Violent coaching rooted in militarism



The resignation of the national women’s judo coach who beat athletes with a bamboo sword was a nasty reminder of how Japan’s sporting world still draws on the traditions that led the country to war in the last century, experts say.

And, they argue, despite the bravery of the judoka, who risked their careers to bring the physical abuse to light, the culture of coercion and corporal punishment is so ingrained in Japanese sports that it will be hard to end.

Ryuji Sonoda quit in disgrace Feb. 1 after 15 of his charges accused him and his coaching staff of beating, kicking and slapping them during training in the runup to last summer’s London Olympics. Sonoda, 39, who doubles as a judo instructor for Tokyo police, was also heard telling members of the squad to “drop dead” during humiliating dressing downs.

His boss, Kazuo Yoshimura, the technical director of the All Japan Judo Federation, also stepped down later, along with one of Sonoda’s assistant coaches.

But the athletes, none of whom has been named publicly, say that despite the seriousness of the charges, multiple complaints were only acted on by the male-dominated judo federation and the Japanese Olympic Committee after the scandal received heavy media exposure in late January.

“We were deeply hurt both physically and mentally. Some of us were reduced to tears,” they said in a statement, adding that they took a stand “for the future of women’s judo.”

The explosive case came weeks after a teenager killed himself in Osaka after repeated physical abuse from his high school basketball coach, reigniting a national debate on widespread corporal punishment in schools and sport.

Worried about negative fallout on Tokyo’s bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, the government announced an independent body to investigate and prevent further abuse of athletes by their coaches in all sports.

But, said Hidenori Tomozoe, a professor of sports ethics at Tokyo’s Waseda University, the problem is systemic. Corporal punishment is frequently tolerated in Japan’s public schools — nurturing grounds for the nation’s sports — as an effective tool to produce athletes, according to Tomozoe.

Sonoda said he had been beaten himself by his coaches but stressed that “I never took it as physical punishment.” He added that he had struck his judoka “because I wished them to stay strong and overcome mental barriers.”

Tomozoe said that the tradition dates to 1925, when the government started sending military officers into schools as drill instructors to provide jobs for them after World War I. This coincided with Japan’s march toward militarism and its acquisitive and brutal occupation of much of Asia over the following two decades.

“They beat students and otherwise acted violently against them in the name of training,” Tomozoe said. “After the war they were purged, but the atmosphere or ethos they created has remained in school culture. It is like an accumulation of pus over 100 years and will be never be cured in a year or two.”

A law was enacted in 1947 to prohibit the physical discipline of students by their teachers. However, the practice has continued in the absence of statutory penalties for offenders.

Japan’s professional sporting world is no stranger to tales of extreme physical abuse. In 2007, a 17-year-old sumo apprentice died after a hazing incident involving his stablemaster and senior wrestlers. The stablemaster, who struck the teen with a beer bottle, was sentenced to five years’ jail for negligence resulting in death. Former star pitcher Masumi Kuwata, 44, recalled being beaten by his seniors when he played in school teams.

“Violent coaching in sports, including baseball, is carrying on the legacy of wartime military education,” Kuwata told a seminar on violence in coaching, adding that Japanese baseball adapted to Spartan training and absolute obedience during the war.

“I never felt that the pain and fear of physical punishment ever toughened me one bit,” he said.

Kubata recalled being impressed when he observed training in school baseball in the United States during his 2007 stint with the Pittsburgh Pirates. “There was no angry shouting or beating at all. They played baseball freely and leisurely. Such a background produces major leaguers,” he said.

Noriko Mizoguchi, who won a silver medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and coached the French women’s judo team from 2002 to 2004, said the petition by the 15 judoka is a “turning point in Japanese thinking.”

“These women are worried they will be treated like criminals if Tokyo loses its Olympic bid,” Mizoguchi, who teaches sports science at a university, said.

  • John L. Odom

    I believe that the physical abuse of military trainees in the inter-war period was a major factor in the abuse of POWs by the Japanese in the China and Pacific wars. The officers and soldiers of the Imperial Army treated their prisoners as they had been treated, but worse.

    • interuni321

      I agree, I don`t think there is any doubt that the most of the abuse applied to POWs and Chinese civilians as well as others was a direct knock on from the brutal upbringing that generation experienced thanks to the militarisation of Japan and particularly its schools.

