The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has this week published its report into abuse within sport in Japan. The report is titled ‘I was hit so many times I can’t count’ and details the study’s findings: that child athletes in Japan have routinely suffered physical abuse from their coaches. The report comes in the week that would have marked the start of the Tokyo Olympics had it not been for the COVID-19 global pandemic which has delayed the games by one year.
The report documents the experiences of athletes within at least 50 different sports in Japan, at all levels of competition. Its findings are based on interviews with 56 current and former athletes; an online survey generating 757 responses; and meetings with eight Japanese sports organisations. Of the 381 survey respondents aged 24 or younger, 19% indicated they had been hit, punched, slapped, kicked, knocked to the ground or beaten with an object while participating in sport. There were also reports of excessive or insufficient food and water; being forced to train when injured or being punished with excessive training; having hair cut or shaved as punishment; and sexual and verbal abuse. Many athletes reported suffering from long term trauma as a result. Of recent child athlete interviewees who experienced abuse, all but one reported that there were no known consequences for the coach.
The report notes that violence as a coaching technique has a long tradition in Japanese sport and is often seen as essential to achieving excellence in competition and in personal character. This dangerous tradition has made the eradication of physical abuse within sport in Japan especially difficult.
The report references events which took place in the lead up to the 2012 London Olympics: the suicide of a 17 year old school basketball player in Osaka following repeat physical abuse at the hands of his coach and the resignation of the head of the Japanese Olympic women’s judo team amid accusations of physical abuse against athletes. These cases and Japan’s bid for the 2020 Olympic Games led to several reforms aimed at prohibiting ‘taibatsu’ (corporal punishment). Reforms included the declaration on the elimination of violence in sport in 2013, which urged organisations to track athlete abuse and establish reporting systems for victims. However, the HRW’s report concludes that the reporting systems which followed are ‘inaccessible’ and that ‘not enough has been done’ following the Japanese Olympic Committee’s 2013 promise to take steps to wipe out violence among its sports federations.
A number of recommendations are addressed to the Japanese government, including an explicit ban on any form of abuse as a coaching technique in sport; the establishment of an independent body tasked with solely addressing child abuse in sport; and for cases involving criminal behaviour to be referred to the police and prosecutors for concurrent criminal investigation.
The report notes that other countries and international sports bodies have also acknowledged the problem of athlete abuse and began to address such issues. It notes the increasing ‘safe sport movement’ to create robust and independent entities responsible for addressing athlete abuse but notes gaps remaining between the goals of the movement and the institutions currently in place.
The report describes child abuse in sport as a global problem and criticises reporting systems. Its publication has shortly followed reports of the suicide of a young South Korean triathlete, who had lodged a number of complaints over alleged abuse from her coaching staff.
The HRW calls for the upcoming Olympics to act as a catalyst for change and for the Japanese government and Japanese sports organisations to take the opportunity to adopt world-leading standards to prevent the abuse of child athletes and to hold offenders accountable.
Lauren Donnison, Paralegal, BLM