Japan's Coaching Abuse Problem Surfaces Through Viral Video

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2013 AFP

A 16-second YouTube video features a high-school teenage boy being slapped in the face 13 times. The boy, a volleyball player, is being slapped by his coach while his teammates watch on in silence. "Don’t joke around, kid!" the coach yells. "Do you understand? You’re stupid!" The video, filmed by one of the team’s players, was released yesterday and already has over 2 million YouTube views.

The thing is, the video is far from a one-time case of violence in Japanese sports. It actually represents a dangerous cultural trend, one that has killed athletes. Japan has publicly discussed it and made a commitment to combat earlier this year.

Still, Japanese sport culture has a storied history of corporal punishment, taibatsu in Japanese, which literally translates to "physical punishment" though like words in any language has a constantly evolving meaning. The practice has been prevalent in Japan schools and sports despite being outlawed in the country’s schools after World War II (taibatsu remains legal in Japanese homes). It's also left lasting scars on athletes.

Most recently, coinciding with Tokyo’s bid for and win of the 2020 Summer Olympics, psychical abuse in Japanese sports have gained particular prominent media attention. A Japanese teenager committed suicide linked to taibatsu in December 2012. The teenage boy killed himself after being struck 41 times in one day by his high school basketball coach in Osaka. His name was never released.

Only months later, in February 2013, Japan’s national women’s judo coach and former Olympian Ryuji Sonoda resigned after allegations that he beat his athletes with a bamboo sword, kicked them, pushed their breasts, called them "ugly" and told them "to die." At his resignation, Sonoda admitted the claims were "more or less true."

"The incident is the gravest crisis in Japan’s sporting history," Japan’s education minister Hakubun Shimomura told reporters at a press conference in response to the women's judo coach scandal. "This is the time that Japan can show both to those inside and outside the country that it has abandoned all violence in sports."

And just last week, Japanese world judo champion Shohei Ono, along with 11 of his teammates at Tenri University, were suspended for beating freshmen members of the school’s judo program. "I deeply regret what I’ve done," Ono said through a statement. "I apologize for my actions, especially with the All Japan Judo Federation trying to crack down on physical abuse in the sport."

In the wake of the Judo controversies, the leading political parties in Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Japan, discussed a proposal to create a third-party organization that could investigate and prevent abuse and violence in the sports world.

The practice partially stems from a cultural emphasis on "fighting strength" in sports in Japan, which was made popular by Tobita Suishi, the ‘God of Basebell’ in Japan, a popular coach in the 1910s and 1920s. In 2005, as the Japan Times reported, a local basketball coach made a team of girls ages 10 to 12 run naked and hit them over the head. While half the girls were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, the coach said, "It was to infuse the fighting spirit in them to win a competition and I did not see them as sexual objects."

But while members of the Liberal Democratic Party were concerned that the incident might ruin Tokyo’s chances at hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics (a fear that was quelled when Tokyo won its Olympic bid on Sept. 7), the odds that Japan’s problem dissipates with investigations and mild reform is slim. The fact remains that the tradition of taibatsu is deeply rooted in the country’s cultural norms. Professor and sports psychologist at Tokyo Women’s College of Physical Education, Mieko Ae, summed up in an interview with AFP. "In order to get rid of sports abuse, we have to change this way of thinking."

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