It was shaping up to be just another day at practice. The high school’s head basketball coach, who was young and still trying to establish himself, was picking on the captain of the once-famous girls’ team, jumping on her every mistake and yelling at the top of his voice to make his point.
This had happened before, but the head coach felt he had never really got through to her — that he hadn’t gotten her to fully believe in him yet — and it looked like today was going to be another one of those days that he was going to try.
The captain was smart and resilient, and always showed a hint of resistance whenever he tried to win her over. However, this day would be different. What ultimately took place was beyond anything anybody could have imagined, and it left a deep impression on me.
It was my second year at this high school in Tokyo, and though my official title was assistant coach, I was essentially the head coach for the considerably less famous boys’ team. Both the head coach and I started at the school at the same time but he was top dog, and the pressure was on him to return the girls’ team to the glory of years past.
The head coach and I had a good relationship. He opened up a lot to me and taught me plenty about high school basketball in Japan. He was very understanding and if, for example, I wanted to take a vacation over Christmas to return to my family in the States, he would run the boys’ team in my absence with no complaints. We even went together once to Atlanta to see one of the girls’ team graduates play for Japan in the 1996 Olympics. We also occasionally discussed corporal punishment, and he often referred to it as tough love (aijō) and played it down, saying such discipline “was worse in Korea.” We had a good rapport, and I got the impression he was genuine when we talked one on one, baring himself, warts and all.
This day at practice had started like many others, but soon it was apparent that the head coach seemed to be waiting, ready to pounce on every error the captain made. Toward the end of the session she was clearly exhausted and not motivated enough to do anything beyond the bare minimum to get him off her back.
Then, during the scrimmage at the end of practice, the captain didn’t dive for a loose ball when the head coach thought she should have, and he decided to take things to the next level. He stopped practice, and after screaming for a few minutes about the importance of hustle and sacrifice, he started throwing the ball in the air, each time ordering the captain to somehow keep it from touching the ground — diving for it if necessary. His throws were impossible for even the fastest runner or best diver to reach, and she repeatedly fell short, as the other players and I watched in silence.
Her failures only made the coach angrier, and he responded by making even more difficult throws for her to catch. Though she failed each time she dived for the ball, he made her throw it back to him so he could do it all over again.
By now he was screaming at her, and gradually she began making her return passes to the coach harder and harder. The captain was visibly angry and pushing back. This was the first time I could recall seeing that kind of insolence from a student — clear and obvious for everyone to see. Something in me thought, “Uh-oh, something’s going to happen here.” Her return passes kept getting stronger, as if she was channeling all her hatred for the coach into each throw.
Finally, one pass had too much zing even for the coach, and he flipped. He ran over and barged into her, knocking her down, his face red with fury. He reached down, grabbed her by the hair and dragged her around the floor for what must have been 10-15 seconds. He zig-zagged around the court, his movements violent, as if he was trying to inflict as much pain as possible. He stopped for a couple of seconds, yelled some more, then pulled her around for a few seconds longer. Then, perhaps sensing he had stepped over the line, he berated her one last time and stormed off to his office.
In situations where he had walked out like this before, two things happened: The captain, sub-captains and manager followed him and begged him to come back and resume coaching, and the next coach in line took over and continued practice. In this case, that was me.
Whenever this happened, I would step in and try to be vocal, rally the students and finish practice on a positive note, encouraging rather than reprimanding. But this time nobody really moved, including myself. I just remember the captain’s expression: lost in another world, distant and without focus. The trainer spoke to her but she waved off the water she was offered. Slowly, she stood up and walked to the side of the hall.
Silence filled the court for what seemed like an age. There seemed to be this collective unspoken question: “What’s going to happen now?” I walked over to the captain and told her to take a break. I wanted to sound like a coach but mostly felt at a loss, like everyone else, about what was the best thing to do.
I don’t recall if she even looked at me or responded, but the trainer tending to her nodded acknowledgement, and I returned to practice with the other 40 or so students still in the gym.
Slowly, things returned to something resembling normalcy, but when the manager started to indicate that they should go try to get the head coach to come back, the captain flatly refused. I could read her body language from across the gym floor, and her defiant refusal was as much of a shock as anything else that had occurred that day. They had always gone to him in the past. Indeed, this was different from those other times.
After about another 20 minutes the head coach still hadn’t returned, so I ended practice. I met him back at the office and he seemed calm, but we didn’t discuss what happened. I told him I had ended practice, he said “fine” and we left the school together, but we both sensed there was more to come.
Physical punishment had been a part of more than half the practices I had participated in since I started coaching in Japan. I had been warned several times that if I wanted to get involved in coaching, it might be difficult if I had a problem with kids getting slapped and hit. For better or worse, it was an integral role in education and sports clubs in Japan, and you had to understand that or otherwise face a very uncomfortable coaching tenure.
