A version of this article appeared in print on November 14, 2010, on page SP7 of the New York edition.
TOKYO — When Yoshie Takeshita of Japan goes up to block spikers 40 centimeters taller than her, she is lifted by an arena full of fans chanting her name and a banner in Japanese telling her, “159 cm is awesome.”
Not known for producing tall women, Japan, which is hosting the women’s world volleyball championships for the second time in a row, is leaping above other nations, at least in terms of media coverage and fan support. It is not only because Japan will face top-ranked Brazil in the semifinal Saturday in Tokyo, after the Olympic silver medalist, the United States, takes on Russia, which won the 2006 worlds in Osaka, Japan, thanks to its 202-centimeter, or 6 foot 7 inch, spiker, Ekaterina Gamova.
In a country where most students play volleyball in junior and senior high school, Japan has figured out how to mass-market a sport that, though played by millions around the world, rarely garners the global media attention showered on soccer and basketball. “It’s popular in Japan because the mass media get behind it,” says Takeshita, 32, a crafty setter known for her leaping ability and speedy saves. “People see it on TV, so they want to come out to see it in person. This helps us as a team, because the fans give us energy on the court.”
“It’s because the media are creating a big fan base for us,” says the top Japanese scorer, the 185-centimeter-tall Saori Kimura, a shy 24-year-old who is one of Japan’s most recognizable athletes, thanks to the extensive media coverage she receives here. “We’re very pleased about our play. Our goal is to win a medal, and now we have a chance.”
For two weeks, TBS, one of the country’s largest networks, has been broadcasting Japan’s games in prime time, going head-to-head with the Nippon Series, the finals of the professional baseball league. In addition to selling ad time, TBS also profits from hawking cookies and cakes at ¥1,000, or $12; ¥2,500 T-shirts with the official mascot, Boonus, saying, “I love volley-boo”; and thousands of ¥300 gold sticklike balloons that fans clap in unison. While attendance is much lower for daytime games, every Japan match at night is a well-choreographed production, featuring pep rallies, ritualized chants and hand motions, and a gushy theme song by the teen idol band Exile, whose good-looking members are TBS courtside “reporters.”
The hype is working, drawing about 11,000 fans per night who pay ¥3,000 for Japan’s games at the Yoyogi National Stadium in the Shibuya area, which is popular with Japanese youths. National Stadium will play host to the final on Sunday. “I’m here to cheer because I played the sport in high school,” says Masashi Imoto, a young man banging a drum during Japan’s second-round victory Tuesday over its rival South Korea. “It’s the same for most fans here. We played volleyball in school, so we love watching it on TV or in the stands.”
Andre Meyer, vice president of volleyball’s governing body, Fédération Internationale de Volleyball, says Japanese networks have long been “engaged” in staging events in Japan, including the women’s world championships in 1998, 2006 and 2010, and the World Cup for men and women every four years since 1977. “No federation has the financing power of a big network like TBS,” Meyer said Wednesday in Tokyo. “Brazil is the strongest team in the world, but even the federation president of Brazil says they cannot afford to have such a competition.”
While Italy and Poland will host the next world championships, Meyer says the F.I.V.B. is investing in building the game at the grass-roots level in countries like Costa Rica and Kenya, which was a fan favorite in Japan despite losing all its matches. With millions of tall women, basketball-crazed China is another hotbed of growth. “Volleyball is becoming very popular in China,” says Wang Yimei, a hard-hitting 190-centimeter-tall spiker from Liaoning who at age 22 could help China recapture the world title, which it won in 1982 and 1986. “We have a lot of good young players in China, and I think this event is having an impact on them.”
China, No. 3 in the world, finished the first two rounds with a disappointing record of three wins and four losses. South Korea also boasts a budding superstar, the 192-centimeter spiker Kim Yeon-koung, 22, who plays in the Japanese professional league, where teams sponsored by companies like Pioneer, NEC and Japan Tobacco pack arenas. Thailand, which did not even qualify for a match on the world stage until 2002, upset the Netherlands, which features Manon Flier, one of the world’s top players. Thailand finished 2-5 and did not advance to the final rounds this weekend.
On Saturday, the New Zealand-born Hugh McCutcheon, who coached the U.S. men’s team to Beijing Olympic gold, will lead the U.S. women, who have never won a major event, against an undefeated Russian team that overpowered Japan in their second-round match Wednesday. Though Japan has won no major titles recently, its women’s team beat Russia in Moscow to win the 1962 worlds, and then won the Olympics in Tokyo in 1964, the worlds in Tokyo in 1967 and Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1974, and the Olympics in Montreal in 1976.
Japan will face Brazil on Saturday. Brazil’s explosive and telegenic attackers, like Jaqueline Carvalho and Sheilla Castro, ignited a carnival atmosphere for drum-beating, samba-dancing crowds of about 5,000 fans during their opening-round matches in Hamamatsu, home to about 20,000 Brazilians. “We are very short compared to the other top teams in the world. It’s very difficult to block teams like Russia that are very tall,” says Japan coach Masayoshi Manabe. “We have to work a lot harder on our defense and the precision of our play d churing the game. We are very focused.”