When four members of Japan’s national basketball team were sent home from the Asian Games last month for patronizing prostitutes, the resulting scandal capped almost a year’s worth of bad publicity for sports in Japan. Over this time we’ve had allegations of “power harassment” raised against the Japan Wrestling Federation, the premeditated dangerous tackle by a member of the Nihon University American football team, accusations of misuse of funds by the Japan Amateur Boxing Federation, and charges of physical abuse and harassment in gymnastics.
As media critic Minako Saito wrote in her Sept. 5 Tokyo Shimbun column, these stories are like something out of a comic book where good and evil are clearly delineated. Real life is never so Manichean, but the media play it out that way, and sometimes it’s difficult to get a sense of what’s really going on. In a Sept. 1 Tokyo Shimbun column about online media, Junichiro Nakagawa claimed that TV has led the charge against the miscreants in these scandals because they work in amateur sports, which “don’t have a deep relationship with television,” or, at least, not as deep as professional baseball does. TV reporters can cover the scandals any way they want without worrying about repercussions. It’s easy to make Japan Amateur Boxing Federation President Akira Yamane into a villain because of his gangster-like appearance and demeanor. Nakagawa repeatedly uses the term “nōkin,” an abbreviation of the phrase “nō miso ga kinniku,” which means “the brain is a muscle,” an insult commonly directed at people in sports, especially administrators who were once athletes themselves. The feeling is that they run things based on entrenched tradition without ever questioning that tradition, so when a scandal erupts they appear clueless.
The basketball scandal is no different, though the focus on sex makes it more problematic for the mainstream media. The tabloid media has no problem at all, and while that gives them an advantage in terms of ethical guidelines — they aren’t expected to follow any — it also highlights their culpability in sustaining the attitudes that give rise to such scandals.
The weekly Shincho’s coverage of the basketball story was typical. Describing the news conference with the four disgraced athletes after their return from Jakarta as a “public execution,” the magazine revealed its stance, which is that the matter was blown out of proportion by the mainstream press, who kept demanding the players apologize to the nation in humiliating fashion. These young men’s lives, and not just their careers, have been destroyed.
“They were treated like the worst criminals,” said the writer, who proceeded to explain their crime from the standpoint of someone who might have done the same thing if he had been in their situation — although he would have been smarter about it. According to Shincho, the scandal was a confluence of three factors: too much beer after a preliminary victory in the tournament, a team rule obligating the players to wear their uniforms when there were out in public and the players’ naivete. When they left the drinking establishment after midnight, the players were approached by prostitutes and followed them to a hotel. An Asahi Shimbun photographer was hanging around and saw the initial exchange. The photographer even took pictures.
Shincho reinforces its position with quotes from sources whose take on the scandal is not sports-related. A Japanese reporter who lives in Jakarta explains how the neighborhood where the players drank has become more amenable to prostitution in recent years. The editor of a magazine about the Asian sex trade compared Indonesian prostitutes to those from other countries (“more polite than Thais or Filipinos,” “more service for less money”). A sociologist lamented “society’s demand” that athletes be saintlier than “regular people.” And media maven Dave Spector commented about the ridiculousness of holding athletes to higher moral standards when “all they want to do is play sports.”
Shincho questioned the Asahi Shimbun’s decision to report the players’ late night rendezvous, implying that the newspaper, acting out of a smug sense of journalistic professionalism, not only ruined these players’ lives but brought attention to this area of Jakarta and, at least temporarily, scared away business. The reporter added that South Korea was probably happy about the scandal.
Shincho wasn’t alone. Twitter and other social media were filled with complaints about the Asahi Shimbun, whom some accused of purposely wrecking Japan’s basketball chances at the Asian Games, although most of these critics hate the media organization to begin with.
The newspaper declined to comment on the record for Shincho, although if they had they could have pointed out that athletes participating in international competitions can be disqualified for buying prostitutes. As reporter Yuko Shimazawa asked in an Aug. 22 article in Business Insider Japan, Didn’t these four players know about the campaigns, supported by numerous world athletic bodies, to prevent trafficking at international sports events?
Probably not, she assumed. The U.S. State Department issued a report in June in which Japan was ranked among the worst tier one countries in the world in terms of prostitution and trafficking and has no effective penalties in place. (Governments in tier one countries fully comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards.) This lack of accountability is an outcome of Japan’s poor comprehension of human rights, Shimazawa says.
Bolstering this attitude are the twin beliefs that nothing can be done about men’s desire for sex and that male athletes need sex to relieve the tension generated by competition. The mainstream press crucifies players for revealing that Japanese athletes can’t transcend these impulses, while the tabloid press dismisses the scandal as merely a boys-will-be-boys thing. Both implicitly blame the prostitutes, because male athletes don’t know any better. That’s as good an illustration of “muscles for brains” as you’re going to get.