When young athletes speak out about corporal punishment

If corporal punishment is illegal in Japan, child abuse is still rampant in sports fields where young athletes keep enduring abuses in order to “create champions,” revealed Human Rights Watch in a disturbing report last summer. 

“For decades, children in Japan have been brutally beaten and verbally abused in the name of winning trophies and medals,” explains Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, on the Human Rights Watch website page. ”As Japan prepares to host the Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo in July 2021, the global spotlight brings a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change laws and policies in Japan and around the world to protect millions of child athletes.”

“I was hit so many times, I can’t count” is the title of this shocking report, published by Human Rights Watch last July. It represents months of investigation gathered in 67 pages with hundreds of athletes’ testimonies confessing how they were humiliated, hit, and physically and psychologically punished. For five cases, sexual assaults are also involved. Human Rights Watch ran interviews and a nationwide online survey in order to reach out to the biggest number of young athletes as possible. Those who participated in the survey were from more than 50 sports categories: they have reported being punched in the face, kicked, beaten with objects like bats or bamboo kendo sticks, being deprived of water, choked, whipped with whistles or racquets, and being sexually abused and harassed.

“Testimonies displayed are very shocking,” claimed Kanae Doi, Japan Director of Human Rights Watch, at a press briefing. One 23 years-old athlete mentioned that the coach would often slap him and the other team members. He was often punched in the stomach and kicked. “When the coach punched, he did it several times, he didn’t stop, won’t do it just once,” he explained in the report. This young man isn’t unfortunately a particular case. Stories like his go on for pages. Broken teeth, blood in their mouths. “If it happens at home, it’s a recognized scandal and of course it’s a good thing but it should be the same in sports fields where it happens regularly,” precises Kanae Doi. Child abuse is still rampant during training in Japanese schools, federations, and elite sports. “Those coaches mistakenly believe that beating and verbal abuse will create champions.”

Human Rights Watch decided to focus its research on Japan because of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. “And we knew, unfortunately, that corporal punishment, known as Taibatsu in Japanese, has been prevalent  sports.” In the report, 50 athletes, many of whom have experienced taibatsu but also verbal and physical harassment, explained their stories. An online survey has also been conducted with 757 respondents, including 381 people aged 25 or younger. Besides Taibatsu, 24% confessed they were forced to eat excessive amounts of food and 7% said they were not getting enough food or water. 22% were forced to train while injured or suffering from excessive training. The five reports of sexual abuse were from female athletes. “It’s so hard for them to report; we are not sure if this number represents accurately the reality on the ground.”

“We need to establish remedies where children can report”

Kanae Doi concludes, “We found so much data recently, and we can’t conclude that it’s in decline in Japan. There is also a lack of structures to help victims.” In the past decades, policy reforms made significant changes for child abuse at home, ijime (bullying at school), and harassment at work. “But it’s not applied in the sports field yet”. The reason for that is that Japan “accepted those practices and this is due to our hierarchical culture and social norms,” adds Takiya Yamazaki, sports lawyer who sat beside Kanae Doi at the press briefing. “Coaches don’t have malicious intent; they just want to make the kids good players. Some parents are even thankful for those corporal punishments.” The lawyer said, “We need to establish remedies where children can report when there is abuse and then take care of them. We need a Japanese center for safe sports and a real dialogue on the ground. It’s really difficult to say something against the coaches in the current context. And this type of practice has to be abolished.” 

Keiko Kobayashi’s son was 15 years old when he was hit by his judo coach. He is now 30 and still suffers from severe disabilities that will never allow him to live on his own. “When my son was in the third year of junior high school, his judo club coach advised that he could recommend my son to go to a high school based on his high judo abilities. However, my son said no to this recommendation and decided to go to a different school.”  During a class, the coach used judo techniques on him and hurt him. “He strangled him twice and threw him to the floor causing him massive bleeding in the brain. Miraculously, my son’s life was saved through surgery but his brain has been severely damaged.” When the parents tried to sue the coach for his behavior at civil court, charges have been withdrawn and the case was closed as an accident. “The prosecutors said that if it happened in a dojo, wearing judo clothes, and using judo techniques, how can we distinguish what is judo and what is a crime?” The coach hasn’t been punished and is still teaching judo today. 

“My son’s case isn’t a particular case”

Since 1983, 121 children have died in Japan while practicing judo, and last year, another 5th grader. “My son’s case isn’t a particular case. We don’t know how many children suffer from disabilities because of those “accidents,” deplores Keiko Kobayashi. “In Japan, accidents continue to occur even now. 121 children have died in such circumstances, and they are the only ones who have been recorded within these data..” That means there might be more of them. After her son’s accident, Keiko Kobayashi started fighting for this violence to stop in judo clubs through Japan Judo Accidents Victims Association. “I did my research and found that in the last 20 years, no child has died while practicing judo outside of Japan, 0. We are getting close to this number in Japan, too, now, and it has to stop completely, once for all.”

The social rank of the coach, respect to the teaching method, makes it harder to open the dialogue on this taboo that has been going on for centuries. Punishment is seen as a “coaching technique” that will push the young athletes to achieve excellence and to forge their personality. “Only a few people on the ground realize that it is a human rights problem,” adds Takiya Yamasaki. The lawyer truly believes that “Japanese coaches don’t have malicious intent; they just want to make them good players.” He adds that silencing those young athletes is a “global problem because of the excessive commercialization of the sports industry”.

Child abuse in sports fields isn’t exclusive to Japan. In the US last year, Larry Nassar, gynecologist for the USA Gymnastics girls team and professor in Michigan University, faced, during his trial, 156 women and girls he sexually assaulted during his career of 30 years. His victims were more numerous than that; some of them committed suicide. USA Gymnastics also had to take responsibility for letting this man work with young girls for almost three decades, closing their eyes on his actions and turning the passion of many of their young female athletes into a living hell.

Translation by Daniel Read.
Illustration by Emily Howard

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