Corporal punishment still has some support in Japanese sports, despite deaths; will the culture catch up to the law?
By Matt Rogers published on 18 October 2013
In January 2013, the world learned of the physical and mental abuse suffered by 15 female judoka under the watch of the Japanese Olympic women's head coach Ryuji Sonoda. The revelations came just a month after the suicide of a 17-year old high-school basketball captain in Osaka who was punished during training by his coach the day before.
Such incidents at different levels of Japanese sports have led to concern amongst the Japanese public and government about the athlete’s welfare and whether training methods are too strict. Proponents say that corporal punishment in educational or sporting settings are necessary to develop discipline and strength, however a growing body of international and domestic law outlaw the practice, especially when it comes to children.
This article will focus on the judo scandal and other difficulties the sport has faced in 2013. The use of corporal punishment in Japanese sport will also be analysed to determine whether such methods have a place in training athletes of any level.
The Japanese martial art of Judo was created in 1882 and was introduced as an Olympic sport at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. Judo translates as “the gentle way” or “the way of gentleness” and requires both physical and mental skill to defeat an opponent. Judo in Japan is governed by the All Japan Judo Federation (AJJF) which oversees the training and instructing of judoka to promote judo.. The AJJF is funded partly by the Japanese Sports Council (JSC) and the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) and partly by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), the Japanese governmental department that aims, amongst other things, to promote sport and enhance the performances of top-level athletes in Japan.1
Japanese female judo athletes abused
At the 2012 London Olympics Japan`s Judo team won seven medals of which only one was gold, earned by female judoka Kaori Matsumoto. The male team failed to win a gold medal for the first time since the introduction of judo to the Games in 1964. The Japanese judo squad was expected to win gold in half of the fourteen events that took place after winning four gold medals in the Beijing Games and eight in Athens. Men`s judo coach Shinichi Shinohara was openly critical of the judoka and stated that the main reason why the male athletes underperformed was due to a lack of mental strength. The substandard performances of the female judoka, may likely be attributable to the team's troubled preparation prior to the Games after reports surfaced about abuse of the female athletes during training camps.
In December 2012 the Japan Olympic Committee (JOC) received a letter from 15 female judo athletes exposing Sonoda`s coaching methods which included `slapping` and` kicking` the athletes, and in extreme circumstances hitting them with bamboo sticks. Sonoda and his staff were also accused of verbally abusing those athletes who were not performing.
In January 2013, during an investigation by the JOC (where only Sonoda and a few of the judo athletes were interviewed), Sonoda admitted to physically punishing the athletes whose names and details were kept private. Sonoda was subsequently reprimanded privately by the AJJF. The media soon learned of the situation and pressure began to mount on the AJJF and JOC to take further action. Sonoda resigned as head coach shortly after but faced no criminal charges. The resignation of Sonoda and potential further spotlight on Japanese judo may have been the main contributing factors in criminal charges not being proceeded with.
The abuse of athletes had not occurred overnight according to former Olympian Kaori Yamaguchi who informed that it was happening for four years.2 The AJJF first learned of Sonoda’s actions back in September 2012 when one female athlete complained of ill-treatment by Ryuji Sonoda. Yamaguchi, who retired from competitive judo in 1989 following a very successful career is a respected figure in Japanese judo and , acted as an adviser for the athletes after hearing of the situation and informed top officials at the AJJF requesting a proper investigation in the process.3 At the time the AJJF were reviewing Japan`s Olympic judo performance and the all-male federation opted to issue Sonoda with a stern warning rather than carry out a full investigation after the review was complete.
Shortly after the warning was given the AJJF met with the athletes and apologised but this proved to be futile as just a month later Sonoda credited his strict coaching methods as the reason for the win by a female judokain a later bout.4 The AJJF`s belief in his coaching methods and their confirmation in November 2012 that Sonoda would remain in his role following the Olympics prompted the athletes to report their allegations to the JOC.
Following Sonoda’s resignation the Japanese sports minister for MEXT, Hakubun Shimonura, described the abuse case as the “gravest crisis in Japan’s sporting history”5 and asked the JOC to conduct a fresh investigation of the incident. JOC president Takeda Tsunekazu concurred and also announced a national campaign against abuse in Japanese sport by creating an external commission with the objective of investigating coaching behaviour in judo as well as other sports.6 Following an investigation by the JOC into the physical abuse it was found that serious misconduct had occurred and consequently the AJJF’s funding for team development was cut.7
Is physical abuse approved of?
