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Severe sports training methods became taibatsu in time

by Robert Whiting

Special To The Japan Times

Second in a two-part series

The martial arts were the inspiration for the famous baseball team at the First Higher School of Tokyo, a late 19th century powerhouse that helped make yakyu, as baseball came to be known, the national sport of Japan.

Ichiko, as the First Higher School of Tokyo, was also known, was an elite prep school, with its students in the 18-22 age range. There were five such Higher Schools in Japan. Graduates went on to the Imperial University, from which the future movers and shakers of Japan emerged. The majority of the students in these school came from samurai families.

Ichiko’s practice regimen, developed by the students themselves, included year-round training every day and intensive summer and winter camps.

It was nicknamed “bloody urine” for it was said that the players practiced so hard they urinated blood at the end of the day.

On the Ichiko practice field, it was forbidden to use the word itai (ouch) because that was considered a 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).

In one drill designed to hone fighting spirit, which, as we have seen, would be carried down through the ages a pitcher stood a mere 6 meters away from home plate and fired fastballs with all his might at a catcher who wore no protection. By the end of the exercise, the pitcher was exhausted and the catcher’s body black and blue.

Students wrote in their memoirs that they were channeling the spirit of the samurai warriors of old.

It is also worth noting perhaps that the Ichiko students in the general student body had their own kind of taibatsu (corporal punishment).

If a student behaved in a way that disgraced the school by, say, public drunkenness or paying too much attention to his looks so as to attract a member of the opposite sex, he was called to an evening torchlight council of his peers where he was punished with a severe beating. Fellow students lined up and took turns punching him in the face.

In 1918, famed Waseda manager Suishu Tobita incorporated the Ichiko way of endless training and development of spirit into his practice routine and won many championships. He was famous for saying, “Student baseball must be more than just a hobby. In many cases it must be a baseball of savage pain and a baseball practice of savage treatment.”

Tobita 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.” His system came to be known as shi no renshu (death training).”

Said Tobita, whose managerial methods greatly influenced the way baseball was played in Japan for generations to come, “A manager has to love his players, but on the practice field he must treat them as cruelly as possible, even though he may be crying about it inside. That is the key to winning baseball. If the players do not try so hard as to vomit blood in practice, then they cannot hope to win games. One must suffer to be good.”

In this way the line between hard training and taibatsu in Japanese sports was blurred. Which was worse, a slap on the face or being forced to field ground balls to the point you were half-dead and froth was coming out of your mouth?

The use of taibatsu was also reinforced by the militarists who assumed control of the school system in the decades leading up to World War II, instituting aspects of martial arts training into the education of Japanese students, including a more militaristic senpai-kohai (upperclassmen-lowerclassmen) system, military music and army-style training for everyone.


This issue of violence of sports has popped up periodically since I first came to Japan.

I remember when the big sports story at that time was of the coach of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic women’s volleyball team, Hirofumi Daimatsu of the national champ Nichibo Spinning Co. team, known as the “ogre” for his savage training methods.

He worked the girls every evening, making them practice after office hours from 4:30 p.m. to midnight with only one 15-minute break. A typical practice routine was the “receive,” a tumbling acrobatic maneuver where the girls had to dive to the floor to retrieve the ball and keep doing it, again, and again, and again, until they couldn’t get up anymore.

When they reached the point of exhaustion, the coach would say, “Dame. Omae wa yameta hoo ga ii.” (“You’re no good. You ought to quit.”) Everyone seems to agree it was a form of torture, whether or not slaps and kicks were included, but the “Witches of the Orient” as Daimatsu’s girls were known, won a gold medal with that method and Daimatsu became a national hero.

Captain Masae Kasai, a 31-year-old who broke her engagement to train for the Olympics, led the charge, as the women’s team beat Russia so badly in the finals that the Muscovite ladies locked themselves in their dressing room for a good cry.

One of the most popular TV shows of the late 1960s and early ’70s was the animated series “Kyojin No Hoshi” (Star of the Giants) about an impoverished boy named Hoshi Hyuuma who undergoes years of brutal daily training and beatings by his father during Japan’s postwar years in order to develop the physical skills and, more important, the spirit required to be a pitcher for the Yomiuri Giants.

Konjo was, and is, the sine qua non of a good athlete for it was (and still is) believed that superior mental strength and willpower could overcome any perceived deficiencies in physical power, and no measures in the pursuit of that end were considered too extreme, including beatings for they helped a player overcome his “natural predilection for laziness,” as Tetsuharu Kawakami, who managed the Giants to nine straight Japan championships 1965-73, liked to put it.

The harsh training methods of the Giants, featured in a positive light in the “Kyojin No Hoshi” series, received a black eye in 1973 because of the death of a 20-year-old pitcher named Toshihiko Yuguchi. Yuguchi, unable to tolerate the daily physical and verbal abuse he underwent as a farm team player in the Kawakami system, suffered a nervous breakdown and entered a mental hospital where he suddenly died.

