Drive to keep kids from harm in gym class

Parents, doctors in Japan want safeguards for students in risky 'kumitaiso' competitions

TOKYO • Rushed in for emergency surgery to stop bleeding on the brain, the child was lucky to be alive, doctors at Matsudo City Hospital said. Others have come in with spinal fractures, broken ribs, and shattered limbs.

They are not young victims of violent crime in Japan, but children injured at school after taking part in kumitaiso (group gymnastics) class.

The issue has prompted angry parents and doctors to campaign against pushy teachers who are putting children's lives at risk.

Yearly, more than 8,000 kids across Japan require medical treatment after taking part in the discipline, in which students work together to contort their bodies into human pyramids and towers, according to latest figures from the Japan Sport Council (JSC).

Dr Tomohisa Shoko, head of emergency medical care at Matsudo City Hospital in Chiba, said: "If you get hurt when you can't assume a defensive position, you can get a serious injury even if the height (of the formation) is low."


We didn't impose a blanket ban because some teachers argue there are educational aspects to kumitaiso.


Recently, he operated on a 15- year-old who had internal bleeding and a broken leg after attempting a human pyramid during sports practice. One sixth-grader needed brain surgery after falling on his head.

Shocked by the injuries, Dr Shoko is now calling on schools to ensure children are better protected.

Kumitaiso has been a mainstay of annual school sport festivals. It is taught as part of the physical education curriculum to encourage teamwork and endurance.

But parents and lawmakers argue schools are increasingly putting competition before pupil welfare, and that a desire to impress and to beat rival schools with dramatic displays has turned tradition into a circus.

"There is a tendency to compete over the height of pyramids," said education sociology professor Ryo Uchida of Nagoya University, noting a recent case of a six-tier human pyramid at a kindergarten.

Last September, six students were injured as they attempted a 10-tier pyramid, which collapsed during a school sports festival in Yao in western Japan's Osaka prefecture. The incident caused top- selling Yomiuri Shimbun daily to run an editorial warning.

Since 1969, when JSC records for school sports injuries began, there have been nine deaths linked to kumitaiso.

"In many cases the risks are ignored," Dr Uchida said. He has launched a petition, backed by thousands, calling on education minister Hiroshi Hase to regulate kumitaiso formation size.

But it often takes a serious incident before schools or authorities take action. Yao's board of education is now considering a ban on kumitaiso, after public outcry over the September accident.

In February, Mr Hase, who is also a former Olympic wrestler, called for vigilance ahead of the school festival season, which starts in May.

The Japan Sports Agency (JSA) under Mr Hase's ministry has also issued a notice to education boards nationwide to halt the practice if "safety cannot be guaranteed".

School resistance, however, appears to be a key obstacle to tougher measures. JSA official Fumiki Agata told AFP: "We didn't impose a blanket ban because some teachers argue there are educational aspects to kumitaiso."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 16, 2016, with the headline 'Drive to keep kids from harm in gym class'. Subscribe