In late December an Osaka area high school boy killed himself. His parents complained to his school that he had suffered excessive corporal punishment from his physical education coach and the story quickly gained traction and caused weeks of soul searching over the issue of corporal punishment that used to be the norm in school but that still persists throughout Japanese culture in varying degrees. It persists in school - on school sports teams especially - in professional athletics, and it persists in the corporate office where
“power abuse” by company seniors against their juniors is common.
Unsurprisingly, the coach avoided arrest and Japan Times newspaper readers expressed their incredulity (“How does coach avoid arrest?,’ William Murphy, January 27). It wasn’t until a report in the Friday, February 15thnewspaper that we learned the coach was finally fired from his teaching post. But until then he was still supervising youngsters. In Canada we can imagine that the coach would quickly be arrested, suspended, and a lawsuit ensued against him personally, against the school and against the school board. But here the Osaka City Board of Education`s only reaction was to suspend entrance examinations for the physical education department of the school involved. Naturally it was a bumbling, ineffectual response that accomplished exactly nothing.
Then the January 31st Japan Times story `Judo federation apologizes for abuse` recounted harassment and assault claims by female judoka on the national team. This time, though, it was revelations of sexual abuse in addition to physical abuse, which effectively lifted the case to a whole new level. In addition, it involved an Olympic team in which Japan takes considerable pride, and a sport in which Japan excels. And still more, it occurred at the start of a year when the location of the 2020 Olympic Games - for which Tokyo is once again bidding - will be decided.
One of the worst features about these episodes is the feigned shock by Japanese media and commentators. The pretense that any of this is out of the ordinary is frustrating. We all know that there is a streak of cruelty and violence running straight through Japanese culture and history. Percival Constantine was correct in his January 17th letter `Corporal punishment common,` and Manfred Baur was also correct in his January 20th letter `Coach may be just tip of iceberg.` Of course he is. In a culture like Japan`s where how things look is more important than how they actually are more is hidden than is revealed and everything is the tip of some iceberg. Then the nail was hit right on the head, I think, with the article “Violent coaching rooted in militarism,” (February 11, 2013). Of course it is. Duh!
There is growing concern in sports and political circles that these disagreeable revelations might negatively infringe Tokyo’s Olympic bid by irretrievably soiling Japan’s image. That’s how it was reported on February 10thin “Judo coach abuse scandal taints Tokyo Olympics bid,” and later in “Judo scandal casts doubt on Olympic bid,” February 17th.
To me it’s not just a question of a violent sports culture but of a violent culture altogether. We might speculate about a dark side of Japan’s peaceful, law-abiding reputation. We might say that abuse - child abuse in particular - is one of Japan`s cultural traditions. Internationally, criminal mothers are allowed to kidnap their own children from foreign spouses and get away with it on the precept that they have exclusive rights to their children, as property. Domestically, terrorizing children with demon masks to celebrate setsubun (a New Year’s home exorcising event held in February) is child abuse. So is the annual spring time `Baby cry sumo` festival when sumo wrestlers deliberately shake babies to evoke crying. So is forcing school children to eat mercury-tainted dolphin and whale meat in their school lunches. So is grading students on their patriotism. So is forcing school boys to go about in winter with bare legs exposed from school uniform short pants. In fact, short pants themselves might be a human rights crime. Oh, the woe!