I had heard so many stories that when I first saw a student get slapped, I felt like I had already seen it. I don’t remember most individual incidents now because corporal punishment in the basketball club was dished out more days than not. Usually it was slaps to the cheek with light-to-moderate strength, with harsher treatment were reserved for conveying more critical points.
I should be clear — and I want to be very careful with my wording here — that the students often reacted to corporal punishment, and the threat of such punishment, in a way that made the team collectively stronger and play better, especially immediately afterward. This doesn’t mean that they happily accepted getting hit — nobody would — but it was this desire to avoid being hit that motivated them. After an episode of punishment, the students usually played harder and achieved better results.
The students understood, maybe only implicitly, how corporal punishment could make them play better as a team. And because they were fearful in a primal, urgent way of what their coach, and their senpai, might do at any given moment, they were almost always attentive, worked hard every day and never complained.
Furthermore, when I spoke with players who had graduated from our school, they almost always remembered their high school playing days fondly, often laughing about the times they were physically punished and appreciative of how their coach, teammates and school helped them to achieve something in their life. Most players referred to corporal punishment as shiyō ga nai — something that “could not be helped” and therefore must be endured. By not objecting to corporal punishment, these former students effectively endorsed it.
At a yearend party, three mothers of students on the boys’ team told me that their sons often misbehaved, and it was fine with them if I punished them physically. They told me this while one of them stuffed a ¥10,000 note in my pocket. Perhaps they were worried that I thought they would be mad if I touched their kids, and they wanted to reassure me they were OK with it.
I never asked, but I wonder if the head coach experienced similar situations when he was coming up through the ranks. With corporal punishment as rampant as it is in high school club sports, it seems likely that he was similarly encouraged to be “tough” when necessary.
The next day at practice, the captain was nowhere to be seen. The head coach didn’t even mention her absence and the session passed without incident. The following day, when I arrived at the office, the captain’s parents were talking with the coach. They soon left, but still the captain did not return to the team. When I mentioned it to the coach, he offered nothing beyond a vague “Don’t worry. Everything is OK.” I wanted to know more, but didn’t push the issue.
I finally learned from the students that the captain had told her parents that she wanted to quit the team because of the head coach. However, her parents wanted her to stay because she had received a scholarship to play at our high school, and quitting could be considered disrespectful to the school. The parents might also have known that quitting would most likely spell the end of her basketball career and future scholarship opportunities. If she quit, she would certainly not get the head coach’s all-important endorsement and support toward gaining entrance to and playing at university. So we remained in this state of limbo for about two weeks, with the captain still a member of the team but refusing to play. Nobody seemed sure how it would pan out.
In the end, the captain did return. She wore a face that said everything was OK, but clearly things were different. The coach rarely reprimanded her and never touched her after that incident. The team played out the season and lost in the final tournament before the captain and her class had to retire from the club to study for university entrance exams.
The whole event just took the air out of the team; it seemed many of them had lost the desire to make the team stronger. The coach ended practice and left the school earlier than before.
Then, after the class had played its last game, the next team took over. After a while the coach reverted to his old coaching style, involving corporal punishment and — for better or worse — everything was back to normal.
Upon hearing the recent news about the high school basketball club captain in Osaka who committed suicide, all these old feelings and emotions came rushing back. In the student’s suicide note he wrote that he could no longer take the beatings from his coach, Hajime Komura, who apparently hit him 30-40 times the day before he took his life. To those who know little about Japan and what goes on in high school clubs — especially those with strong sports teams — it may appear self-evident that the coach is to blame and should be held responsible.
One of the people I called to discuss the story with played high school basketball in Japan last year. He knows Mr. Komura (but not the student who committed suicide), and though he was sorry that such an tragedy had occurred, he largely came to Mr. Komura’s defense. He told me that Mr. Komura was an all-powerful faculty member who helped drive out the student gangs that had been a part of Sakuranomiya High School’s culture before he arrived in the early 90s.
Once he established a winning basketball team, more and more parents sent their sons to play for him, fully aware and supportive of his “strict” coaching style. The students themselves knew that he had built a famous program, and that playing under him would help lead them to success, even after their high school days.
On Feb. 14 it was announced in The Japan Times that Mr. Komura had been fired from his position. His career is over, but I would be very surprised if he is charged and convicted, despite having apparently broken the law.
Perhaps, that particular school will be extra vigilant in ensuring a similar incident never happens again, but my sense is that this will only be temporary. This tragic incident will be forgotten and the social forces that allowed this to occur in the first place will prevail. And life inside the world of high school sports in Japan will return to how it was before: normal.
Richard Parker is a pseudonym. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.