Death En Route to Wimbledon

Jiro Satoh, the best tennis player Japan ever produced, found winning to preserve national honor too great a burden
August 29, 1971

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 fiancée, 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.

To understand the circumstances which led up to Satoh's death, one must know something of the strange times in which he lived and played. In the '30s, tennis was booming in Japan—new clubs were springing up all over the country, professional tours drawing record crowds. Yet, less than a generation before, most Japanese had never seen a standard tennis ball; they only knew the type known as "spaldeens" to American kids, balls of soft, uncovered rubber which needed to be hit hard and with exceptional spin to be controlled. As a result, Japan's tennis players developed an exaggerated Western grip and a looping lifted drive; even such champions as Shimizu and Takeichi Harada were influenced by their boyhood use of the plain rubber ball. But Satoh belonged to the new school, whose technique was properly based on methods practiced abroad.

In 1931, on his first invasion of Europe, he reached the semifinals of the French championships, surrendering only after five hard sets to the eventual champion, Borotra. At his first Wimbledon he reached the quarterfinals before losing to the Bounding Basque again, and subsequently he created a record by winning a dozen lesser English tournaments in one season.

The unseeded young Japanese was the only man in the 1932 Wimbledon to progress to the quarterfinals without losing a set. In a fascinating clash of Japanese guile and American aggression, he then achieved a sensational four-set victory over the reigning champion. Sidney Wood. Satoh slumped badly in his semifinal against Austin, but two months later he avenged that defeat in the U.S. Pacific Southwest Championships by conquering Californian Ellsworth Vines, whose 128-mph cannonball service was being hailed as the most terrifying weapon in tennis history.

Satoh had won worldwide respect for Japanese tennis and made its Davis Cup team a force to be feared just as Japan was becoming recognized as a great military power. National prestige was never more fondly cherished, and men like Satoh, equipped to conquer in sport abroad, were never allowed to forget their enormous responsibility to the Emperor.

Satoh was essentially a sportsman, caring nothing for the political ambitions of the warlords, but he loved Japan with a deep-felt devotion, and in 1933 he tried again to make his country the world's leading tennis power. He abandoned his studies, and left on a world tour for the third year in succession. He beat Perry in the French championships, and again reached the Wimbledon "last four." The subsequent enthusiasm in Japan reflected the intensity and strangeness of the times there: Japan was promised a national holiday if Jiro Satoh became Wimbledon champion. That seemed to be probable even outside Japan. Each year he had grown stronger. He was now ranked third in the world, and no one in the game could be confident of surviving against him.

One person, however, was wholly pessimistic in the midst of all this hysterical optimism, and that was Satoh himself. At Forest Hills the year before he had been off form, losing in the fourth round to the American, Gregory Mangin. Then, after his exhausting world tour, he tried to rest from tennis in 1934. He wanted an interlude of private life, to concentrate on his economics studies, and spend more time with his fiancée and his family. But the Japanese Lawn Tennis Association told him that his first duty was to his country and the Davis Cup team. Moreover, his bride-to-be was persuaded to support their firm attitude; she agreed that tennis should take priority.

So, with extreme reluctance, Satoh sailed on the Hakone Maru to Europe. On the way to Singapore the sea was calm, but it rained incessantly and the atmosphere was oppressive. Jiro Satoh had no appetite, complained of stomach pains and kept to his cabin—unsociable behavior for a Davis Cup captain who was also the ranking celebrity aboard. As the ship neared Singapore he was adamant that he could not go on. His teammates tried to dissuade him, but he insisted that if he did continue he would never be fit to play. It was best, he reasoned, that he should rest in Singapore and then follow in a second ship if his health improved.

Ashore, Satoh had a medical examination. The doctor certified that he could find no evidence of organic disorder and diagnosed the trouble as stomach cramps of purely nervous origin. Meanwhile, his colleagues played a friendly match and Satoh joined them at a reception afterwards. There the Japanese consul, backed up by prominent Japanese residents of Singapore, pressed him to remain with the cup squad. That same day a cable arrived from the Japanese Lawn Tennis Association insisting he complete the voyage as scheduled. Next morning the ship sailed for Penang with Satoh on board. Before midnight he was dead.

Why did Satoh commit suicide? The official view was that he was overcome by nervous depression through concern at his loss of form. Inevitably, however, the tragedy laid the Japanese Lawn Tennis Association itself wide open to charges of unreasonably pressuring their star player.

Satoh's fiancée Sanaye Okada was interviewed, and said that Satoh hoped not to go on after the Singapore stay. She was quoted as saying: "I believe Jiro committed suicide solely from a sense of responsibility after he had acceded to the tennis association's urgings to proceed to Europe, even when he wanted to return from Singapore. To the end of my life I shall regret that it was the order of the Japanese Lawn Tennis Association that resulted in his death. Jiro was a man of honor and he played every time for the honor of Japan...."

But was tennis really the reason? One piece of evidence contradicts the view that the association was to blame. There is another theory that Satoh's nervous breakdown arose principally out of a dilemma of family honor and that his Davis Cup duties were merely a contributing factor. This dilemma can be traced back to New Year's Eve 1933, when he proposed marriage to Miss Okada. She accepted, and they were to be married in the spring of 1935 after he had completed his tennis tour and graduated at Waseda University. But they faced a serious obstacle. She was an only child and, according to Japanese custom, her husband would have to take her name in marriage so that the Okada line might be preserved. Many of Satoh's relatives, equally proud of their own name, strongly objected to such a change. Satoh himself had no such objection and often joked about it to his friends. But with his acute sense of honor, one cannot accept that Satoh took the opposition of his relatives lightly. Amid all the speculation following his suicide, one pointed question remained unanswered. Could it not be that he had found himself confronted with an impossible choice—that of either offending his own family or ending his betrothal? Either way he faced dishonor. Either action, for a man of such disciplined upbringing and high principles, could have been unthinkable.

Whatever the cause, Satoh's disappearance over the ship's side into the Strait of Malacca that April night in 1934 robbed Japan of the greatest tennis player that country has yet produced. Never again has Japan had a competitor in the "last eight" of Wimbledon, much less the semifinals; never since that day has she been a Davis Cup power.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)