Japan must tackle sports abuse before Olympics: activists

Tokyo (AFP) –


Japan must act to tackle "rampant" abuse of youth athletes by sports coaches before it hosts the coronavirus-delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics next year, activists said Wednesday.

The call comes after a new report warned that abusive behaviour by coaches remained common in the country.

Human Rights Watch "found that child abuse is still rampant in sports training throughout Japanese schools, federations and elite sports," the watchdog's national director Kanae Doi told reporters on Wednesday.

"While the topic of child abuse in sports today is a global problem, we chose to focus on Japan for 2020 because the Olympics and Paralympics are coming to Japan," she said.

"Every Japanese knows unfortunately that corporal punishment... has been prevalent in Japanese sports."

The group documented the experiences of more than 800 former child athletes, including Olympians, in 50 sports across the nation.

It found many had been punched, kicked or experienced verbal abuse, while others reported being ordered to eat excessively, denied water or told to train even when injured.

"I was hit so many times I cannot count," one athlete told the group.

- 'This is abuse' -

The issue is something that haunts Keiko Kobayashi, whose son was a talented 15-year-old judo grappler when his coach used a choking technique on him and threw him to the floor, causing severe brain injuries.

"I want to teach children that this is abuse," Kobayashi, 70, told AFP. "I want to teach them to raise their voice."

The coach was not prosecuted because the injury was sustained during a practice, and he continues to work as a school teacher and judo instructor, Kobayashi said.

Her son, now 30, is still suffering the effects of his injury and requires close supervision by his family and medical professionals.

Abuse in Japanese sports has made headlines in recent years.

In 2018, a 13-year-old boy in a school badminton team killed himself, with his parents accusing the boy's coach of longstanding verbal insults and abuse.

Violence is also often reported in Japan's sumo stables, and in 2013, a national Olympic judo coach stepped down after elite grapplers accused him of abuse and violence.

- 'We played in fear' -

But activists say young athletes are often afraid to report abuse, leaving violent coaches to continue their harassment.

The importance Japan's culture places on respect for elders may discourage some young people from speaking out, said Takuya Yamazaki, a sports lawyer who worked on the HRW report.

"I think a real problem here is that we have accepted this practice. And this is due to our culture and social norms," he said.

Kosuke Kayahara, 18, told AFP he struggled to tell anyone about the verbal abuse he says he and teammates experienced at the hands of their American football coach.

"We played in fear," he said. "It's difficult for people on the receiving end of abuse to speak out."

HRW wants to see tougher action from the government, specifically targeting the abuse of young athletes, including the establishment of an independent body that would decertify abusive coaches.

"When Tokyo 2020 starts, I wish Japan will be proud of its reform to protect its own children from abuse in sports and embrace this reform as an important and lasting legacy," Doi said.