The approach of the AJJF and the JOC to the situation has been criticized by former teacher and social commentator Naoki Ogi who suggests the organisations colluded and coordinated their responses to the scandal.8 He added that the JOC should have launched its own investigation well before January 2013and that corporal punishment is the product of poor coaching techniques. Academic researcher Aaron Miller went further by questioning the role of Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). He believes that where a Japanese sports coach is under investigation by MEXT for physical abuse; if the individual admits to their actions they have a six out of ten chance of avoiding punishment by the governing body.9 Reflecting on this statistic Miller suggests MEXT may therefore approve of corporal punishment as the correct way to guide Japan’s youth.
One example of the government’s indifferent approach to corporal punishment is seen in the case of Hiroshi Totsuka. Totsuka spent only four years in prison for manslaughter after four students committed suicide whilst attending his rehabilitative yacht club for problematic children during the 1980’s. The Nagoya High Court’s major issue was deciding whether corporal punishment was violence or education and on overruling a lower court’s judgement, it was held that Totsuka’s violent training methods had neglected human rights and had nothing to do with education.10 Activities at the yacht club continued and on his release in 2006, Totsuka told the media: “‘taibatsu wa kyōiku”: ‘corporal punishment is education’. In 2009, Totsuka’s educational policies came under scrutiny once more after an 18-year-old student committed suicide after arriving at the school just three days earlier. This time the local police authorities decided that the incident was suicide after the female had told a friend she wished to die.11
Following the revelations regarding Sonoda and his subsequent resignation, the issue of corporal punishment or taibatsu, a term used in Japan to describe corporal punishment in sport and educational settings, , was raised again. In December 2012, the 17 year old captain of a high school basketball team committed suicide after being physically abused by his coach during practice the day before.12 This led to a public debate about the use of physical abuse and corporal punishment in sports and education in Japan. The basketball coach, identified as Hajime Komura, has now been sentenced to one year in prison for his actions.13 In 2007, 17-year-old sumo trainee Takashi Saito died after being beaten with beer bottles and a baseball bat by his coach and other wrestlers at his stable. His coach Junichi Yamamoto was sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter.
Corporal punishment is illegal under Article 11 of the Education Law 1947 14 but a ruling by the Tokyo High Court in 1981 suggested this provision did not prohibit all physical punishment15 with the circumstances of each case determinative of the outcome.16 Furthermore there is no criminal penalty for corporal punishment unless death or severe injury occurs, as seen in the Takashi Saito case.
Lee Thompson, a professor of sports sociology at Tokyo’s Waseda University, believes the authoritarian culture within Japanese sports allows coaches to beat their athletes in the name of training and in order to strengthen the character of the individual athlete.17 This view echoes the information provided by the 15 female judoka who, in their statement following Sonoda’s resignation, revealed “the abuse was done in the name of coaching, but in reality it was far from being “coaching”.18
Academic researcher Aaron Miller believes coaches see corporal punishment as beneficial for the “chosen pupil” in pursuit of maximizing their potential. The pupil will then act as an example to his teammates of how to act and behave after receiving the punishment in such adverse circumstances.
Retired judoka and Olympic silver medalist Noriko Mizoguchi stated in an article in The Independent: "There is a huge gap between teacher and student.” “There is very little two-way communication – athletes just do as they're told. If there's a problem, they can't challenge him."19
In February 2013, the JOC conducted a survey of over 3,000 certified top-level athletes to discover how many had suffered abuse from their coaches. Approximately half of the surveys were returned and in March 2013 the results were released. Two hundred and six athletes, or 11.5%, said they had been victims of abuse by an authority figure. Twenty of those athletes required medical treatment.20 Out of a survey of 3000 coaches from sports member organizations across Japan, 3% of those who responded admitted to harassing their players.21 The figures only represent the views of top-level athletes, however, and in so doing omits the many other lower-level athletes who may be subject to abuse daily.
However in May 2013, a survey by Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun showed that around 60% of Japanese university athletes think corporal punishment is acceptable during school athletic programs.22 Five hundred and ten students took part in the survey and further results indicated that 60% of athletes said that punishment helped them to become more serious and 62% believed violent punishment was acceptable where there was a strong relationship between students and coaches. The study acts as a deterrent to the Japanese government who are trying to eradicate physical punishment as a method of training.
Is corporal punishment breaching an athlete's human rights?
A further underlying issue regarding the use of corporal punishment on an athlete is the breach of their human rights. As a Member State of the United Nations (UN) Japan has a responsibility to ensure that events in their country do not breach the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 194723 and other international human rights treaties including the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In October 2012 Japan submitted a report under Article 40 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which requires Member States to show the measures they have adopted in giving effect to the rights for the period through January 2007 to September 2011. In the report, the number of human rights infringement cases in Japan concerning corporal punishment handled by the Human Rights Organs (HRO) of the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) in 2010 was 337, an increase from 268 in 2009 and 198 in 2008.24 The Japanese government may come under pressure from the UN and the international community to address the situation should the number of corporal punishment cases continue to increase. In addition to international laws banning corporal punishment, there is also a “Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children.”
