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Right or wrong, corporal punishment can produce winners

A former coach recalls a harrowing experience and physical abuse in high school hoops

by Richard Parker

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 community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • seriously

    So, best-case scenario, these kids word harder in constant fear of being assaulted by their coaches. Worst-case scenario, they take their own lives. This is definitely wrong

  • http://www.facebook.com/iamsen47 Sen Heng

    From my experience, it’s not so much the fear of pain itself, but the feeling of disappointment and having failed to meet their own goals.

    We must remember that we’re not talking about rowdy delinquents being forced to put on some sort of show here, but of well disciplined, highly motivated students committed to a singular goal.They have come to think of it as a sort of ritual – screw-up, get punished, move on.

    Maybe what we need to re-consider is the punishment. Does corporal punishment help these students? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know, but there probably should be a limit. Pulling anyone around by their hair isn’t going to help things. A light slap, some forceful, motivational words may have been more helpful.

    • Mark Garrett

      I wish we could meet so I could give you a light slap!
      Hitting a child is NEVER acceptable.

  • tomado

    This conversation is over in most developed countries in the world as research shows, and experts attest, that violence is destructive to the development of young people. It’s sad that we have still have to fight against the culture of violence and bullying in Japan. But, we can’t lose heart. We owe it to future generations not to give up – as hard as it is. I don’t understand why they would print this anonymous anecdote. What is the rational? This is the second pro-child abuse piece to run in the Times. How about some journalism here? Instead of anonymous anecdotes and puff pieces about pro-violence octogenarians (Ayako Sono), how about some modern child development specialists talking about the real world? I’m about done with the Times. It’s hard to take a pro-child abuse newspaper seriously.

    • Mark Garrett

      Absolutely could not agree more!

    • Greg Hutchinson

      You make some good points, but why complain about the writer being “anonymous” (i.e., using a pseudonym), unless there’s one standard for you, Mr./Ms. “tomado,” and another for the writer?

  • tomado

    This is really sick. One good thing: perhaps he was afraid that if he had given his name he would never be hired again. That’s a good thing. I certainly wouldn’t entrust my children to this person.

    • $35222035

      Exactly. When I was on the JET program as an AET, I saw a male music teacher shove a tiny Jr. high school girl hard enough to almost knock her over. If she had tripped while backpedaling, she would have hit her head on a desk, severely injuring or possibly killing her. Unlike the pseudonymous “Dick” that wrote this article, I had enough testicular fortitude to immediately intervene. I told him to back off and he sheepishly walked away. None of the Japanese teachers said a word.

      I reported him to the Board of Education the next day, after seeing that the principal wasn’t going to do anything either. Naturally, he never had the guts to go after the few knucklehead
      chimpira/bosozoku-wannabe kids that really *did* deserve a smack upside
      the head. He never attacked another defenseless student like that, at least not in my presence, the rest of the time I was there. A smart on his part move because I would have broken my U.S. Marine Corps veteran foot off in his pathetic backside…

  • Noiraude

    Very much agree with Tomado. Violence against children is unacceptable. On a more trivial point, I also very much doubt Teddy Riner, Hussain Bolt or Jessica Ennis were screamed at or physically hurt by their coached during training.

  • tomado

    @ Noiraude Thanks. This really enrages me. There’s nothing that gets me boiling mad so much as child abuse. And for the Times to print an anonymous pro-violence anecdote (rather than balanced journalistic research) just confounds me. This is really an outrage. An anecdote! Unbelievable. This is a really important issue on which there is plenty of expert research. One of the jobs of a newspaper is to inform the public. This is the worst failure I’ve ever seen by a paper of record. I’m considering just abandoning this paper all together. I mean what’s the point in reading it if it’s going to just be destructive to important public debates? Sorry to belabor the point but printing an anecdote is very misleading to the topic. It’s really disinformation.

