PtG Article 03.07.2019

Scandals expose widespread harassment in Japanese sport before the Olympics

Traditionally, Japanese sport has a tough hierarchy, but in the run up to next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo both the media and the public has begun to critically examine the traditional practice.

In recent years, Japan has seen its share of sports scandals that have exposed the brutal hierarchy that exists between coaches and athletes in many Japanese training facilities – also on an Olympic level.

The most publicised case involved the long-standing grand old man of Japanese wrestling, Kazuhito Sakae, who in the spring of 2018 had to bow in front of the TV cameras and excuse his long-time harassment of the four-time Olympic champion Kaori Icho. At the time of the scandal, Sakae was development director at the Japan Wrestling Federation and the head of talent development in the sport. Since then he has lost all of his official positions and coaching jobs in sport.

What is new is not so much that bullying, power harassment, sexual harassment and, in several cases, physical abuse is taking place within Japanese sport. That has been common knowledge among anyone with a connection to Japanese sport for years. What is new is that the media are exposing the stories as huge scandals, and that ordinary Japanese, from diehard fans to parents of athletes, no longer want to accept the traditional practice.

"Japanese society has generally become much more sensitive towards any kind of harassment, from sexual harassment to power harassment," explains Hiroshi Takeuchi, an experienced sports journalist from the leading news agency Kyodo and spokesman for the Japanese Olympic Committee during the Olympics.

"In the past, Japanese society was very naïve regarding corporal punishment, particularly in sporting activities and in school classrooms. It was normal that coaches were allowed to opt for corporal punishment if they found that the athletes or teams were lazy or lacked discipline," he argues.

"Today we know that corporal punishment according to current standards is topical power harassment. Some coaches in Japan still believe that they should be tough on the athletes, but a majority of them, particularly at the Olympic level, now understand that in order to bring the athletes’ sporting performance up to a world class level, dialogue and conversation with your athletes is a much more effective tool to encourage athletes instead of being too tough."

Systematic harassment

During the major wrestling scandal last year, it was revealed that Kazuhito Sakae begun systematically harassing Kaori Icho, primarily mentally, after she won two gold medals in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008 and started making independent decisions to move her daily training from his centre in Aichi County to another centre in Tokyo. That was not up to her to decide, Sakae felt.

In the run up to the world championships in 2010, he ordered Kaori Ichos personal trainer to end their cooperation. He tried to fire the coach for not following orders, but in the end he did not get his way, though his pressure brought about uncertainty and insecurity during training.

He inexplicably refrained from selecting her for the Asian Games in 2010, and in the run up to the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016, he exerted his influence to prevent her from using her preferred gym in Tokyo. Furthermore, he clearly expressed his anger and animosity towards her when he met her by unashamedly shouting at her that she looked awful and that he could not stand the sight of her.

These are just a few concrete examples of the long-time and systematic harassment of Kaori Icho and, to a lesser extent, another Olympic wrestler since 2010 that was revealed to the public in 2018. After a few weeks in the media spotlight, the scandal not only forced Kazuhito Sakae to apologise and resign from all positions within national wrestling, but also cost him his current job as coach of the wrestling team at Shigakkan University in Aichi County.

The newspaper Mainichi Shimbun called the relationship between Sakae and Icho an "antiquated relationship between a master and his disciple". The subject of possible physical harassment has not been directly the touched upon in the respectable media, but the broader debate brought about by this and other scandals in gymnastics, swimming, speed skating and sumo wrestling is very much focused on this topic.  

"Unfortunately, I think that power harassment still exists in many sports in Japan, from the youth level to the Olympic level, though the number of cases has dropped compared to the situation ten or fifty years ago," assesses Hiroshi Takeuchi.  

You do not speak out

It is thought-provoking that Kaori Icho, when the scandal first broke out, issued a statement saying that she had nothing to do with the accusations against her former coach and master. It was three other Olympic contestants who, without her knowledge, had sent an official complaint to the Japanese authorities over how Icho was treated.

"Not speaking out is rooted in Japanese culture. Traditionally, people here are not accustomed to revealing details about themselves or sharing personal issues in public media," expert and associate professor Makoto Watanabe from Hokkaido Bunkyo University stated in Deutsche Welle. "Society looks down on people who do break that unwritten rule."

The same pattern is seen in another highly publicised sports scandal in 2018. During a press conference, an Olympic gymnast – 18-year-old Sae Miyakawa – stated that she had been physically beaten by her coach on several occasions during her career, including being slapped in the face and having her hair pulled. But when the coach subsequently received a lifetime suspension, she felt compelled to stress that she had not asked for this punishment, which she found to be too severe. She would like him to be her coach for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo and she accused other leaders in the organisation of power harassment because of their efforts to pressure her into choosing a different coach.

The traditional hierarchies within Japanese sports are pivotal reasons for why these cases of harassment still take place and few want them to evolve into larger complaints and public scandals. Athletes are – like anywhere else in the world – dependent on their leaders and coaches if they want to be selected for the biggest competitions and this lays the ground for widespread harassment and abuse of power.

Another reason is that no matter how professional it looks on the surface during the big competitions, many of the smaller Japanese amateur sports associations are in desperate need of both money and manpower in the periods between competitions. Sponsors are interested in the spotlight and TV cameras of the events – not in the day-to-day training and work in the organisations.

This presents the few people who keep the machinery running on a daily basis with a lot of power. Not necessarily the competent administrators and just leaders, but typically retired former athletes from the same sport, who gained prestige through their performances as athletes or coaches several years ago. These small organisations are not capable of effectively upholding rules and ethical guidelines in the gyms. Especially not in a situation where all of their limited resources are spent on preparing for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Slow changes in Japanese sport

The interest from the media reflects that things are changing in Japan, but it is taking its time, explains Dan Orlowiz, a sports journalist at The Japan Times.

"For every high school baseball team, who find a coach abusing his power over the players, there are still plenty of old school people outside the court, who are going to dismiss the issue, saying that it is only strengthening the boys’ characters," he states.

Nonetheless, Japan is in a process of rooting out the worst cases of bullying and power harassment with the West as both role model and bugbear. They know that too many of these types of revelations will impair the otherwise positive image Japanese sport has had abroad.

"More and more people are aware that this kind of abuse from the coaches is not tolerated as much  in the USA and elsewhere, and there is also a generation of parents who went through afternoon sports in middle school and high school themselves, and do not want their kids to have the same experiences."

"I also think that as more and more Japanese athletes go abroad to train and develop their skills they in turn  become proof  that the traditional style of Japanese coaching is not the only way to develop a successful Japanese athlete," Dan Orlowith argues.