Olympic Spotlight Shines on Japanese Athlete Abuse
In the wake of recent scandal and Tokyo's current bid for the 2020 Olympics, the emotional and physical abuse of Japanese national Judo athletes by their coaches- the hallmark of traditional Japanese martial arts instruction- has come under attack. Recently, a joint letter by 15 members of the women's Japanese national Judo team demanding a stop to the culture of “power harassment” that they have been subjected to has gained some international notoriety. But the shadows of discontent in the native home of Judo are only currently visible because of the Olympic spotlight shinning on Tokyo.
Japanese female athletes have been voicing their concerns for some time, first from retired former bronze medalist Kaori Yamaguchi. After the women's team returned from the London 2012 games, Yamaguchi lodged a complaint with the All Japan Judo Federation (AJJF) after confirming that head coach Ryuji Sonoda had beaten several athletes for under-performing.
Sonoda received no real punishment, which prompted women's team members to bring their concerns to the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC). The details of how their complaints were juggled in bureaucracy are nicely cataloged in an article by Philip Brasor of Japan Times. The short version of the affair is that both the JOC and the AJJF invoked the only staple of Japanese national sports more cherished than abusing athletes: ignoring a problem until it goes away.
However, thanks to an upcoming visit from the International Olympic Committee involving Tokyo's 2020 bid, as well as the suicide of an Osaka high school basketball player following a beating from his coach bringing abuse of athletes into the zeitgeist, the AJJF has finally been forced to act. Sonoda has stepped down from his position as head coach of the women's team and the AJJF has declared the problem solved even though none of the athletes seem to think so. But the bandage the AJJF put across the open sore of Japan's national sports culture brings to question whether this is a solvable problem.
Judo is both a martial art and a sport. Additionally, the Japanese tend to treat other sports culturally as they would treat martial arts. In the traditional model of martial arts taught in Japan, **** rolls downhill and being low on the totem poll means disciplinary action well beyond what Western eyes view as constructive. If there was ever any evidence necessary to illustrate that Draconian treatment of athletes was part of Japan's national identity, it could be clearly seen by how Japanese media members came to Sonoda's defense after he was forced to step down, citing how the women's team exceeded expectations under his watch.
A writer as cynical as myself may even go so far as to say that the AJJF and JOC's sudden concern over the way Judo national athletes are treated is akin to a husband who temporarily stops beating his wife when the cops are at the front door.