In a recent interview on the Barnes & Noble Review website promoting his latest book, historian Jared Diamond mentions how treatment of the young “varies among traditional societies just as it varies among industrial societies,” and gives examples of how some of the former use corporal punishment for discipline purposes while others “consider it utterly unacceptable to hit a child.” Such violence, Diamond points out, is culturally determined, and when prompted he says that he has never struck his own children. “It is not a good idea,” he says. “I see a lot of harm to hitting a child.”

Attitudes toward corporal punishment have generally become negative in industrial societies as they have evolved, but Diamond is clear that the practice is and always has been a bad one, so if a particular society revises its approach, it has to do more with force or persuasion than with a shift in cultural orientation. Slavery was abolished because people who considered it morally wrong convinced or compelled those who practiced it to quit. Nowadays, no one would argue that slavery was ever right.

One of the arguments that has emerged from the current controversy surrounding the suicide of a high school basketball player in Osaka after he was beaten by his coach is that times have changed. Corporal punishment, or taibatsu, this argument goes, was considered acceptable in school sports in the past, but not anymore. Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, an avowed traditionalist and former rugby player, wept on camera when he described reading the suicide note left by the dead student and said he had come around to the belief that taibatsu is bad, but last Monday at an Adult’s Day ceremony he had a change of heart and told the assembled young people that under some circumstances it is acceptable, as if admitting his emotions got the better of him earlier.

Hiroshi Totsuka, who spent six years in prison for having caused the deaths of at least two students at his private yacht school, last week talked on TV Asahi about the controversy, asserting that the Osaka boy who committed suicide is an exception, since many young athletes are beaten by their coaches but don’t kill themselves. The problem is generational, he claimed. It isn’t taibatsu, but kids today, who are somehow different.

However, taibatsu is not a “tradition.” Corporal punishment didn’t become tacitly accepted until the Russo-Japanese War, when schools were militarized to produce cannon fodder. School sports are a remnant of this system with their martial music, boot camp practice sessions, and strict senpai-kōhai (senior-subordinate) ranks.

Japanese of a certain age grew up with popular media that sentimentalized this system. There is a dramatic subgenre called supokon, shorthand for “sports konjo” (fighting spirit), about young people going through severe mental and physical trials and emerging as excellent athletes, regardless of inherent talent. This concept is so central to athletic endeavor that it has become gospel. Last year, after the national judo team failed to win enough medals at the Olympics, the members blamed an “insufficiency of spirit” on their part, rather than a lack of ability in the face of superior skills. They pledged to “practice harder.”

Differences between hard practice and physical abuse may be blurred in the case of the Osaka suicide since, as the coach admitted, the reason for the beatings was not merely punitive. Before a young player can develop konjo he has to overcome iji, the natural predilection of youth to “resist” what’s best for him. Beatings instill resentment and drive a young person to prove he is better than the coach thinks he is. According to Totsuka, the boy in Osaka lacked a trait essential to being an athlete since he did not react to his beating with active resentment but rather resignation. He was defective.

Suicide is a difficult and sensitive topic, but the iji-konjo dynamic is a romantic fiction, and not necessarily an exportable one, as proved by the recent adaptation of the popular 1960s animated TV series “Kyojin no Hoshi” (“Star of the Giants”) for India. Probably the most representative example of supokon, “Kyojin” is about Hyuuma Hoshi, an impoverished boy who dreams of becoming a pitcher for the Giants, Japan’s most popular baseball team. His father beats, humiliates and runs him ragged in order to make him a star. Publishing house Kodansha, which owns the rights to the story, sold it to an Indian production company as a means of promoting Japanese merchandise on the subcontinent, since the new cartoon includes lots of product placements. Kodansha chose “Kyojin” because when it originally aired Japan was going through the same kind of economic growing pains that India is experiencing now.

Baseball was switched to cricket, since it is India’s national sport, but other requested changes perplexed Kodansha, according to reports in the Mainichi and Tokyo Shimbuns. One of the most famous scenes from “Kyojin” is Hyuumas father losing his temper and upsetting the dinner table, scattering dishes everywhere. The Indian side said this action would be seen as wasting food, so it was changed. Then there were scenes involving bodily harm or stress, which the Indians deemed “cruel.”

If Kodansha thought the Indians were overreacting it’s probably because taibatsu under certain circumstances is not considered violence. In its investigation of the basketball coach, the Osaka Board of Education didn’t qualify the beatings as taibatsu because the victim “didn’t do anything wrong,” thus implying that if the coach’s sole intention was to punish the boy he’d be off the hook. Parents of other players on the team may find the distinction to be an academic one, since some media have reported that they plan to ask the school to keep the coach on. They still think he’s the best chance their sons have of becoming pros.

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