The All Japan Judo Federation issued an apology Wednesday, admitting to allegations that 15 of its top female athletes were subjected to harassment and physical violence by head coach Ryuji Sonoda and other coaching staff.
“This is something that never should have happened,” said judo federation senior director Koshi Onozawa at a press conference held at the Kodokan in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward. “We will double efforts to make sure this never happens again.”
Sonoda, 39, and other coaching staff received an official warning in a letter in mid-January after being questioned by the judo federation. The judo federation said it does not intend to release the names of the women or other coaches involved and at this juncture has no plan to replace Sonoda.
Asked by reporters if the public would find it acceptable to leave Sonoda in his current position as head coach, given the circumstances, Onozawa only replied, “We want the public to closely watch his performance and let him demonstrate his achievements.”
The incidents involving Sonoda first came to light last September, and after judoka were questioned he was ordered to write an apology and given a strict reprimand in November.
Onozawa said he believed the incidents had been “settled” after Sonoda apologized directly to the judoka involved, but the group of 15 whistle-blowers sent a written complaint to the Japanese Olympic Committee at the end of 2012.
“It is a given that athletes come first. We need to get a proper grip on the situation and train the trainers thoroughly,” said a senior JOC official.
The judoka complained in the document of being sworn at, slapped and hit with bamboo swords, while some were forced to compete in matches even though they were injured. That prompted them to ask the judo federation for an overhaul of the coaching staff, sources said.
It is rare for top athletes to make such a complaint as a group. The group included judoka who took part in last summer’s London Games, the sources said.
The judo federation said it has confirmed five cases occurred from August 2010 to February 2012, in which wrestlers were slapped, kicked or shoved.
Asked by reporters about the allegations, Sonoda replied, “Until now I have been doing things the way I saw fit, but I will mend the things that need fixing.”
The news comes on the heels of the December suicide of a 17-year-old high school student in Osaka after he was physically punished by the school’s basketball club coach. It was reported that the coach, who remains unidentified and as yet reportedly unpunished, repeatedly abused the victim as well as other members of the team.
The judoka complaint indicates that such violence is widespread even in top-level domestic sports.
The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry has ordered the JOC to investigate incidents of violence in the judo federation.
Sports minister Hakubun Shimomura has said that if true, the acts are “most deplorable.”
“Given the issue involving corporal punishment in Osaka, we will work to completely change the mindset in the sports world that justifies the use of violence,” Shimomura added, referring to the teenager’s suicide in Osaka.
Suicide no secret
OTSU, Shiga Pref.
A junior high school student who committed suicide in October 2011 after being severely bullied had told a classmate of his wish to die and the school in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, knew about this based on a survey carried out immediately after his death, the city’s board of education said.
“The initial response was inadequate, and we feel deeply sorry,” Tetsuo Matsuda, head of the board’s education division, said Tuesday.
According to the officials, the school started questioning nearly 20 students on Oct. 12, 2011 — the day after the boy, 13, jumped to his death. The investigation found that the student had told the classmate that he wanted to die at a cram school where they were studying that September and had sought advice. He did not give a reason for feeling suicidal.
Other students questioned said the boy had been bullied, according to officials from the board of education. Based on the investigation, the principal of the school compiled a document stating that the boy might have become pessimistic.
At a staff meeting Oct. 17, 2011, six days after the student’s death, the principal said it appeared certain that bullying was a major factor behind his suicide. The school began a survey of all of its students the same day.
In November 2011, the board of education concluded that the boy had been bullied but did not recognize that bullying had anything to do with his suicide. The boy’s family was not informed of the school’s investigation at the time.