After two-time Olympic champion Masato Uchishiba was arrested Dec. 6 on suspicion of raping a female member of a university judo team, Japanese TV personality and the former first lady of Indonesia, Dewi Sukarno, defended the gold medalist on her blog. She personally called the National Police Agency to find out the name of Uchishiba’s lawyer and in the process discovered that the case was being handled by the NPA’s criminal investigation section.
“Was the incident that serious?” she asks. According to the police, the victim, a minor, went out drinking with the rest of the Kyushu University of Nursing and Social Welfare’s judo team and their coach, Uchishiba, one night in September after a training session in Tokyo. The woman got very drunk and Uchishiba volunteered to take her back to the hotel, where the alleged rape took place. Uchishiba admits they had sex but insists it was consensual.
Sukarno believes Uchishiba’s story because it jibes with her views on female guile. “These days 18- and 19-year-olds are essentially adults,” she writes. “They are saying she was forced to drink, but she could have refused. She should be expelled for drinking.” Sukarno imagines the young woman using her feminine wiles on her coach. “Girls are interested in famous people, especially handsome ones.” In Sukarno’s mind, what probably happened is that the next day Uchishiba acted as if nothing happened. Spurned and hurt, the woman then accused him of forcing sex on her.
Sukarno was 19 herself when she met her future husband, the autocratic president of Indonesia, Sukarno, who was 57 at the time. Channeling Ayn Rand, Madame Dewi, as she’s known in Japan, thinks you should give powerful men the benefit of the doubt. She finds it impossible to believe that someone like Uchishiba, a national hero, would take advantage of a young woman. “Even if she’s a minor,” Sukarno writes, “I want to see the face and know the name of this person who would make such an accusation against a two-time gold medalist.”
The blog post has received a fair amount of attention in the media, not all of it unfavorable. What actually happened in that hotel room may never be fully known, but regardless of whether or not a court decides it was rape the incident exposes a fact of sporting life that some people take for granted: Some coaches have sexual relations with their charges.
Shortly after the arrest, freelance sports reporter Yukari Yamada, who has been writing about the issue for 14 years, appeared as a commentator on Fuji TV’s morning information program “Shiritagari,” and claimed that sexual harassment and abuse in sports are common. In 2007, the International Olympic Committee called it a worldwide problem, but despite this revelation, “Japan doesn’t take the issue seriously,” she said. The main reason is the mentor-acolyte relationship that characterizes coaching philosophy, and the fact that women aren’t encouraged to become sports instructors.
More important, she said, is the accepted notion that intimacy between male coaches and female athletes is necessary for cultivating the latter’s capabilities. Yamada quoted an anonymous coach who said that his female athletes “would never become strong unless I supervised them closely from morning to night.” The word “closely” in this instance (bettari) implies physical contact, something the coach said wasn’t necessary with male athletes. When one of the guests on the show asked whether staff couldn’t check head coaches who “crossed the line,” Yamada answered that coaches have unlimited power. Their staff would never question their authority.
Everybody on the show nodded their head in sad acknowledgement, but the emcee pointed out that male coaches get results. Look at Nadeshiko Japan, the national women’s soccer team, which just won the World Cup, or marathon superstar Naoko Takahashi. Both were coached by men. Yamada countered that the success of women athletes had nothing to do with the gender of their coaches and everything to do with “coaching styles that were right for the particular athletes.” Claiming that these results could have only been brought about by men reflects and reinforces paternalistic conventions. In response to the IOC’s anti-sexual harassment campaign, a group studying the matter in 2008 surveyed 271 Japanese sports organizations, asking if guidelines should be implemented to promote “ethics.” Seventy-four percent of the respondents answered “no,” claiming that any intervention between coach and athlete, such as prohibiting physical contact or requiring third parties to be present during interactions, makes it difficult to get results.
Though Yamada was frank about how sexual harassment is common in Japanese sports, she was cautious in her comments about the Uchishiba case, an obvious concession to the conservative sensibility of TV. She was less reserved in an article she wrote for Aera a week later, saying that the judo star’s actions revealed his “naive understanding” of social mores. Apart from the fact that, as a husband and father, his sleeping with a minor under his tutelage was “immoral,” the act demonstrated his basic ignorance of what his status as a sports celebrity means.
To Dewi Sukarno, those two gold medals afford Uchishiba dispensation, while to Yamada they make his comportment all the more socially significant. Both viewpoints overvalue the meaning of sports. Some of the greatest athletes in history were total jerks, and the idea that sport by itself “builds character” is a myth. People compete because it’s fun and boosts their ego when they win. If they’re talented and lucky enough, they might even get paid to play. Or coach. The problem highlighted by the Uchishiba affair is not limited to the sporting world. Guidelines are necessary, but they mean little if coaches, and people in general, don’t understand what’s right and what’s wrong in the first place.