The cause of death was ruled heart failure, but the magazine Shukan Post conducted an investigation and concluded it was a suicide.

Although Kawakami and Giants farm team pitching coach Hiroshi Nakao were heavily criticized in some media outlets, neither resigned and the Giants’ system of “education” went on as before.

In soccer, it was much the same. Sadao Konuma was the coach at Teikyo High School, and was very successful in that role.

He wrote a book called “Learn From Soccer,” published in 1983 by Kodansha Ltd., in which he wrote, “When I was young, I used my hand before my mouth . . . and my fist used to be swollen from punching them so much. . . . Admonishment is education and hitting is education. Even if the means are different, the aim of correcting the students is the same. But I am not good at arguing verbally why things are right and wrong — like why cigarettes are OK for adults but not for schoolboys.”

To punish older boys who beat up younger ones, he would force them to sit in the seiza position, and then he would hit them in turn. On one occasion he broke his hand doing this. He recalled that after a while his reputation was such that no one dared misbehave and he was only hitting boys once a year or so.


A major story during the 1980s involved the Totsuka Yachting School, a private institution designed to improve the antisocial behavior of children with emotional problems enrolled in the school by their parents through the use of extreme discipline. The school’s founder and headmaster was a former top yachtsman named Hiroshi Totsuka. After two children died and another two went missing, presumed drowned, because of harsh treatment, Totsuka was sent to prison for injury resulting in death.

But when he emerged, six years later, he picked up right where he left off, insisting his method of education was not abuse. The only change in his operating method is that now he lets the older trainers beat younger students rather than do it himself. In the past seven years, there have been three suicides and one drowning at his school.

Then there was the 2007 case involving sumo stablemaster Tokitsukaze, who was sentenced to prison for five years for ordering the use of violence on a 17-year-old wrestler named Tokitaizan to “educate him” and instill some spirit in him.

As a result, three senior sumo wrestlers took to beating the young wrestler regularly. They would strike him with beer bottles, a metal baseball bat and other objects. He was beaten so badly that he eventually died of a heart attack.

The media attention and public concern that surrounds these such cases invariably dies down, however, and life goes on as before. Taibasu continued.

A great many Japanese have experienced taibatsu in one form or another while growing up and they say, “I went through it.” “I turned out OK.” “It’s good.” “It will help my kid grow up.”

Tokitaizan, in fact, complained to his parents about the abuse and twice ran away from the stable, but in each case they persuaded him to go back.

In “Discourses of Discipline: An Anthropology of Corporal Punishment in Japan’s Schools and Sports,” anthropologist Aaron Miller writes of a 52-year old Kyoto volleyball coach who once threw a chair at his players yet was named “Super Teacher” by the Kyoto volleyball coaches.

As a detective in the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department and himself a martial arts expert, told me last month “You can’t teach kendo, judo or karate without taibatsu. That’s how you reprimand students for poor performance.”

“But,” he said referring to the recent well-known case involving Japanese women’s judoka who complained of taibatsu against them at a training camp prior to the London Olympics, “you should never hit a girl.”

Most recently in baseball we have had the story of Dave Okubo the former Seibu Lions coach.

Okubo was fired by Seibu in 2009 because he assaulted 19-year-old pitcher Yusei Kikuchi while coaching him on the farm team.

Okubo had roughed Kikuchi up because Kikuchi had the effrontery to complain about being fined ¥100,000 for showing up late to the “early work” segment of a joint voluntary training session.

(As Okubo explained to the young pitching prospect, in Japanese pro baseball the word “voluntary” usually means compulsory.)

Upon being fired, Okubo sued Seibu, insisting that his method of teaching was entirely “appropriate” and did not warrant his dismissal. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

Okubo lost at each step in the process and after the final ruling was handed down, according to the Shukan Post, tried to commit suicide as a result but was saved by his wife and children.

Now, interestingly, he is at Rakuten, managed by Senichi Hoshino, known for his tough training and, of course, his own history of abuse.


Many analysts I know believe that the taibatsu system is too deeply ingrained in Japan to be rooted out. A recent NHK survey found that 40 percent of all secondary schools in Japan have experienced violence, while a survey taken in February this year by the former Giants pitcher Masumi Kuwata of 270 active professional baseball players revealed that 46 percent had been physically punished in high school by their managers and 45 percent in junior high school.

Fifty-one percent had been punched or hit by their senpai in high school and 36 percent in junior high school. What’s more, 83 percent said it was sometimes necessary.

As former pro ballplayer Kazushige Nagashima put it, somewhat awkwardly, “We may have been smacked in the butt by bats and bottles and otherwise physically disciplined at those levels. But we felt there was real love there.”

