Physical punishment at elite school shows limits of ban


Although corporal punishment is banned by the education ministry, the suicide of a 17-year-old student at an elite sports school in Osaka Prefecture shows the practice of allowing teachers to hit students remains widespread in the school system.

“We are truly sorry but the fact remains that corporal punishment has never ceased to be practiced at schools,” an official of the Osaka municipal board of education said at a news conference Tuesday to disclose the suicide of the Sakuranomiya Senior High School student.

The official said the student, who became captain of the basketball team in September, had been physically punished by his 47-year-old coach, who is known to have strict views on how team captains should behave.

The high school has a reputation for turning out strong athletes and sports teams, including Olympic medalists and pro baseball players. It draws elite prospects from around the region.

The student was found hanging in his room on the morning of Dec. 23. On the day before, the coach is known to have slapped the student several times because of mistakes he made during practice. Earlier reports said the boy told his mother about the abuse.

“It was intended to stir him up,” the coach told the board of education.

A letter the student wrote to the coach a few days before his death was later found, according to the board. In the letter, which was never delivered, the boy wrote that he felt unable to become the kind of captain the coach wanted. “Even if I make the same mistakes as others, I get scolded harshly because I am the captain,” he wrote.

After the student took his own life, the school questioned the 50 members of the basketball team and found 38 who said they had seen the student being slapped around by the coach. Twenty-one of them said they had been on the receiving end of the coach’s wrath themselves.

The coach was quoted as saying, “I ended up giving guidance akin to physical punishment as a way to inspire the athletes.”

In 2007, the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry notified boards of education across the country that physical punishment “should not be condoned under any circumstances” because it may encourage students to rely on force to resolve problems and breed a culture of bullying.

It defined corporal punishment as acts of physical aggression, such as beating and kicking, as well as acts intended to inflict physical pain, such as making students sit on their heels or stand straight for long periods of time.

Every year, however, around 400 teachers at elementary and secondary schools, as well as schools for special needs education across the country, are disciplined for inflicting corporal punishment. And there has been no visible sign of change since the ministry’s 2007 notification prohibiting the practice.

“It’s surprising that a teaching method based on anachronistic conventions, such as corporal punishment, is still found at an elite school,” said Isamu Kuroda, a professor of sports sociology at Kansai University.

“I believe (the practice) was carried out in private and thus did not surface easily. It is necessary to enhance the mechanism of leadership training through scientific coaching theories,” he said.

“For students, leaders are the absolute existence,” said Yumiko Yamada, 43, of Kariya, Aichi Prefecture, whose second-oldest son, Kyohei, committed suicide in 2011 immediately after being summoned by the coach of his high school baseball team. Kyohei, who was 16, had witnessed other members of the club being beaten by the coach on a daily basis, Yamada said.

After her son’s death, Yamada said, one of his classmates confided to her that students were prepared to put up with corporal punishment in order to pursue the sports they liked.

“As physical punishment continues, (the students) start to accept it. Educational guidance that is dependent on violence is wrong,” she said.

Hidesato Takahashi, a professor of sports sociology at Nara University of Education, said children “try to see physical punishment in a positive light as their self-defense mechanism kicks in, because it is an act that hurts their self-esteem deeply.”

“It is possible that those who have experienced corporal punishment themselves are reproducing it,” he said.

Sakuranomiya high school received a tip about abuse in 2011 concerning the same coach. But the board of education concluded after interviewing its coaches the same year that there was no evidence of corporate punishment.

A 50-year-old teacher at a junior high school who has experience supervising the volleyball club at a different school said Sakuranomiya’s elite status in athletics may have boosted the authority given to the coaches.

“Coaches and students face a high hurdle in terms of what is expected of them. Of course, the coaches want to make the students strong,” the teacher said. “But don’t forget that they are also educators.”