No pain no gain? Nonsense.

Several instances of physical and mental bullying have been reported of late in Japan, where opinion, bizarrely, seems to be divided on the subject…


It’s not sport-related but the recent incident involving AKB48’s Minami Minegishi was the latest in a worrying spate of abuse-related stories to dominate the Japanese news.

While the 20-year-old idol’s decision to shave her head and record a disturbing video apology for the heinous crime of – brace yourself – staying at her boyfriend’s house was not the result of any physical abuse (at least not that we know of), the fact that her emotional trauma – undoubtedly caused, either directly or indirectly, by external pressures – came so soon after the suicide of a 17-year-old high school basketball captain in Osaka – who hung himself after repeated beatings by his coach – and in the same week as the head coach of the Japanese women’s judo team, Ryuji Sonoda, was revealed to have beaten 15 of the athletes under his charge, there is clearly a wider issue to be addressed.

Such behaviour, as Sonoda himself pointed out when announcing his resignation, is not a recent development, and Japanese coaches, particularly in baseball, have long administered corporal punishment in order to get their point across. Or probably more accurately because they are unable to get their point across.

Indeed, Noriyuki Ichihara, the executive director of the Japanese Olympic Committee, suggested that a hands-on approach was almost certainly widespread throughout the Japanese sport.

Screengrab from Minami Minegishi's disturbing apology video

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “I am thinking this sort of thing is happening and will keep cropping up.”

Football is seemingly no exception, and Scott McIntyre of Australian broadcaster SBS recently wrote of an incident in which a German coach left his position as assistant coach of a Japanese high school team because of the manner in which the players were treated – which included, like Minegishi and her AKB colleagues, a ban on relationships, and, most shockingly of all, the practice of being hit around the face with their boots.

I have never witnessed physical abuse but was once appalled to see a youth coach ferociously tearing into his team after they lost a game at Shonan Bellmare’s Hiratsuka Stadium. The boys and girls couldn’t have been any older than eight or nine and were shocked into a terrified silence by his tirade.

An event to give kids the opportunity to play on a J.League pitch and encourage them to stick with the game had instead turned into an ordeal which most likely would have resulted in them getting home and telling their parents, “I don’t want to play football anymore.” All because of a bully who had absolutely no business trying to coach children.

To me, the lack of action by people who witness or know about physical and mental abuse taking place is almost as, if not more, worrying than the acts of the perpetrators themselves, and although at that time I had been in Japan for less than a year and only had very minimal language skills I really regret not saying something.

Exciting opportunity or one that results in boots being prematurely hung up

Bafflingly it seems that some people still don’t quite grasp the fact that it is not ok for senior figures to physically or mentally punish those entrusted to them, though.

There was very little, if any, discussion, for instance, about whether Minegishi actually had anything to apologise for or feel guilty about. If every 20-year-old was forced to publically prostrate themselves and beg forgiveness after spending the night with someone then they would have very little time for anything else.

The manner of Sonoda’s departure from his position, too, stunned me. He wasn’t fired and when resigning offered no clear apology, instead observing that he thought it may “be difficult for me to continue with my coaching job.” You think?

“It’s a shame that I have to quit under these circumstances. I feel the most responsible,” he continued. What a shame. I’m sure that’s what the judoka he physically abused were thinking as he struck them. “Oh, this is a shame”. An absolutely unbelievable level of ignorance.

Of course it is vital that instances of physical and mental abuse continue to be highlighted if the general perception of such acts is to really change, and hopefully the recent coverage will have some effect in altering the way people perceive – and more importantly respond to – bullying in any form.


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