institutions. Soft tennis' popularity over lawn tennis continued on after World War II, then began to ebb when the Crown Prince (now the Emperor) met his commoner bride, Michiko, on the tennis court. This mesmerized the Japanese public, as did her spirited play against him.

In closing, tennis originated in the foreign settlements in Japan then spread throughout the country, growing in parallel with democracy. That Japanese women tennis players today are much more competitive at the professional level than their male counterparts is not only fitting, but also hunky-dory.


This article first appeared in Wingspan, the inflight magazine of All Nippon Airways.