TOKYO - The routine use of violence and verbal abuse by a coach to spur greater efforts from members of Japan’s national women’s judo team has soured the country’s international sporting image.
The coach in question, Mr Ryuji Sonoda, has resigned, as have several other officials connected with the national team.
Still, Japanese Olympic officials fear that this latest scandal could jeopardise Japan’s bid to host the 2020 Summer Games.
Members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), whose charter bans the use of violence in sport, are due to pick a host city in September.
Running against Tokyo are Madrid and Istanbul.
On Tuesday, sports minister Hakubun Shimomura described the violence against the nation’s top female judokas as “the most serious crisis in Japan’s sports history”.
He has also called for an end to such violence in Japan’s sporting community.
Kicking, slapping and other forms of physical harassment by coaches are not unusual in Japanese sports teams. But complaints of such violence in the past have mostly been suppressed by officials, partly in the widespread but mistaken belief that the use of such methods is good for the athletes themselves.
Sadly, many of the victims also believe that the use of physical and verbal harassment is for their own good. Despite the physical pain, victims are expected to respond to slapping and kicking by their coaches with a loud “arigato gozaimasu” (thank you).
The Japanese even have a phrase for violence that is seen as beneficial to the victim – “ai no muchi” (literally, whip of love).
The use of praise to motivate an athlete to do his or her best, which is common in most other countries, is almost unheard of in Japan.
The women’s judo team’s complaint almost did not get a hearing.
They had raised the problem with the Japan Olympic Committee (JOC) in December last year, citing harassment and physical violence by Mr Sonoda and other coaching staff at a training camp prior to the 2012 London Olympics. They said they were slapped, kicked and hit with bamboo swords, sworn at by the coaches, and some were even forced to compete despite injuries.
But the complaints fell on deaf ears.
Then the sensational suicide in late December of a 17-year-old basketball captain in Sakuranomiya High School in Osaka turned the national spotlight on violence in sports and proved to be the turning point.
A day before he died, the teenager had told his mother he was struck 30 to 40 times during practice that day.
Following the publicity given to the Sakuranomiya incident, over 160 cases of violence in school sporting teams throughout the country have come to light in the past month or so. These cases are undoubtedly only the tip of the iceberg.
At the same time, persistent media reports of the female judokas’ complaint finally forced Japanese sports officials to take up their case. The JOC has promised to do a full investigation, not only in judo but also other sports.
Champion judoka Yasuhiro Yamashita, who won a gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, laments the damage to the sport.
“Judo is supposed to build character and educate a person. What has happened to the spirit promulgated by Jigoro Kano? Winning and losing are not everything,” said Mr Yamashita, who now works as an instructor and advisor of judo to numerous organisations. Kano (1860 – 1938) was a well-known educator who was billed as the founder of modern judo and was also active in international sport.
It remains to be seen whether the Japanese will be able to eradicate violence in sports and to get coaches to show greater respect for their charges.
For the moment, Japanese sports officials are most concerned that the judo scandal has drawn negative international attention and threatens to endanger Tokyo’s bid for the 2020 Games.
The sentencing by a court last Friday of two-time Olympic judo champion Masato Uchishiba to five years in jail for allegedly raping a female member of a college judo team in 2011 has further soiled the image of Japanese judo.
Uchishiba has denied the allegation and says he intends to appeal.
But the fate of Japan’s 2020 Olympic quest may already have been sealed.