Is reform possible in Judo?
Following the physical abuse of the 15 female judoka, the athletes sought reform of the AJJF stating that the whole organisation was responsible for their maltreatment, not just Sonoda. Before discussions of possible reform could be discussed however, judo in Japan was hit by a series of events further damaging the image of the sport. The day after Sonoda’s resignation, two-time former Olympic judo champion Masato Uchishiba was found guilty of rape and was given a five-year prison sentence.
In March 2013, the AJJF was accused of misappropriating funds given by the governmental department Japan Sports Council (JSC). The JSC gave ¥36.2m (£240,000/$371,000/€281,000) in supportive funds to 27 unqualified AJJF coaches of which a large proportion was then donated to the AJJF by the coaches. An investigation confirming the accusations showed that the coaches were still receiving the money during periods they did not work with the athletes and as unqualified coaches they should not have been receiving such sizeable amounts.
In May 2013, another incident led to the director of the AJJF Jiro Fukuda, to resign after allegations arose accusing him of making sexual advances towards a top female judoka in December 2011. The allegation was raised by former judoka Noriko Mizoguchi on behalf of the victim and after a special team was launched to investigate the accusations, Fukuda offered his resignation.
In June 2013, International Judo Federation (IJF) president Marius Vizer warned Japan to ‘clean up’ Japanese judo and start with new reforms and developments in light of the events that rocked the sport.25 The IJF expect the AJJF to submit a report by October 15, 2013.
The AJJF has now undergone some major changes following the different scandals. Twenty-three directors of the AJJF, including the president, resigned at an extraordinary board of directors meeting in July 2013. President Haruki Uemura stepped down despite saying in June he wanted to oversee all of the necessary reforms. Last month Shoji Muneoka was appointed the new president of the AJJF as the organisation looks to rebuild its image following the scandals.
Reform of training methods in Japanese sport may take time as such practices are ingrained in the country's culture. Author Robert Whiting believes reform will be difficult as the practices are too entrenched in Japanese society for real change to occur anytime soon. He believes that corporal punishment is the product of a physical education system where physical punishment is acceptable. If one does not do something right physically the consensus is that the individual will be punished physically.26
Disciplinary procedures of the National Governing Bodies (NGB's)
Looking ahead the disciplinary procedures of the AJJF will be significant in eradicating physical abuse in judo. The approach taken by the disciplinary committee of the AJJF towards Ryuji Sonoda prior to his resignation was lenient and the JOC immediately sought to address the issue. In March 2013, the JOC issued 13 directives to the AJJF encouraging the implementation of stricter procedures.27 The directives included the ‘prohibition of violence or misconduct directed at athletes by coaches’ and ‘the establishment of a framework for athletes to report any concerns to the organisation.’
Most recently the disciplinary procedures of the AJJF were tested after an investigation was launched following accusations that 9 senior members of the Tenri University judo club, including world champion Shohei Ono, had physically abused first year students. Following the investigation the discipline committee of the AJJF found the accusations to be true and decided to issue the athletes with 3- month suspensions from major judo competitions. The incidents happened under the watch of Professor Shozo Fujiiwho subsequently resigned from both his positions as elite judo program director of Tenri University and as director of the AJJF prior to the findings of the investigation.28
AJJF executive director Yasuhiro Chikaishi believes the punishments given to the athletes will act as a “judicial precedent if it is likened to a ruling” and the decision will serve as a guideline to future incidents of a similar nature.29 Discussing the severity of the punishment Chikaishi went on to comment that the members of the disciplinary committee “did not propose that the period of suspension should exceed 3 months, nor that the students should be given only written reprimands.”30 The only other option of greater severity than suspension would be to expel the athletes from competition.
Judo and Japanese sport has come into the spotlight this year for the wrong reasons. The recent scandals in judo led to a series of resignations ultimately ending in a change of presidency of the AJJF. The physical and mental abuse suffered by the elite female judoka in addition to the suicide of a high-school student as a direct result of abuse has brought the issue of corporal punishment in Japanese sport to the attention of the country and the sporting world. The traditional cultural values of taibatsu are still supported in Japan but yet it remains illegal by Japanese law. Tokyo’s successful bid for the 2020 Olympics Games Japan has given the country the opportunity to educate the world about Japanese sport and culture. It is hoped that Japan can learn from the events of the past year and MEXT can address the issue of physical abuse in Japanese sport as the country looks forward to hosting the world.
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About the Author
Matt is a law graduate who has aspirations to become an international lawyer. His legal work experience includes that of City and regional law firms in addition to pro bono experience and extensive research into Japanese sports betting law. He has recently spent two years living in Japan to broaden his knowledge of a different culture and legal system. His sporting interests lie predominantly in football, tennis, boxing and cycling.