Bullying in judo exposes sports' military roots in Japan

TOKYO —

The resignation of the national women’s judo coach who beat athletes with a bamboo sword was a nasty reminder of how Japan’s sporting world still draws on the traditions that led the country to war last century, experts say.

And, they say, despite the bravery of the judokas who risked their careers to bring it to light, the culture of coercion and corporal punishment is so ingrained that it will die hard.

Ryuji Sonoda quit in disgrace on Feb 1 after 15 of his charges accused him and his staff of slapping, kicking and beating them during training in the run up to the London Olympics.

Sonoda, 39, who doubles as a judo instructor for Tokyo police, was also heard telling members of the squad to “drop dead” during humiliating dressing downs.

His boss Kazuo Yoshimura, the technical director at the All-Japan Judo Federation, also stepped down later along with one of Sonoda’s assistant coaches.

But the women, none of whom has been named publicly, say despite the seriousness of the charges, multiple complaints were only acted on by the male-dominated federation and the Japanese Olympic Committee when the scandal was exposed by the media in late January.

“We were deeply hurt both physically and mentally. Some of us were reduced to tears and others were exhausted,” they said in a statement, adding they took a stand “for the future of women’s judo”.

The explosive case came weeks after a teenager killed himself following repeated physical abuse from his high school basketball coach, reigniting a national debate on widespread corporal punishment in schools and sport.

Worried about negative fallout from these incidents on Tokyo’s bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics, the government announced an independent body to investigate and prevent the abuse of athletes by their coaches in all sports.

But, says Hidenori Tomozoe, a professor of sports ethics at Tokyo’s Waseda University, the problem is a systemic one.

Sonoda, the judo coach, said he had been beaten himself by coaches but “I never took it as physical punishment.” He added he had struck his judokas “as I wished them to stay strong and overcome mental barriers”.

Physical punishment is frequently tolerated in schools—nurturing grounds for sports in Japan—as an effective tool to produce athletes, says Tomozoe.

He said the tradition dates to 1925 when the government started sending military officers into schools as drill instructors to provide jobs for them after World War I.

This coincided with Japan’s march toward militarism and the acquisitive and brutal warring of the following two decades.

“They beat students and otherwise acted violently against them in the name of training,” he told AFP. “After the war, they were purged but the atmosphere or ethos they created has remained in school culture.

“It is like an accumulation of pus over 100 years and will be never be cured in a year or two,” he said.

A law was enacted in 1947 to prohibit the physical discipline of students by teachers. However, such practices have continued in the absence of statutory penalties for offenders.

Japan’s professional sporting world is no stranger to tales of extreme physical abuse.

In 2007, a 17-year-old sumo apprentice died after a hazing incident involving his stable master and senior wrestlers. The stable master, who struck the teen with a beer bottle, was sentenced to five years’ jail for negligence resulting in death.

Former baseball star pitcher Masumi Kuwata, 44, recalled being beaten by his seniors when he played in school teams.

“Violent coaching in sports including baseball is carrying on the legacy of wartime military education,” he said, adding that Japanese baseball adapted to spartan training and absolute obedience during the war.

“I never felt that the pain and fear of physical punishment had ever toughened me a bit,” Kuwata told a seminar on violence in coaching.

He said was impressed when he observed training in school baseball in the United States during his 2007 stint with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“There was no angry shouting or beating at all. They played baseball freely and leisurely. Such a background produces major leaguers.”

Noriko Mizoguchi, who won a silver medal at the Barcelona Olympics and coached the French women’s judo team from 2002-2004, said the petition by the 15 women was a “turning point in Japanese thinking”.

“These women are worried they will be treated like criminals if Tokyo loses its Olympic bid,” Mizoguchi, who teaches sports science at a university, told AFP.

“But I think rather they will become key players in making the bid a success because they embody the Olympic spirit that never condones discrimination and violence.”

© 2013 AFP

Author Infomation

Shigemi Sato
Shigemi Sato
  • 1

    volland

    "The resignation of the national women’s judo coach who beat athletes with a bamboo sword was a nasty reminder of how Japan’s sporting world still draws on the traditions that led the country to war last century, experts say."

    If the behaviouer of a Judo coach was the worst problem that even today is caused by "the traditions that led the country to war" then Japan would be a happy country.....

  • 2

    Moonraker

    However, such practices have continued in the absence of statutory penalties for offenders.

    This seems to be a recurring problem. There are many humanitarian laws on the books in Japan but no or very weak penalties for violators.

    When some company is hauled before some bureaucrats to bow and had over a wad of papers it is always a good idea to ask what law was broken and what the penalty is, because it regularly turns out that there is no penalty. The media seem incapable of asking the questions and it becomes just another PR exercise with the rule of law sidelined.

  • 0

    ChibaChick

    I would like to see the Judoka named and publicly recognized for their bravery in going against what is basically their leader and their culture in the name of what is right.

    They have done it for future generations. I want future generations to know who have potentially saved them from this BS. These women are heroines and thanks to their high profile position they could just be the tipping point that means in the future no parents will have to bury their sports star son or daughter because of this nonsense.

    But I doubt that will happen. The last thing the authorities here want is for people to start revereing those who question them.

  • 2

    GW

    Yes like I said in another thread Three CHeers for these Judoka!

    If only Japan can take their fine example & LEARN from it! Alas its unlikely, but'd love to be proved wrong.

    This abuse(mental & physical) is pervasive throughout society, life for Japanese could highly benefit from changing this highly destructive way of thinking, making a huge improvement for all, how about it Japan, you up for making your lives better?

    These 15 sure are & I applaud them, they need to be put on pedastals & their fine example show to all to learn from!

  • 0

    Ninjazilla

    Its time for people to say no to this abusive violent system. Giving Tokyo the Olympics is just rewarding the corruption of these horrible coaches. Say no to Tokyo in 2020 if you want change to happen.

  • 0

    edbardoe

    "Bullying" refers to verbal debasing of vulnerable subjects like youth or gays. This stuff is really criminal assault.

  • 0

    Thunderbird2

    I think a fair amount of the structure within the workplace and schools stems from the old wartime militarism. The way people are made to ritual apologies (i.e. public humiliation), the rigid training and morning motivational exercises, and even the sailor uniforms and high-collared jackets at school have militaristic overtones.

    Seriously, you want to say to some Japanese people: "calm down, take it easy, mate... "

  • 1

    Lowly

    "stems from 1925 military influence in the schools"

    Really? I'd like to know more... That seems like such a specific date, and it really is much more a part of the overall culture, way I see it. "it" = not just physical bullying but all the dressing down rote apologizing.

    I mean they brought in the prussian school uniforms and school style before then, right? And zen- such abase of various jpns culture- has been around a long time, and good or bad, is about beating the ego out of you.

    "100 yrs of built up pus"

    very easy to understand metaphor.

    congrats to the ladies for making their stand. hope it brings real change, tho. Like the 100 yrs of pus guy said, won't happen overnight imo.

  • 0

    Riceland

    Aru hi....nihon will not tolerate abuse to their people in any sports, school and home physical nor verbally. That they would treat their mothers, sisters, and daughters with much freedom, love and respect and equality and that the men and women would not be force to follow old ways. This is my only hope for a better nihon. My dreams about nihon is ruin because I know now at this present time and in the past all people had suffer to live in a place they called home by the hands of their own.

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