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If corporal punishment works, where are all the champions?

'Abuse is abuse; it should never be tolerated, encouraged or condoned'

by Dan O'keeffe

In the final scenes of Aaron Sorkin’s powerfully written film “A Few Good Men,” one of the U.S. Marines on trial for the murder of a fellow serviceman is bewildered as to why he has not been cleared of all charges after his commanding officer admits ordering the attack. “We did nothing wrong,” cries Pvt. Downey, to which his older, wiser co-accused penitently replies, “Yeah, we did.” The realization of guilt by Lance Cpl. Dawson neatly encapsulates the film’s central theme: that bullying and the use of physical punishment to discipline innocent people, or to teach them a lesson, is never justified, regardless of the motive.

The understanding that corporal punishment is wrong came too late to save the characters in Sorkin’s movie, but at least it did eventually come. If the tales related in the pseudonymous Richard Parker’s account of high school basketball in Japan (“Right or wrong, corporal punishment can produce winners,” The Foreign Element, March 12) are to be believed, then it is an idea, shamefully, whose time has not yet come in this country.

I say “shamefully” for two reasons. At a basic level, use of physical punishment in the way that Parker describes and condones is wrong because it does not achieve the goal of significantly improving performance and behavior. On a wider scale, the kind of thinking that underpins and nourishes this contemptible philosophy is at the heart of many of the most serious problems in Japanese society today.

Parker’s main argument seems to be that the use of physical punishment in sports coaching is justified because it produces winners. He tells us this in a variety of ways but at no point does he offer any evidence. All we get is a series of untestable assertions that the assaulted students “played harder” and became “collectively stronger” as a result of their beatings.

How are we to judge the value of allowing students to be bullied and beaten by their coaches based on this kind of subjective sentiment? Parker himself tells us that the team was unsuccessful in their quest to win the title and he even (confusingly) states that as a result of a particularly vicious and outrageous assault on the team captain, the remaining members “had lost the desire to make the team stronger.” Sometimes it works, sometimes it don’t. It’s six-to-five and pick ‘em.

In the face of Parker’s failure to bring evidence to bear on the issue, let’s take a look at what research and evidence do, in fact, have to say on the topic of excellence and achievement.

In his book “Bounce: How Champions Are Made,” British author and Olympic athlete Matthew Syed argues that the key to athletic success is “purposeful practice,” and lots of it. By purposeful, Syed means the kind of thing that will enhance skills — no mindless repetition or aimlessly chasing a ball around at the whim of a sadistic coach.

Syed’s finding is corroborated by Malcolm Gladwell’s research for his book “Outliers: The Story of Success,” which details extraordinary triumphs across a number of fields. Both Gladwell and Syed also argue that the lynchpin for transforming purposeful practice into sustained success is internal motivation. That is, the athlete must be motivated by their own hopes, dreams, goals and desires, and by these alone. Beatings from coaches, threats from overzealous parents, even bribes and offers of riches are no match for genuine, autonomous motivation.

American author Daniel Pink further summarized the scientific literature on success in his 2009 book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” by saying that “the three factors that lead to better performance and personal satisfaction are autonomy, mastery and purpose.” All three authors give a laundry list of examples to back up their claim that genuine internal motivation is what creates success, not intimidation, coercion or “primal, urgent” fear, as Parker makes out.

In defense of his own failure to intervene when witnessing violence against children, Parker tells us that turning a blind eye when an adult beats a child is part of the job of a coach here. Further, he tells us that, in his opinion, violence has “an integral role in education and sports clubs in Japan.”

Let’s suspend disbelief for a moment and game-out the implications for sport in Japan if the scenario Parker presents us were to be true. To do so, let’s look at basketball, the sport Parker is directly involved in, and one that is widely played in high schools across Japan. If the violent bullying that Parker claims is so “integral” to sports coaching in Japan truly does represent best practice when it comes to producing winners, we ought to see students emerging from Japanese high schools with a significant advantage in skill and performance over their nonabused counterparts overseas. Given the price Parker is asking us to pay, we should see success in Japanese basketball. We should see winners.

Here’s the tale of the tape. Japan has never won an Olympic medal in basketball, or even made it to a play-off game. The same applies to the World Championships, junior and senior. One Japanese man has played in the NBA, and two Japanese women have played in the WNBA.

To put it in perspective, even small nations such as Bulgaria, Lithuania and Croatia have each won more international medals than Japan, despite having a combined population lower than that of Kansai. New Zealand has provided more players to the majors than Japan, with a population less than Kanagawa. Tiny Greece and Serbia have both won Junior World Championships. The Philippines has won the Asian men’s title five times to Japan’s two (most recently in 1971), and South Korea has won the Asian women’s title 12 times to Japan’s one.

