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Corporal punishment has long history in Japanese sports

by Robert Whiting

Special To The Japan Times

First in a two-part series

Getting slapped by a coach has always been, as far as I could see, simply another aspect of sports training in Japan.

I remember being invited to see a practice session at the Isenoumi sumo stable in eastern Tokyo back in the early 1960s shortly after I arrived for my first stay in Japan. Obese young sumo wrestlers grappled with each other and a rikishi (senior wrestler) corrected their form by issuing violent blows across their back and thighs with a shinai (bamboo stick), resulting in cries of pain from the participants.

“Physical punishment is part of their education,” I was told. “It makes them better wrestlers.”

It was standard operating procedure.

When I got to know the imported Hawaiian wrestler Takamiyama (a.k.a. Jesse Kualahula) he told me how much he had hated being hit as a young, up-and-coming wrestler. Yet when he retired and became a stablemaster himself, he did the same thing, occasionally using a baseball bat as well as the shinai.

He even punched one of his wrestlers, Akebono (Chad Rowan, a fellow Hawaiian import), in the jaw, when he grew incensed at what he perceived as Akebono’s laziness and lack of a killer instinct.

“Without the shinai,” he said, “sumo wouldn’t be sumo.”

Taibatsu, or corporal punishment, was just as common in some professional wrestling organizations, as I discovered. The famed professional wrestler of the 1950s and 1960s Rikidozan would hit his younger wrestlers with sake bottles and other objects to toughen them up.

And when I started researching pro baseball in Japan I realized how ordinary it was for coaches to slap younger players for making a mistake or not demonstrating proper fighting spirit. The Yomiuri Giants, Japan’s oldest and winningest team, have one of the more colorful records in this regard, despite their public image as “gentlemen,” starting with the manager of their farm team during much of the postwar era (1953-1973), Yoshiaki Takemiya.

Takemiya was famous for using his fists on those players violating the 10 o’clock curfew of the farm team dormitory and disciplining those players exhibiting bad manners with blows from a wooden sword.

Giants farm team pitching coach Hiroshi Nakao was known to have slugged recalcitrant members of his mound corps.

Then there was Giants coach Yutaka Sudo, who once hit infielder Kono Kazumasa so hard in the rear end with a bat, after Kono had run off the field during an inning when there were only two outs mistakenly thinking the side had been retired, the player was unable to sit for three days.

This became known as the ketsu batto jiken (“Ass Bat Incident”) in Yomiuri Giants lore.

One of the more memorable incidents involved Scott Anderson, an American pitcher who joined the Chunichi Dragons in 1991. He related to me an episode involving a young rookie infielder who had made two errors and was consequently removed from the game.

Afterward, Dragons manager, Senichi Hoshino, a hugely popular figure in Japanese baseball, ordered everyone on the team to assemble at a spot underneath the stands and commanded the rookie to drop to his knees in front of the group. Then Hoshino proceeded to hit the young player in the face with his open hand until the player’s face was red and swollen and Hoshino’s hand began to hurt so much that he could not continue.

Anderson thought this was assault, pure and simple. He pulled the player aside with an interpreter and said he would go with him to the police station to file charges and would testify as to what he saw.

“It was intolerable,” he said, “You can’t let the manager treat you like that.”

The player said, “No, no. It was an honor to have such a great man as Hoshino educate me. It means he thinks I am important for the team.”


In 2003, when American Trey Hillman managed his first season for the Nippon Ham Fighters, he was shocked to hear that his farm team manager, Tetsushi Okamoto, had beaten up one of his players.

As I wrote in the 2009 updated edition of “You Gotta Have Wa,” Okamoto had angrily slugged a rookie shortstop for making an error that let in two runs, knocking him to the ground. As the player curled up into a ball on the dugout floor, the farm team manager continued to beat him and the youth simply accepted it because that was the way things were done.

Hillman went to the Nippon Ham GM threatening to resign if the organization continued to tolerate any more of that type of behavior. The next day, the farm team manager appeared in Hillman’s office, bowing deeply, apologizing.

He told Hillman that he hadn’t been able to help himself, that his behavior was the result of the way he himself had been trained in high school.

In 2008, the aforementioned Hoshino, who was then managing the Japan Olympic baseball squad, was interviewed on CNN about his methods of disciplining players.

He was asked, “Is it true you once hit a player so hard he couldn’t eat for a week?”

Hoshino replied, “Yes. But it was necessary. . . . It’s a kind of tough love. . . . We are a family. If you look at a certain incidents, you may see some unbelievable violence, but you must look at the whole picture. There is a tremendous deep love that is shown above anything else. I admire the American way. Their coaches are very cheerful and encouraging. . . . But in Japan, we have our own way.”

Not all professional coaches in Japan abuse their young players this way. Taibatsu is, in fact, illegal. However, it is unfortunately quite common throughout the school system in Japan.

More than once I have seen a manager line up his players after a game, make them remove their caps and cuff the ones who had made mistakes in the game.