    • Kazuhisa Nakatani

      Calm down and read carefully. This is not a pro-violence piece.
      These days the media space in Japan is full of this discussion, because the issue is not confined to the world of sports and education. The concept of “tough love (aijo)” and “endurance (gaman) “ is embedded into the “normality” of life in Japan, which does not always take a form of violence when it manifests itself. Behind the unreasonable long work hours, reluctance to change, obedience to authority (compared to the west) and cool-calm-collected attitude in the aftermath of the March 11th, it’s always there.
      But to tackle these phenomena, you have to go deep under the “tough love.” This article hinted at the bottom layer by using the phrase “back to normal”, but ended there.

      • Shane Reierson

        @Mr.Nakatani
        I agree that when discussing issues like these, which are caused by and perpetuated by cultural norms, one must consider internal cultural contributing factors. Although it takes a more light-handed approach than I think it ought to, I also agree that this is not a pro-violence piece per se but the title, when considered within the context of recent events, certainly nudges us in the direction of “sure some kids might kill themselves but it can win some games so…hey, gotta break a few eggs, right?”
        However, besides obviously having nothing at all to do with any discussion about the causes of or solutions to the problem of corporal punishment, playing March 11th as some kind of pity-card is shameful.

      • Kazuhisa Nakatani

        It is self-evident that violence and corporal punishment (or whatever terms you choose) are wrong. Just condemning the practice wouldn’t make any difference. The question should be: why it has been so prevalent and tolerated, if not accepted, by students and their parents. Is it because the Japanese are ignorant of the latest educational theories and the media do not inform their audience? That is the point I was not satisfied with majority of the comments here, and made me post mine – to encourage broader discussion.
        How Japanese people behaved in the aftermath of March 11th provides a good example of the concept of Gaman (我慢) and peer pressure, which lead to positive, negative and/or mixed consequences depending on the circumstances – or how you evaluate the results. Just citing negative examples might narrow the scope of the discussion, which runs counter to my intention.

  • Mark Garrett

    The author of this article is gutless and lacks any kind of moral fortitude. First, and most importantly, for allowing a culture of violence to exist at his workplace Second for hiding behind a pseudonym.

    Violence against minors is NEVER acceptable and should be dealt with as criminal behavior. Using tradition and “success” as justification is a cop out. I would say that I’m embarrassed to share my native country with the writer, but he obviously possesses none of the traits associated with our maiden land. True Americans have always stood up for those who are oppressed and powerless.

    If there were any real justice in this country, Hajime Komura would be brought up on criminally negligent manslaughter charges. His indifference to his subordinate’s cries for help were felonious. Playing sports should be a rewarding experience filled with great memories and comradery, not a torture chamber replete with fear and suffering.

    Shame on the writer. Shame on Komura. And shame on Japan.

  • Jeff H

    Never in any situation is it right to abuse a child. Teachers and coaches have a responsibility to look after the welfare of their students while those students are in their care.
    As a father of three small children in Japan, two of whom are elementary students, I hope I never have to deal with a coach or teacher who feels they need to “motivate” or “encourage” my child through the use of corporal punishment.
    If that situation did arise, I would take every legal means necessary to make sure that the abuser was punished to the full extent of the law. And if I did not receive satisfactory results from the school, BOE or courts, then I would make sure that the abuser’s name was known to all, through news and social media sites. Basically, I would make sure that they would never have the opportunity to abuse my child or any other child…ever!!

    • Phillip

      That’s exactly what I would do, too. These creeps need naming and shaming.

  • tdjm23

    Unfortunately, this story doesn’t surprise me. You can read similar types of relationships between coaches and players in “You Gotta Have Wa.” So, is it possible that corporal punishment can produce winners? Perhaps, more accurately, fear of such punishment may cause motivation. It’s sad (to me) when you see this as a major way to change behavior (supposedly for the better).

  • http://twitter.com/jagt007 Jagdish Arora

    Japanese coach should devise different tactics to make the team better and strong. Corporal punishment cannot be appreciated, even if it yield better result. Human life is supreme and it should be protecte by all means

  • disqus_m1ss35mF12

    So, you didn’t raise a complaint about a kid getting dragged around by her hair, and you took a bribe from a parent who wanted their own child to be beaten. Well done, you awful human being.