If the disgraceful methodology that Parker advocates on the basis of utility is so successful, where are all the Japanese winners? In baseball, Australia has produced almost as many MLB players as Japan and had the same level of Olympic success, despite the sport being a national obsession in Japan and only slightly better than cringeworthy in Australia. Where are the Japanese yokozuna in modern sumo? Japan would struggle to make a futsal side out of its players with Premier League football experience. Japan has one of the highest-paid professional rugby competitions in the world yet has only ever won a single game at World Cup level, and has never beaten any of the Six Nations teams, nor any of the big three southern hemisphere teams.

China has competed in fewer than half the number of Olympic Games that Japan has, yet has won a swag more medals. Even Hungary has more Olympic medals than Japan. Yes, there is success in Japanese sport, but not nearly enough to even begin to justify the wholesale use of physical violence against children, or anyone for that matter.

Which brings me to the point of the illegal and repugnant behavior on the part of coaches who abuse their charges, support staff who turn a blind eye, and administrators who hire and promote these bullies and cowards. Every adult working in education owes a clear and demonstrable duty of care to those under their supervision. Abuse is abuse is abuse. It should never be tolerated, much less encouraged or condoned.

The duty of care legally and morally obligates educators not to abuse their students and requires anyone who witnesses such actions to report them to the proper authorities for prosecution. Failure to meet the standards of this duty is what lies behind the horrific abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, the BBC, and the suicide of the student at Sakuranomiya High School in Osaka. The duty is clear because the consequences of failure are dire.

Parker shrugs off the behavior of abusers (and his own culpability) by saying that things weren’t all that bad. He feels that students had fond memories of the physical abuse they suffered because they were able to laugh about it later. The kindest thing that could be said for this idea is that it represents an absurdly poor grasp of human nature. My grandfather used to occasionally laugh about the pounding he and his comrades took at the hands of well-pointed German artillery in the Libyan desert during World War II. Jolly as he may have sounded at times, I can assure you he wasn’t laughing out of any fondness or appreciation for Erwin Rommel and the Africa Corps.

Towards the end of his article, Parker encourages us to overlook the crimes committed by the coach at Sakuranomiya High School because the coach was a powerful person within the school. It is exactly this kind of gutless, unquestioning deference to authority that exacts such a toll on contemporary Japanese society. The acceptance of willfully reckless behavior from politicians such as Toru Hashimoto and Shintaro Ishihara is due to the fact that large sections of the community and the media are unwilling to call them to account because they are perceived to have some sort of intangible “power.” The same effect is behind the lack of prosecutions following the nuclear disaster in Fukushima.

Unless those in power are held to the same standards of personal responsibility as the rest of us, Japanese political life will remain mired in mediocrity and scandal. Parker’s defense of the coach at Sakuranomiya does nothing but further entrench this behavior.

At the conclusion of “A Few Good Men,” Lance Cpl. Dawson summarizes his guilt with the words “We were supposed to fight for the people who couldn’t fight for themselves.” They are words that destroy the notion that violent discipline is acceptable. They are words that Parker, and every other coach, teacher, administrator and leader in Japan have an absolute duty to abide by.

Dan O’Keeffe is a lecturer at Kobe International University. Send all your comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • Stephen Kent

    Well said.

  • http://www.facebook.com/yami.ojou Lucile Di Meo

    I agreed with you, and I wonder how many suicides will occur before this mentality finally changes!

  • Bob Whiting

    Interesting piece.

    But a couple of comments.

    “In baseball, Australia has produced almost as many MLB players as Japan and had the same level of Olympic success, despite the sport being a national obsession in Japan and only slightly better than cringeworthy in Australia.”

    The number of Japanese going to the MLB has actually been limited more by the reserve clause and Free Agency rules in the basic NPB contract that keep professional baseball players in Japan until their mid-to-late 20′s, than it has been by skill level. Remove the restrictions and you would see a lot more signed to MLB contracts. Also, I would say that nearly all the Japanese who have played in MLB experienced taibatsu in their formative years, including top stars, Hideki Matsui, Hiroki Kuroda and Ichiro, who will someday be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown. I would argue that they succeeded despite taibatsu, not because of it, that because they were superior athletes they prevailed regardless of the abuse. Taibatsu is so widespread in schoolboy baseball clubs in Japan that it’s difficult to make a comparative study. Then there is the question of training methods 1,000 fungo drills, nonagekomi sessions, 1,000 swings a day, running 100 laps without water, which some American critics would say are a form of taibatsu, but which many a Japanese ballplayer would argue are necessary for success.

    As far as the Olympic baseball goes. I do not place much stock in the medal winners. In baseball, a short series is a crap shoot. The best overall team doesn’t always win, because of a variety of factors. Who’s hot. Who isn’t. Who’s ailing. The MLB playoffs remind us of that fact every year. The team that wins the most games in the regular season is often eliminated mid-way through the post-season playoffs. New York Yankees have lost exhibition games to minor league teams and even college squads.

    I am not an expert on basketball in Japan, but it would seem that the height disadvantage would be the biggest obstacle to NBA success.