This column appeared in The Japan Times in January 2013.
Veteran athletes, coaches adamant that corporal punishment has no place in sports
By Ed Odeven
The tragic death of a 17-year-old Osaka high school student and basketball captain in December sheds light on a disturbing aspect of Japanese culture that has existed for decades: corporal punishment.
It’s not a secret; most Japanese know about it, experienced the humiliation associated with it, witnessed others’ humiliation, or chose to ignore it. Or felt it was impossible to change, felt powerless to do so.
In Japan, there’s an unwritten rule that permits coaches and sporting mentors to slap, kick and punch players to get them to “toughen up.”
Sure, the Japan Ministry of Education can say it bans corporal punishment, but to fully monitor every school and club is a daunting task. Furthermore, older generations may still view physical abuse or contact for discipline as a necessary part of teaching or coaching.
But the times have changed.
This is no longer the samurai era, and a student’s reaction to being punched, kicked or bullied, as authorized by the team boss, may not be a simple “it is what it is.” Instead, death may be what he/she views as the only option after being subjected to physical punishment time after time.
The Sakuranomiya Senior High School student, whose name has not been released to the public, committed suicide on Dec. 23, a day after, according to news reports, he had been hit 30 or 40 times by the team’s 47-year-old coach. Many of his teammates had faced similar treatment.
Every life is precious. And, yes, winning is important, but does the end justify the means?
Do the above-described tactics jibe with the modern world?
Recalling his formative years as an elementary schoolboy athlete in a recent interview on NHK, former MLB and Yomiuri Giants pitcher Masumi Kuwata said, “There were no days when you weren’t hit.”
Kuwata is the first prominent Japanese athlete to call for an end to corporal punishment in this country.
“I don’t think corporal punishment as a form of instruction makes one stronger,” Kuwata told NHK. “I think those teaching sports need to change their methods to fit the times.”
In this era, there’s no place in sports, no acceptable reason, for coaches to be permitted to resort to rough physical contact to get their point across.
Forget about the “sempai-kohai” (senior-junior) aspect of Japanese culture for a minute, and recognize that success in sporting venues is not about a coach’s ability to intimidate their charges, but about successfully working together to execute winning strategies.
“It really hurts me to hear something like this just happened in school sports,” said Rizing Fukuoka guard Jun Nakanishi, who has played in the bj-league since its inception in 2005. “I don’t think hitting kids is a right way of coaching or teaching. It’s just straight domestic violence.
“I had never been coached by Japanese coaches in my school ages because I spent my times in the (United) States. Based on what I heard, it seems like most of Japanese school coaches don’t have any clue or strategy when it comes to basketball.
“That’s why they just go with the Japanese way, ‘taibatsu,’ (corporal punishment). In addition to that, it has a lot to do with culture, too. In Japan, some parents hit their kids as they raise the children. So I guess it’s considered ‘normal’ to hit the kids in Japanese culture. . . ”
Nakanishi, for one, doesn’t believe all coaches are part of the problem, though.
“Don’t get me wrong, there are many good and great coaches in Japan,” the Tokyo native said. “As you know, I played for (former Osaka Evessa) coach (Kensaku) Tennichi, one of the best Japanese coaches. He had American mentality with his good Japanese way of coaching. That’s what I like about coach Ten and I really respect him. We need more Japanese coaches like him.
“In conclusion, I’m hoping that there is going to be no more taibatsu whatsoever in school sports so that kids can have fun playing basketball or any other sports. Having fun is the most important element, especially in school ages. Even at the pro level, I’m trying to have fun every day in practice and the games. If basketball is not fun, I would (have) quit by now.”
Longtime NBA and former Tokyo Apache coach Bob Hill endorses Nakanishi’s general view.
“My immediate reaction is to fire the coaching staff and never allow them to be in a leadership position again,” said Hill, speaking out after facts of the student’s suicide were made public. “Putting your hands on athletes other than a pat on the back to encourage or congratulate is totally inappropriate.