I wrote about a couple of memorable incidents in You Gotta Have Wa. One was about a regional high school game, in the summer of 1983, in which a manager went out to the mound and slapped his pitcher for giving up a couple of runs. “Pull yourself together,” he growled.

Later the youngster thanked the coach in front of the TV cameras for having brought him back to his senses.

“Being hit by my manager made me realize the situation we were in,” he said, “so I was able to throw my best for the rest of the game.”

Another occurred during the 1987 National High School Baseball Tournament at Koshien Stadium when the manager of the Saga Prefectural High School of Technology and Engineering team discovered several of his players up late at night past the curfew talking in the kitchen of the ryokan where the team was staying. He whacked each of them over the head with the grip end of an aluminum bat, cutting the scalps of two of the boys.

It was a big story in the media for a time. The principal apologized to the Japan High School Baseball Federation and the manager was suspended for a year. But he came back to his job as powerful and respected as ever.

Every year, it seems, there are similar occurrences. In February, the Japan Student Baseball Association handed down suspensions for 20 different acts of violence in high school baseball clubs. One of them involved the manager of the Fuji Gakuen High School team in Yamanashi Prefecture, who was found to have whacked players over the head with helmets, slapped them in the face and employed the ketsu batto technique.

Said the manager, to reporters, “I was just trying to teach them something.”

Another high school baseball manager, this one at Kashiwanittai High School baseball team in Chiba, slapped several first-year students for committing crimes such as arriving late to practice and riding two on a bicycle.

The suspensions ranged anywhere from one month to six months and not one manager lost his job.

Well-known sportswriter Masayuki Tamaki has called taibatsu “the disease of Japanese baseball.” He said, “The worst thing I ever saw was a high school manager explode at an infielder during a practice session for making several errors.

“The coach made the player stand 10 feet (3 meters) away and drop his glove and then hit a barrage of screaming line drives at him, 19 in all, I counted, that ripped into his chest, abdomen and legs. When the coach was finished, the player bowed and said thank you to him, which was the typical reaction in such cases. It made me sick.”

Hazing by senpai (upperclassmen), who often act as surrogate disciplinarians of their kohai (lower classmen) is also systemic and involves a variety of tortures.

Ichiro Suzuki, as a 10th-grader on his high school club, was forced to kneel on the rim of a lidless garbage can for an extended period of time as punishment for overcooking the rice in the team dormitory.

On other occasions he had to kneel with a bat between his calves and buttocks. He described these sessions as unbearably painful.

Such practices may continue into the pros. In last year’s Japan Series, we were treated to the sight of Giants catcher and captain Shinnosuke Abe striding out to the mound and slapping second-year pitcher Hirokazu Sawamura in the head to scold him for a lapse in control.

“Snap out of it!” he yelled. It was all on nationwide TV.

Sawamura’s reaction?

An embarrassed smile.

Such occurrences are difficult to imagine in the United States, where the inevitable result would be a fistfight. But in Japan they have been a part of many a team’s standard operating procedure.

Taibatsu in baseball starts early. Star slugger Hideki Matsui once said that one of the most valuable experiences of his school days was when a junior high school coach slapped him for throwing his bat.

I live right across the road from a Little League field in Toyosu, and while I have yet to see any physically abuse behavior, I have seen coaches will shout out insults like “Omae wa dame da!” (damn you) “Bakayaro!” (idiot) as part of the daily routine.

Former Giants pitcher Masumi Kuwata, now an outspoken opponent of taibatsu in Japanese sports, said that he had been hit by coaches during his elementary school career more times than he can remember.


Of course, the United States has had its share of abusive coaches. I remember my high school baseball coach would hit us in the crotch with a baseball bat to see if we were wearing our protective cups.

Our football coach used to slap his players. This was in a small town in Northern California before the 1986 law prohibiting corporal punishment was passed. California is now one of 31 states to have such a law. Nineteen states, in the southern U.S., from Arizona to Florida, have yet to pass such a law.

Indeed, anthropologist Aaron Miller argues in his new book, “Discourses of Discipline: An Anthropology of Corporal Punishment in Japan’s Schools and Sports,” that Japan is no more, or less, a violent culture than anywhere else in the world.

There is no single view of violence in Japan. Japan has as much diversity of thought opinion and practice in Japan as in any other nation and to say the Japanese are violent — or non-violent — is erroneous.”

What makes Japan different from the U.S., if I can very loosely generalize here, is that Japanese coaches are more militaristic.

As the aforementioned Tamaki says, “In Japan, regardless of whether the coach and player are professionals or amateurs, their relationships in the Japanese sports world are characterized by a strong top-down hierarchy of command and obedience.”

Thus the coaches tend to put themselves above the players and act like drill sergeants, demanding uniformity from their charges while with Americans (again to generalize), the coach is more of an instructor or adviser — someone who works with and alongside the player and who allows more freedom and flexibility in an individual athlete’s routine.

This is why you can see even the youngest rookie in America address his MLB manager by his first name.

“Hey Davey, how is it going?” you might hear a rookie say to Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson.

Seldom in Japan. It is usually with hat off and (often shaven) head bowed that rookies address the manager. Similar behavior is seen in relationships between senior and junior and relationships between teacher and pupil.

