Earlier this week it surfaced that 15 top female judo athletes, including judoka who took part in last summer’s London Olympics, sent complaints to both the All Japan Judo Federation and the Japanese Olympic Committee stating that they had been subjected to harassment and physical violence by head coach Mr. Ryuji Sonoda and another coach.
In response to a growing public outcry, the AJJF on Wednesday publicly eacknowledged that it had “reprimanded” Mr. Sonoda and the other coach in mid-January without dismissing them.
Under increasing pressure, Mr. Sonoda announced his resignation on Thursday.
The two sports organizations’ responses to the complaints were woefully inadequate, showing that they did not fully comprehend the seriousness of the problem of harassment and physical abuse. Mr. Sonoda should have been fired after a prompt probe.
The news of the violence and power harassment against the judo athletes came in the heels of the December suicide of a 17-year-old student at Osaka’s Sakuranomiya Senior High School after he was physically punished by the school’s basket team coach. Coaches and sports organization officials must ask themselves whether they have tolerated the physical abuse of athletes. Mr. Sonoda’s resignation should not be considered the end of this matter.
The judo athletes sent their complaint to the AJJF in late September. But it responded by interviewing just one of them and refused to launch a full investigation. On Nov. 28 it ordered Mr. Sonoda to write an apology and gave him a “stern warning,” but it retained him as head coach.
Mr. Koshi Onozawa, senior managing editor of the AJJF who made public the facts on Wednesday, said that the AJJF thought that the apology by Mr. Sonoda had settled the matter.
The AJJF’s behavior shows that it failed to view the judo athletes’ complaint as a demand to change the culture of the judo world, which has tolerated the use of violence by coaches. Its failure to immediately fire Mr. Sonoda meant that the judo organization accepted such violence.
The AJJF’s lack of action led the judo athletes to submit a complaint to the JOC in December. Obviously they lost confidence in the ability of the AJJF to change the situation and felt that they had no choice but to seek help from an organization outside the judo world. In the complaint, they mentioned that Mr. Sonoda and another coach engaged in slapping, punching, striking with a bamboo sword and verbal abuse, and forced injured athletes to take part in practice.
Unfortunately, the JOC did not take swift action, either. It interviewed only a few of the judo athletes in January and Mr. Noriyuki Ichihara, senior managing director of the JOC, said that it intended to solve the problem without going public to protect the privacy of the judo athletes.
One cannot discount the possibility, however, that the JOC also wanted to avoid airing the AJJF’s dirty laundry in public. This tendency to deal with a serious problem in a secretive manner must be changed.
The female judo athletes should be praised for having the courage to file their complaints. Now the JOC, AJJF, other sports organizations and schools must respond in kind by taking appropriate steps to end the physical abuse of athletes.