“I think the sports culture of Japan has many great qualities. This (coach’s actions) in my mind is every bit as bad as the athletes who were caught with drugs,” Hill said. “I love Japan’s drug rules. Japan stands for something real with regards to drugs. At the end of the day, it’s what we stand for in life that really counts, not how many championships we won. To me, beating a young athlete, which motivated him to kill himself, is many times worse than doing drugs.
“I’m really saddened by this story. I hope everyone learns from it. . . . Coaches are supposed to make a positive difference in their players lives. Not motivate them to commit suicide.”
Sendai 89ers coach Bob Pierce, who has led teams in both the bj-league and JBL, learned long ago that some coaching tactics, even the most unsavory ones, remain in place for decades.
“When I first started coming to Japan, 20 years ago, I remember being asked by some of the coaches at those early clinics, if American coaches hit their players,” Pierce recalled earlier this week. “After I explained that we didn’t, and that we would be quickly fired if we did, I was usually told that coaches hitting their players was something that used to happen in Japan, or only happened in the countryside, or that if still done it was mainly by those coaching girls teams.
“In fact, over the years I’ve met many wonderful, dedicated Japanese coaches at all levels, and none of them ever hit their players as far as I know. . . . The fact that this type of punishment was already banned, however, shows how difficult it can be to monitor so many teams and coaches, and how hard it is to change a culture.”
If anything, this Osaka tragedy gets people talking about the role coaches have in Japanese society.
How long will people debate the issue and/or demand changes?
That remains to be seen. But at least people are talking about it, as evidenced by recent news coverage, and that’s a step in the right direction.
“I hope that the vast majority of coaches who do things the right way, and really care about the players they coach, will exert the kind of influence and peer pressure on their colleagues that will help them to change,” Pierce said.
“It is also important that administrators stop overlooking any unacceptable behavior just because that coach is winning. The only coach I know who has reportedly hit players, is also a famous winner, and it appears that all the teams know the reputation, but value the winning part more.”
He added: “When you are trying to show someone how to absolutely love playing basketball with his or her teammates, physical punishment never even enters into the equation.
“From my experience, physical punishment as part of coaching, seems to be more prevalent in Korea and China than in Japan,” he went on, “although this case illustrates that it still happens here as well.
“When I coached in China five years ago, I was told that I needed to hit the young players if they didn’t do exactly what I said. Of course I explained that as an American coach, I couldn’t hit the players. That didn’t spare them however, because the general manager would gather them together on a regular basis, and any players he thought weren’t paying attention or weren’t practicing hard enough, would be hit, kicked, or forced to do the duck-walk around the track, among other physical punishments. . . .
“I would expect that this is that same philosophy that was once very common in Japan, and still exists, although in a much smaller capacity.”
Yokohama B-Corsairs coach Reggie Geary, who has guided the second-year franchise to 51 victories in its first 80 regular-season games through Wednesday, expressed sadness after learning about the 17-year-old’s death.
“Anytime you lose a life so young, it’s a great tragedy,” Geary told Hoop Scoop.
With his upbringing in the United States, including his rise to stardom at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California, before moving on to the University of Arizona and then the NBA, Geary brings a different perspective than many of his Japanese peers.
“”I’ve never had to deal with that at any level as an athlete and wouldn’t have responded well if subjected to any physical abuse,” Geary said.
“As a coach, we have a great responsibility in working with children, teenagers, and/or professional athletes to do no harm. If you cannot effectively and constructively improve a player’s performance, and only can resort to physical or mental abuse to get your point across, then you have failed in my opinion.
“Teams and coaches that practice this philosophy, even if successful, are doing more harm than good. . . . This cycle of abuse is how you end up with a tragic case like we just had in the young man who killed himself.
“As an American, physical and mentally bullying is one of the key issues in our society that we’re trying to deal with on a national level to protect our youth. Athletics should be fun, healthy, and competitive . . . and should never be a place of fear or intimidation.”
The more coaches that share Geary’s values, the better. Furthermore, I strongly support basketball coaches and other sports figures getting together to make a series of public-services announcements in Japan to denounce the things that Kuwata labeled as no longer being acceptable or appropriate.
It’s time to completely eliminate barbaric random (and repeated) acts of violence against students and athletes.