  • Variations on this type of training were going on before the militarists appeared in high school. The idea of developing fighting spirit by doing kangeiko (training barefoot in the snow at 4 a.m. in mid-winter) in judo and undergoing such exercises
    as the 1,000 fungo drill in baseball dates back to the late 19th century.
    The practice regimen of the First Higher School of Tokyo (Ichiko), in 1896 was
    nicknamed “Chi no ben.” for it was said that the players practiced so hard they urinated blood at the end of the day. It was forbidden to use word Ouch
    (Itai) because that was considered sign of weakness. If you got whacked in
    the face with a ball and it really hurt, then you were allowed to use the word kayui (it itches.) Ichiko students in their memoirs said they were applying the principles of the martial arts of old. In 1919, Suishu Tobita took over as manager of Waseda University and led them to glory in a system known as shi no renshu(death training)” He would make his players field ground balls until they dropped, or as Tobita himself
    described it, “until they were half dead, motionless, and froth was coming
    out of their mouths.” Tobita was famous for saying, “If the players do
    not try so hard as to vomit blood in practice, then they can not hope to win
    games. One must suffer to be good.” Tobita likened
    practice to religious penance found in Buddhism–a kind of
    asceticism. The militarists might have made the situation worse, but getting
    whacked in the shoulder with a bamboo pole by your kendo sensei for doing the wrong kata,
    or by the temple priest for sloughing off in a meditation session was an integral
    part of training long before they showed up. Bob Whiting

  • This is a chance in a million to change Japanese people’s mindset about sports and coaching. Besides above described opinions, I’d like to point out how Japanese people were enthusiastic when Mr. Hirofumi Daimatsu successfully lead Japan’s Women Volleyball team to winning in the Tokyo Olympic Games. There must have been not a few teachers and coaches who was strongly influenced by his way of coaching. In this sense, Japanese media should be blamed, too.

  • 151E

    The psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman gives a good explanation for why many instructors mistakenly believe that physical punishment and/or a good sound scolding leads to improved performance. (I posted this once before, but it’s worth reiterating as everyone – especially teachers, coaches, and players – should be aware of ‘regression to the mean’.) In brief, for any given skill, we have a baseline normative performance level, and with practice this baseline level gradually increases. But we are not machines and our performance varies – somedays we perform better than our baseline norm, and somedays we perform worse. After an above average performance, a player is likely to regress to their baseline norm, and it then seems to the coach that any praise was wasted, even counter-productive. Whereas after a worse than average performance, and a good chewing-out from the coach with a few motivational slaps across the face thrown in for good measure, players again naturally tend to regress back to their baseline norm, and it superficially would seem that the coach’s harsh treatment was causative of, rather than merely coincidental to, the player’s subsequent improved performance, reinforcing people’s conviction in this causal fallacy.

  • Christopher Johnson

    Many foreign athletes, such as Martina Hingis, have noted the apparent lack of “fun” in Japanese training methods. It seems that Japanese athletes, who do have fun, perform better than their peers in Japan or around the world. Tennis player Kei Nishikori, who has lived and trained in Florida since he was a teenager, is a great example of what Japanese athletes can do with a joy for their sport. Nadeshiko Japan women’s soccer players also seem to really enjoy what they’re doing. I hope Japanese coaches will look toward them as examples of how joy and fun can lead to greater performance and victory.

    • interuni321

      Agreed, although there are plenty of sports coaches in Japan who are kind and make training fun, so while I agree the problem is widespread and systemic, it is not total by a long way, we just need to get rid of the bad apples, albeit there are quite a few.

  • Mike DeJong

    Violence and intimidation continue to be a big part of Japanese athletic training. My son plays little league baseball and I have witnessed coaches hitting and otherwise abusing players. These are not pros but kids around the age of 10. It has to stop. I pulled my son off a team after watching his coach jab another child in the gut with a bat and kick another in the backside.

  • antony

    The term ‘corporal punishment’ has been widely used in association with this ongoing debate/issue concerning the questionable training methods of sports coaching here in Japan. Having been schooled in the UK during an era where corporal punishment was standard practice by established legal methods for certain infractions of school rules, etc., it seems, by comparison, however, this problem in question is one of random, non-sanctioned physical abuse meted out by coaches in order to instill a winning attitude in their pupils/athletes.

    Having recently watched the 1952 film adaptation of Hiroshi Noma’s war novel, Zone of Emptiness (Shinku Chitai), set in a Japanese infantry barracks in 1944, it would seem as though excessive punitive actions randomly doled out by males in positions of responsibility ultimately leads to misery, a loss of morale, and self-defeatism.