    • tomado

      I agree with everyone here. What a coward. I’m all for free press, but what is the editorial rationale behind printing this anonymous anecdote? It’s so lazy, amateurish and discouraging as an editorial decision. I guess I could understand it if it were referenced as part of an in-depth article on the harm both psychological and physical violence does to children. I think this is an abdication of the responsibility of the press. The Times is obviously just too lazy and irresponsible to do reporting and editorializing on the impact of violence, the barriers to change and the nature of the education system in this country. For shame!

  • Phillip

    I’ve been teaching 27 years and never have I had to consider the utter cowardice of assaulting a child, for any reason, as part of my repertoire of teaching tools, methods and techniques.

    Anyone who says assaulting a child is necessary, is in the wrong job.

  • http://thehopefulmonster.wordpress.com/ Sublight

    The cowardice of the author – both in standing by saying nothing as it happened, and in describing it here with weasel words like “not pretty but it works”, “for better or worse”, that it made the team better and older players remember it fondly – is almost as sickening as the behavior of the coach. Physical violence (or threats thereof – explicit or implied) isn’t a sign of a coach determined to win, it’s a sign of a crap coach who shouldn’t be allowed near a school.

    I’ve known many high-school level sports coaches in various sports, some with poor records and some extremely successful. And what’s been clear from observing their techniques and the results they produced is that the ones who resorted to verbal abuse and physical outbursts (mainly kicking furniture and breaking equipment; I’ve only known one who actually assaulted a student) did so because it was the only tool they knew how to use – and the performance of their teams reflected that (teach a kid to fear failure, and you get a kid terrified of attempting to excel). The coaches with consistently winning teams were the ones who knew how to actually teach kids – paying attention to the performance of each, showing them their mistakes and how to correct them when they failed, and building on their successes. In the end, the kids gave their best because they loved what they were doing and respected the people teaching them, not because of fear.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jessica.r.gordon.5 Jessica Renee Gordon

    The whole entire “tough love” idea works, but there’s a fine line. Beating a child? That’s not tough love. That’s child abuse to me. Making a team player or captain run laps every time she screws up? Sure. Being on a sports team trying to excel should be challenging. After all, that’s part of the fun. Competition, the drive to succeed, that’s what makes a great team. Fearing your coach will beat you if you fail? Nightmare fuel.

  • gakusei

    This is a scary article, really shows how the culture of violence isn’t likely to change if even an American can work as a coach for some time and come to see violence as ok. Physical workouts, fine…make the kids run laps or do push-ups or something, that teaches them perseverance and self-discipline, that can be “tough love” too. But violence is never justified, it teaches them nothing but fear or a sense of worthlessness. Who cares if violence makes some kids into winners if it makes even 1 person suicidal.

  • bgt13

    Read Daniel Kahneman’s “Regression to the Mean” chapter from “Thinking Fast and Slow” where the nonsense that punishment for mistakes is the best means for training is put to rest once and for all. Flight instructors in the Israeli Air Force once thought that screaming at a student worked better than praise, when all they were witnessing was ‘regression to the mean.’ It’s a shame that any youth would have to go through what this teenaged girl went through because a coach doesn’t understand this basic principle of performance.

  • Ebisu man

    Only somebody coward enough to stand there and watch a high school girl getting violated by a physically stronger, middle aged man can be so tasteless to stand on the grave of an osaka schoolboy who commited suicide due to physical abuse. I am very uncomfortable with where the Japan times went by publishing this anonymous article, I feel there has been a line crossed. Tragedies like in Osaka shouldn’t give people like the anonymous author of this article the opportunity to be a part of the story. In the end it is physical abuse what we are talking about, and if you can’t coach a team to win without being violent, you are simply a bad coach who doesn’t know his job well.

