Abuse Of Young Athletes In Japan Exposed

A report released today by the international non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) has revealed shocking incidents of abuse of young athletes in Japan whilst participating in sport.

On what should have been the opening week of the now postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics, HRW has highlighted the testimonies of 800 former child athletes, with Minky Worden, Director of Global Initiatives at HRW, highlighting the variety of abuse reported, including but not limited to “punching, slapping, kicking or striking with objects, excessive or insufficient food and water.” Worden explains how “for decades, children in Japan have been brutally beaten and verbally abused in the name of winning trophies and medals.”

Of the 381 survey respondents aged 24 or younger, 19 percent indicated they had been hit, punched, slapped, kicked, knocked to the ground, or beaten with an object. As many as 18 percent reported experiencing verbal abuse, and five reported experiencing sexual assault or harassment while participating in sport as children. HRW wrote to many sports federations in Japan for clarity on their process for dealing with abuse investigations, but the vast majority have declined to respond.

In a statement, the International Olympic Committee responded by saying “We acknowledge the Human Rights Watch report entitled ‘I was hit so many times I can’t count’ – abuse of child athletes in Japan (…)The IOC stands together with all athletes, everywhere (…) as all athletes have the right to a safe sporting environment – one that is fair, equitable, and free from all forms of harassment and abuse.”

There has so far been no response to the report from either the Japanese government or the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC). Japan’s umbrella body for sports, the Japan Sports Agency, has reported they are in the process of “developing a training curriculum or making a guideline for schools. We would like to continue our efforts to eradicate violence in sports, referring to the content of their report.”

The coaching technique in question is known as taibatsu, a system of corporal punishment in sport. Corporal punishment was banned in Japan this year but there are no regulations specific to sport, and taibatsu has a long tradition in Japan’s sporting history. It is often seen as an essential component of excelling in support and building character, and belief in this value continues to be held by coaches, parents, and even some players.

Japan’s bid for the 2020 games had led to reforms aiming to discontinue the practice of taibatsu and, most significantly, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence in Sport in 2013. This move also came about after an internal survey amongst the sports federations in the JOC revealed that more than 10 percent of its athletes had been victims of bullying or harassment. However, attempts to address abuse in sport have generally been vague and suggestive, with no clear mechanisms to ensure compliance, meaning that widespread abuse continues. HRW is demanding that Japan establishes an independent administrative body to address child abuse in sport to ensure cases are reported, tracked, and remedied.

This week, Japan was due to be welcoming athletes and fans from around the world into its stadiums for the 2020 Olympics. It is instead facing critique and concern over the treatment of its own young athletes, including Olympians and Paralympians. With the Tokyo Olympics postponed until July 2021, Japan now has a year to act, and implement serious and workable procedures for combatting abuse.

Katy de la Motte