Sports governance in Japan: No more coach violence and fraudulent accounts

Photo: Kevin/Flickr

Judo is one of the sports in Japan that has recently been through a governance check. Photo: Kevin/Flickr

Japan is not only fighting bad governance in several sports, but also outdated, authoritative training methods. New rules for good governance have been set out to reform elite sport in one of the world’s leading sports nations, but conservative forces are working against them.

In Japan, the vast majority of citizens play some kind of sport during their upbringing.

But it is a world unto itself. When putting on your training clothes, you enter a world with its own rules and hierarchies, and an old belief that the best way to learn endurance and toughness is by taking a beating before gradually turning into the one who hands out the beating. This world is often in sharp conflict with the contemporary democratic rules of the game that apply on the outside.

This is the case in schools and sports clubs, where the people play their sports. And it is also the case in elite-level training facilities where a globalised and modern Japan develops its professional athletes and future medal aspirants.

”There are not many sports that do not have a problem with coach violence,” says Taisuke Matsumoto, who has developed a proposal for a new set of guidelines for sports governance in Japan as part of a research project under the so-called Japan Sports Arbitration Agency, an agency residing under Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports.

Taisuke Matsumoto is a member of the committee working on this issue within Japan’s national sports federation. He has played baseball himself. And he is a legal counselor for the professional baseball players’ association and for the national Japanese basketball federation.

The new guidelines are about sport at a national level. They are about members of the Japanese sports federation – including all professional sports – except specific enclaves such as the sumo federation. It is “not about grassroots sport”, Matsumoto underlines.

In Japan, most problems with bad governance in the national sports federations are about fiscal fiddling, falsification of receipts or cheating with the numbers of event participants to boost applications for public support. Much of this fraud is common practice.

According to the new sports governance guidelines, the federations must present revised accounts, professional experts should supervise their accounting, and the use of public funding must only take place in accordance with the Japanese Olympic Committee’s guidelines for good governance.

”We must strengthen the framework for the activities and secure an optimisation of our operations. We must also remove unfair and unnecessary management,” explains Matsumoto, who will share his experiences from Japan at the upcoming Play the Game 2015 conference.

A wake-up call for Japanese sport
The problems that are currently pursuing the management of Japanese sports became very visible last year when the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) banned Japan from all international competition.

Japan did not have one, but two competing professional leagues. The official basketball federation was actually only representing one of the leagues, but players were being sold from one league to the other.

This led to a lack of transparency that forced FIBA to make their drastic move. FIBA’s plan was to force Japan into merging the two leagues, something that had been discussed for many years, but would entail a revolt against the established power positions in Japanese basketball, which made it a difficult agreement to settle.

Today, the management of the Japanese basketball federation has been renewed and the merger is running so smoothly that the exclusion has been revoked. The national basketball team is practicing at full speed hoping to qualify for the Olympic Games next year. 

But the scandal was a wake-up call for Japanese sport. FIBA has “pointed to our lack of good governance”, as the former chairman of the Japanese basketball federation, Yasuhiko Fukatsu, said when he stepped down at the end of 2014.

”Most of the problems are about economic transactions,” says Matsumoto. “The leaders want to attract economic funding for the development of their sport and to improve the sporting results. They are trying to get  money from the public accounts.”

”That is why they far too often report wrongful information. Too many athletes, too pricy travel expenses – and in some cases also wrong registering of private sponsoring,” he continues.

”I fully believe that the new guidelines will limit the kind of problems that the basketball federation has seen,” Matsumoto says and points at the piece of paper on the table in front of us.

Coach violence as a routine
But there are also other aspects of the new guidelines that are meant to hinder the widespread pattern of coaches almost routinely beating their athletes.

On this issue, another current scandal forced the world of organised sport to take action. In 2013, it became known that an otherwise well-respected national coach for the women’s judo team had been using both violence and threatening language against his athletes prior to the London Olympics. This became the starting signal of an entire series of revelations of bad governance, to say the least, in the most Japanese of all sports.

With great variety and imagination, the judo federation had been misusing public funds and their case did not improve when, at around the same time, a former Olympic judo master was sentenced to five years in prison for having raped a high school girl that he trained.

In the end, no fewer than 23 leaders form the Japanese judo federation had to step down after the case turned political and the government applied pressure on the federation. The national prestige was at stake, while the country’s capital, Tokyo, was applying to host the Olympic Games in 2020.

”It is all about making the coaching reasonable and meaningful. It is also about making use of the technological aids available in order to avoid an inhumane pressure on the athletes,” Matsumoto explains.

”There is a pressure, obviously,” he adds, “because it is about winning. But the athletes need to think for themselves. We need to develop their mental skills.”

Role models rather than coercion
No matter how persistent they are, Matsumoto and the Japan Sports Arbitrations Agency have decided to make it voluntary for the federations to decide if, or to what extent, they wish to comply with the new guidelines.

”Sports organisations are and must remain autonomous,” Matsumoto explains. “They must be able to work on an independent basis and decide for themselves if they want to change in this direction.”

”We believe that it must be voluntary. If the guidelines become mandatory, it will create too much resistance.”

Having good role models is vital and in this respect, Matsumoto highlights the Japanese national rugby team, which has recently had great success at the world cup in England. According to Matsumoto, this success is partly due to the modern training principles encouraging the athletes to “think for themselves”, which the coach Eddie Jones has implemented. 

Another example is high school baseball. Each summer, when the whole of Japan follows the national high school baseball championships, held outside at the ancient and traditional Koshien stadium located between Osaka and Kobe and always under a scorching sun, it is no secret that many Japanese schools hold on to good old-fashioned virtues and hierarchies. The coaches have total control and the entire show has a very conservative appearance.

It is thought provoking, however, Matsumoto finds that some high schools are now breaking away from this tradition and seem to be successful in regards to both advancing in the tournament and developing new star players.

He points out the young idol, Tomoya Mori, who at the age of 19 had his big breakthrough on a professional team, the Seibu Lions, this year. Mori is a product of the baseball culture at the Toin high school in Osaka, a high school whose team has consequently been very successful at recent years’ championships.

“Some coaches have seen the importance of self management among young athletes. They have been leading more modern training methods and have had great success with it,” Matsumoto states.

He recognises that the new guidelines can appear somewhat ‘abstract’ at first sight, and that he will have to ‘objectify’ and ‘substantiate’ them in the years and months to come.

”But without a code, we are not able to discipline the coaches who do not comply with the guidelines,” he explains.

Matsumoto is well aware that it is very difficult to change anything in this area of sport.

”Many federations have already accepted the guidelines, but they find it hard to acknowledge that a serious problem even exists.”

All right, there might be some beating. And all right; the accounts may look a bit amateurish and unofficial. But this is how it has always been. It’s normal. It’s really not that big of a problem. That seems to be the general perception among the federations.

Under all circumstances, it does not change much that the federations’ leaders only more or less reluctantly recognise that these guidelines are necessary.

Basically, it is a question about changing the attitude in the training centres.

”That is why I am often doing presentations and having meetings with the young athletes and trainers,” Matsumoto says.

“Among the youth there is an interest in this problem,” he says. “They tell me that they agree that we should change the training methods in this country.”


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