There is another difference as well. Whereas in the U.S. sports were traditionally played for enjoyment and release of tension — at least on an amateur level — in Japan, generally speaking, the idea of athletics for fun was a foreign concept.

The martial arts, which were the primary form of athletics in Japan before the introduction of foreign sports in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), were a tool of education, designed to build physical strength and character, based on the idea that one must suffer to be good.

There were 200 samurai academies at the time of the Meiji Restoration teaching the martial arts, among other things.

Taibatsu was also a feature of the apprenticeship system in old Japan and of Zen Buddhism as well, if not necessarily a feature of society in general.

But taibatsu in Japanese sports is a legacy of the martial arts which date back to the 16th century and which by their very nature involved a lot of physical punishment.

Do the kata wrong in kendo practice and you could get a crack on the head with a bamboo sword. Do the kata wrong in jujitsu practice and you got boxed in the ear. In sumo, of course, it was the same, with its use of the shinai. And in Zen Buddhism as well.

There was also a focus on endless training that was designed to make one surpass the bounds of one’s physical and mental endurance, and this could also be viewed as a kind of taibatsu.

Swordsmanship master Tesshu Yamaoka, a former samurai who was an official in the court of Emperor Meiji, opened a kendo school in Tokyo in 1880, in which students had to fight two consecutive full days of 200 matches each to reach the first level.

The day was 16 hours long, starting at 4 a.m. and ending at 8 p.m. They fought against 20 opponents who were permitted to rest and attack in rotation. Three such days of 200 matches each were required to reach Stage 2, seven days of 200 matches each to reach Stage 3 and 1,000 days of 100 matches each to reach Stage 4.

Judo clubs held monthlong winter camps where participants rose at 4 a.m. for a barefoot run of several miles on frozen ground, followed by several hours of workouts.

  • Spudator

    The Japanese do seem to have a problem with the concept of human rights, don’t they?

    • Hillel Weintraub

      And which culture that you know doesn’t???

      • Spudator

        So you think that because the whole world is failing to completely live up to the principles laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it makes no sense to critique the human rights efforts of different countries and consider how well each country is doing?

        Well, in that case, maybe we should just give up on universal human rights altogether and allow individual countries to treat their citizens as well or as badly as their governments see fit. Japan, for example, can continue to mentally and physically bully people in the workplace, at school, and in the sports arena into being docile, obedient members of the group, and if some commit suicide because of the bullying, too bad—they were the weak ones and simply got weeded out.

        On the other hand, maybe without universal human rights we can never be truly civilised. Perhaps each country, if it really wants to call itself civilised, needs to take a long, hard look at how it measures up to the articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. How do you think Japan fares in this respect? Based on what Robert Whiting describes in his article, I’d say Japan bombs out on Article 1.

  • bgt13

    The worst part is that there is no evidence to support corporal punishment as an instructional technique. Any improved performance following a coach’s assault is more likely attributable to regression to the mean.

  • EastAsianNationalist

    So what’s the problem?

    • Hillel Weintraub

      the same problem that exists with any person or group or culture which uses violence (physical or emotional) to force another person/group/culture to act in ways that the powerful one deems as correct.

  • AlexisP

    So when J-kids (that`s right kids) start committing suicide as the result of harsh physical punishment, no problem right, it`s just an acceptible part of the culture? Just because something has always been practiced, doesn`t mean that it always has to be. Slavery (owning other human beings), racism, and discrimination was once widely accepted in the US, but no longer. I now better understand, thanks to your article, the history and it`s roots in Zen Buddhism, martial arts, and developing discipline; however, today`s J-culture, as all cultures, evolve and change. This type of discipline/abuse should no longer be tolerated. When the next young Jr/Sr high school student commits suicide as a result of an abusive, militaristic coach, said coach should be imprisoned. Just becasue you had it done to you, dsoesn`t mean that you have to perpetuate the cycle. Finally, students/youth/athletes can learn the same values of discipline, respect, hard work, etc. without being physically abused/tortured/mistreated/humiliated, regardless of culture.

    • Bob Whiting

      “however, today`s J-culture, as all cultures, evolve and change”
      This is addressed in Part 2

  • Max Erimo

    The system of respect your elders is taken to extremes in Japan. If someone is older than you, ie, one year above you at school you must do as they say. No matter how stupid the person may be they are your elder.
    This leads to a form of bullying and dare I say it slavery in high school sports teams, wher the senior students use the new students to do all the dirty work. Cleaning the seniors clothes, shoes, buying them things at the shops, using not passed to them by those wanting the items bought, but their own money.(ie those being made to do the shopping also pay for the items with their own money)
    How do I know this?? Hearing it first hand from my students, who had graduated the juniour high school where I work and gone on to high school.
    This is the Japanese way. It has been for thousands of years.
    And as they say ‘If it ain’t broken don’t fix it.’
    WEll it is BROKEN, VERY BROKEN, and unfortunately the, the Japanese Government, Sports administrators, and Education system won’t admit it.