  • Takaharshi

    Where are the priorities? Ends don’t justify the means. Results don’t justify improper methods. Perhaps the teacher himself isn’t totally to blame, but the culture is certainly to blame, and NO corporal punishment is not a neccessary evil.

  • blimp

    What always strikes me as a bit odd is that according to Japanese criminal law battery or assault is illegal and punishable by law. So how is it that if you do it against a child and in for instance a educational environment it is all of the sudden OK. If we take away the child and replace him/her with an adult no one would ever question the crime.

    Or perhaps I have misunderstood Japanese legislation where teachers (and coaches?) are given the power like the police to use violence.

  • Chris

    This is a shocking piece of writing.
    Shocking not because some wannabe Japanese male coach knows only violence as the way to motivate and get through to his student charges, but because of the
    total abdication of self-responsibility by the author. “Richard” writes that by not
    objecting to corporal punishment former students effectively endorsed it – well, so did the author, many many times over. “Richard” had many opportunities to intervene in a culturally appropriate manner with an individual he boasts of having an excellent rapport with. Yet he did nothing. Before the incident, when he sensed something bad was going to happen – nothing. After the incident, when he had the chance to speak in private with the coach – “Richard” didn’t even discuss what happened! The next day, when he “didn’t push the issue.” And later, when the next team took over and the coach reverted to his old coaching style. In order to excuse and justify his inaction, “Richard” then attempts to argue that violence works and that this is Japanese “culture” and cannot be helped. Does he really believe that the “culture” of 125 million people is a single monolithic entity? To top it all he brushes over the unspeakable tragedy of a 17-year-old boy hanging himself and instead attempts to praise the individual that caused this heartbreak. “Richard”, if you are in fact real and reading this: your actions and your words are truly reprehensible.

  • Kenichi Kino

    I was coached and instructed in Japan during my youth. I was physically struck as punishment and sometimes humiliated. It was not that frequent or harsh in my mind. One time I asked my coach why he constantly picked on me and he replied if I said nothing or ignored you that means I don’t care about you at all he said because I want o see you improve in character as well as skill that I chastise you. When you are perfect you will know it without me having to tell you. This made me feel better and I listened more and improved and paid more attention to his comments.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000580228225 Brian Prager

    The Japan Times here publishes an apologia for violent crimes against children, and describes a room full of people who, like stateless prisoners in a torture center, have lost the will to resist or defend their bodies against attack for fear of the consequences. Living lives of dread, no one present leaves unscathed. The follow-up articles that need to be written and read must describe and explain the narcissism, hysteria, grandiosity, and deep paranoia that underlie the formation of people like this coach into persons who oppress and inflict pain on children. The story to be told is how the illness he and his students are forced to share in is then socially constructed as a “normal” form of subjectivity, which deepens the damage by conveying to children and adults alike that they are as worthless as this abuser thinks they are.
    Be reminded: all forms of subjectivity are “normal” to someone; even concentration camp guards and death squad members have some kind of “ethics” they operate under, that allow them to continue doing what they do. Such is this teacher, and his cohort.

  • Hanten

    A failure to communicate verbally is never an excuse to resort to violence no matter who the victim is. Although hitting anyone is illegal, doing so to a child is especially vile and should be treated as such by law. As long as teachers, coaches, parents and even senpai continue to hit and humiliate those under their care this culture of bastardisation will live on.
    Thank you, Japan Times for publishing this opinion piece with the author’s name; I am not endorsing his views and wouldn’t support any school that hired him while he persists in promoting violence against children. I also congratulate all the commenters here who have stood up for their beliefs; I particularly commend those who support Japan’s youth being able to grow up without assaults both verbal and physical.

  • http://thehopefulmonster.wordpress.com/ Sublight

    In related news, CNN is currently reporting that the basketball coach for Rutgers University was first suspended and fined $75,000, then later fired, for verbal and physical abuse of his players. The physical abuse included shoving and throwing basketballs at the players.