The resignation of the national women’s judo coach who beat athletes with a bamboo sword was a nasty reminder of how Japan’s sporting world still draws on the traditions that led the country to war in the last century, experts say.
And, they argue, despite the bravery of the judoka, who risked their careers to bring the physical abuse to light, the culture of coercion and corporal punishment is so ingrained in Japanese sports that it will be hard to end.
Ryuji Sonoda quit in disgrace Feb. 1 after 15 of his charges accused him and his coaching staff of beating, kicking and slapping them during training in the runup to last summer’s London Olympics. Sonoda, 39, who doubles as a judo instructor for Tokyo police, was also heard telling members of the squad to “drop dead” during humiliating dressing downs.
His boss, Kazuo Yoshimura, the technical director of the All Japan Judo Federation, also stepped down later, along with one of Sonoda’s assistant coaches.
But the athletes, none of whom has been named publicly, say that despite the seriousness of the charges, multiple complaints were only acted on by the male-dominated judo federation and the Japanese Olympic Committee after the scandal received heavy media exposure in late January.
“We were deeply hurt both physically and mentally. Some of us were reduced to tears,” they said in a statement, adding that they took a stand “for the future of women’s judo.”
The explosive case came weeks after a teenager killed himself in Osaka after repeated physical abuse from his high school basketball coach, reigniting a national debate on widespread corporal punishment in schools and sport.
Worried about negative fallout on Tokyo’s bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, the government announced an independent body to investigate and prevent further abuse of athletes by their coaches in all sports.
But, said Hidenori Tomozoe, a professor of sports ethics at Tokyo’s Waseda University, the problem is systemic. Corporal punishment is frequently tolerated in Japan’s public schools — nurturing grounds for the nation’s sports — as an effective tool to produce athletes, according to Tomozoe.
Sonoda said he had been beaten himself by his coaches but stressed that “I never took it as physical punishment.” He added that he had struck his judoka “because I wished them to stay strong and overcome mental barriers.”
Tomozoe said that the tradition dates to 1925, when the government started sending military officers into schools as drill instructors to provide jobs for them after World War I. This coincided with Japan’s march toward militarism and its acquisitive and brutal occupation of much of Asia over the following two decades.
“They beat students and otherwise acted violently against them in the name of training,” Tomozoe said. “After the war they were purged, but the atmosphere or ethos they created has remained in school culture. It is like an accumulation of pus over 100 years and will be never be cured in a year or two.”
A law was enacted in 1947 to prohibit the physical discipline of students by their teachers. However, the practice has continued in the absence of statutory penalties for offenders.
Japan’s professional sporting world is no stranger to tales of extreme physical abuse. In 2007, a 17-year-old sumo apprentice died after a hazing incident involving his stablemaster and senior wrestlers. The stablemaster, who struck the teen with a beer bottle, was sentenced to five years’ jail for negligence resulting in death. Former star pitcher Masumi Kuwata, 44, recalled being beaten by his seniors when he played in school teams.
“Violent coaching in sports, including baseball, is carrying on the legacy of wartime military education,” Kuwata told a seminar on violence in coaching, adding that Japanese baseball adapted to Spartan training and absolute obedience during the war.
“I never felt that the pain and fear of physical punishment ever toughened me one bit,” he said.
Kubata recalled being impressed when he observed training in school baseball in the United States during his 2007 stint with the Pittsburgh Pirates. “There was no angry shouting or beating at all. They played baseball freely and leisurely. Such a background produces major leaguers,” he said.
Noriko Mizoguchi, who won a silver medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and coached the French women’s judo team from 2002 to 2004, said the petition by the 15 judoka is a “turning point in Japanese thinking.”
“These women are worried they will be treated like criminals if Tokyo loses its Olympic bid,” Mizoguchi, who teaches sports science at a university, said.