Corporal punishment has long been a tradition in the Japanese school sports scene, just as it has in Japanese society as a whole.
As it has come to be considered a problem, the number of cases have seemingly been on the decline. But at the same time, there is still a long way to go before corporal punishment is eliminated from the country.
In 2012, a boy’s basketball team player at Osaka’s Sakuranomiya High School killed himself after repeatedly being targeted for physical punishment by the team’s head coach because he was the team captain. That case was reported on extensively and recognized as something the nation cannot overlook.
Months later, the Education ministry reminded the chief education officers and governors of each prefecture and presidents of national universities across Japan that corporal punishment, or taibatsu in Japanese, is prohibited under Article 11 of the School Education Act.
According to inquiries conducted by the ministry, a total of 2,047 cases of physical punishment were reported on sports teams of elementary, junior high and high schools around the country in the 2012 fiscal year. Two years later, there was a dramatic decrease to just 246 in the 2014 fiscal year.
But many believe the reported figures are just the tip of the iceberg and there are more cases behind the scenes.
Most recently, the male head coach of the girl’s basketball team at Saitama Sakae High School resigned in late June after admitting to using violence on his players, while a coach for the Musashi Ogose High School, also of Saitama Prefecture, soccer team was fired for the same reason.
So even after tragic incidents like the Sakuranomiya case were widely reported, why has corporal punishment not yet been exterminated?
The issue is deep-seated, and the solutions to eradicate it can’t be found so easily, says Masamitsu Ito, a coaching studies professor for Tokyo’s Nippon Sport Science University.
In fact, surveys indicate a big chunk of people in Japan believe the current status quo in sports is acceptable, and many parents even ask coaches to be hard on their children, in hopes of laying the seeds for athletic success.
“I think that they believe (children) need to be coached harshly, if not physically,” Ito told The Japan Times in a recent interview. “In other words, they think they need something like ascetic practices to make their children stronger, and there is a belief like that somewhere in our culture.”
Forcing athletes to do something could work but only to a certain degree and it does not genuinely develop them — Ito said this is a general consensus among scholars in his field around the globe.
Nevertheless, corporal punishment still occurs in Japan because the country’s educational system has a long history of relying on violent methods in coaching.
With that said, Ito insisted the laws and regulations would probably not work to terminate Japan’s custom of taibatsu as long as it is believed to be effective.
In Ito’s words, what those who use physical punishment are doing is “indoctrinating” their students, trying to force them into learned patterns, and that method is not equivalent to teaching or developing.
“Maybe (those coaches) are just letting their students do what they are believe is right,” the 46-year-old said.
So if laws and regulations are not the best solutions to root out corporal punishment in sports, what are the true solutions?
Ito, who is one of the foremost authorities on coaching studies in Japan, believes “coaching coaches” or “developing coaches” can change this wicked custom.
As part of what he does in his lab, Ito has been attempting to develop an athlete-centered active learning approach, while the traditional coaching at most Japanese school sports teams are coach-centered.
Ito allows his graduate students to evaluate their own coaching by watching videos in the classroom. He believes results could be achieved when coaches who use violent methods on their athletes observe their own coaching styles objectively in this way.
Ito provided an interesting example, citing a female judo coach, who is learning coaching studies under him, who was shocked to see how one-sided her interaction was with one athlete.
“Why don’t you go grip the pulling hand (on her opponent’s jacket) first?” the coach asks the athlete in the video.
The athlete would only respond to her inquires with a “yes,” but nothing more.
The coach came to Ito and said that she was embarrassed to see herself communicating with the athlete in such a one-sided fashion.
Ito and the coach then worked together on her methods and applied the “GROW” model. That stands for Goal, Reality, Option and Will, and is the method Ito advises coaches use with athletes.
Ito said a few months after that, the judo coach was completely different, asking the same athlete what she would like to do (goal), why she can’t do a certain thing (reality), presenting other ways to do to her (options) and letting her decide how she wants to do it on her own (will).
“She later put this in her master’s thesis: ‘It is not that athletes cannot think on their own. It was my ways that were wrong,’ ” Ito said. “You are often asking your athletes in wrong ways. If you change that a little bit, your athlete can think on their own a lot better.”
Sports science, not coaching studies, was Ito’s original academic field. He spent about a year at the Australia Institute of Sport in Adelaide as a researcher, and a few years later returned to NSSU in 2010, where he switched to coaching studies, which is a relatively new academic field in Japan.
Ito served as a performance analyst for the Japanese women’s volleyball team under head coach Shoichi Yanagimoto at the 2004 Athens Olympics. He has also made research trips overseas. Through those experiences, he gained an international perspective about coaching.
Now, Ito racks his brain thinking of what good coaches really are and of how better coaches can be produced at NSSU and in Japan.
Ito emphasized the mission of the field in which he and his fellow scholars work is to “ask ourselves how coaches are really supposed to be, and that’s not just focused on winning (games).”
Ito insists coaching studies have the potential to eventually eliminate corporal punishment in sports.
He said it is vital for coaches to understand they are only facilitators there to support athletes’ development, not to forcibly imprint on them what they think is right.
Ito cited a famous quote from Italian polymath and astronomer Galileo Galilei: “We cannot teach people anything; we can only help them discover it with themselves.”
“The most important thing for coaches is to come up with methods to make (athletes) want to voluntarily work on (their own development), not to force them to do so,” Ito said. “When (athletes) are really into what they do, when they really get absorbed in it, they automatically work harder.”
Those coaches who use violent techniques with their athletes do so because they were coached in the same way and believe they need to purge their athletes of failure. Ito thinks unless the definitions of teaching and coaching completely change, taibatsu will not disappear from Japanese classrooms and sports teams around the country.
He admitted that it’s a long shot, but that won’t deter him in his quest to solve the issue.
Ito also thinks many coaches physically punish their athletes because they are passionate about the players’ development and he says that enthusiasm should not be discouraged.
“They go out there every single day to coach their athletes, and if you lose the passion, Japanese sports are going to be ruined,” Ito said.
Meanwhile, NSSU is one of the few institutions that shoulders the responsibility of developing coaches who would not resort to physical punishment. The school has been entrusted by the government with the operation of the “Coach Developer Academy,” which is part of the “Sport For Tomorrow” international contribution program that’s led by the Japan Sports Agency. Ito, who is a member of the International Council for Coaching Excellence, is one of the integral staff members.
The university hosted the “Coach Developer Programme” in July last year and February this year, bringing in global authorities from the field of coaching development like John Bales, president of the International Council For Coaching Excellence, and Ralph Pim, who is a former professor of Physical Education at the United States Military Academy.
The participants came from all over the world, including from Sweden, Singapore, Britain, Brazil, South Africa and Israel.
As Ito stated, having more coach developers to foster better coaches would be a significant key toward eliminating corporal punishment in Japanese sports going forward.