Speaker of the House of Representatives Bunmei Ibuki, 75, declared recently, in a lecture to a study group of LDP politicians in Gifu City, “If we forbid corporal punishment, education becomes impossible . . . in order to raise a human being, there are times when, from the time of childhood, beatings must be administered.”

But change does occur, as the above-mentioned Okubo case would indicate.

In truth, there have been no reports of either he or Hoshino slugging anyone in Sendai recently.

Trey Hillman and Bobby Valentine, former managers of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and Chiba Lotte Marines, have shown how to win championships in Japan with a softer, gentler approach, as have mangers in J. League.

The use of the 1,000-fungo drill has decreased. And I am told by reporters who cover sumo that the use of the shinai (bamboo stick) and bokuto have been eliminated from the sumo stables in the wake of the Tokitaizan death.

Said a veteran Tokyo-based lawyer, an acquaintance of mine with long experience in social litigation, who prefers to remain anonymous, “What’s different is not the taibatsu level — that’s existed for decades. What’s changed is the recipients. Japanese males today are being feminized. They carry around handbags with as many cosmetics in them as women do. They use eyebrow liner, curl their hair in the gym and remove facial hair through electrolysis.

“There is an over-sensitivity to physical contact and they have lost the ability to take punishment and fight back. Maybe it’s because people are having smaller families. One or two kids instead of four or five. Little Taro is overprotected.

“A 50-year chart of the Japanese male will show, I believe, a decline of testosterone. Maybe what Japan needs is conscription.”

Moreover, while Japanese have traditionally eschewed litigation in such matters, in contrast to Americans, that too has been changing.

There may also be more traction now because of the recent well-publicized incidents of taibatsu involving the female judoka, which came on the heels of the suicide in December of the Sakuranomiya Senior High School basketball captain in Osaka who had been repeatedly beaten by his coach.

But I have a suspicion that the increased attention on the part of the authorities is mainly because Japan’s bid for the 2020 Olympics has put the issue and the nation under international scrutiny. So has a recent report by the Japan Judo Accident Victims Association showing that over a 29-year period from 1983, 118 students died as a result of judo accidents in Japanese junior and senior high schools (60 percent of them from brain injury). This is six times higher than any other sport in Japanese high schools and compares most unfavorably to zero judo deaths in sports clubs in the U.S. and Europe.

Whether this will lead to permanent change remains to be seen. But for now, I remain cautiously pessimistic.

The trick is to determine in modern society where hard training ends and assault or violence, which is and always has been a criminal offense in Japan, begins. And that is not an easy thing.

  • Spudator

    The trick is to determine in modern society where hard training ends and assault or violence, which is and always has been a criminal offense in Japan, begins. And that is not an easy thing.

    On the contrary; in a modern society it’s extremely easy to determine where the one ends and the other begins. Perhaps the problem is that Japan isn’t a truly modern society but an antiquated one hiding behind a façade of modernity.

  • KenjiAd

    Excellent report, Mr. Whiting. I am a 53-yr Japanese man and went though the taibatsu system you described.
    I can tell you that I really hated it. It wasn’t just me, but everyone on the receiving end of this punishment hated it. The senpais, teachers, and coaches who did this to us were hated, often very intensely. Most of us didn’t show the frustration (fear actually) at that time, because if we had shown it, more punishment would have resulted. Why would anyone do that?

    So it is a myth that the receivers of taibatsu appreciated the fact that we were beaten. I think this myth was created by the aggressors to justify their sadistic acts. These people didn’t love us. They loved glory. If we were seen not helping them to get _their_ glory, they got frustrated and vented their frustration on those of us who couldn’t fight back. They did this usually along the line of bushido spirit, which they intentionally distorted to justify what was essentially abuse of their power.

    As you observed, many of us the receivers of taibatsu might tell years later that the taibatsu was good for us. But please note, saying otherwise would be to admit that we were physically and emotionally abused for nothing and didn’t have guts to fight back. That would be very painful. At least we want to feel that it had some positive, toughened us up or something. In reality, however, I made us timid when facing with power abuse. We are trained to just put up with it.

  • Starviking

    A few comments: The veteran Tokyo-based lawyer sounds like one of those who is part of the problem – no introspection and blame the victim. Pass the blame to the current generation and accept no responsibility – hardly the demeanor of an adult.

    As for Judo, it is not only deaths, but severe injuries – a student in my area was left quadroplegic by a throw onto the sub-standard safety mats that are used in Japan.

    Taibatsu and it’s associated – take your beating and like it also permeates working life, where the beating is mental, not physical. I know of two people in my area driven to mental impairment by the drudgery of working long hours on meaninigless tasks to please the seniors of their companies. The Greek Gods punished Sisyphus by having him roll a boulder up a step hill, and when it rolled down again, had him repeat the task – a neverending cycle. Sysyphus apparently deserved his punishment, but for the majority of Japanese, for whom this punishment cycle starts in school – there is no justification for what they have to endure.