Human Rights Watch criticises Japan after report reveals abuse of athletes

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A damning new study of sport in Japan has found child athletes have routinely suffered physical, sexual and verbal abuse from their coaches, which led several to take their own lives.

Released in the week the 2020 Olympics were due to begin in Tokyo, the report by Human Rights Watch includes testimonies from Japanese athletes competing in more than 50 sports who have reported abuses that included being assaulted and sexually abused or harassed, with many suffering from depression, physical disabilities and lifelong trauma as a result.

Entitled “I was hit so many times I can’t count”, the report includes responses from more than 800 former child athletes, including Olympians and Paralympians, who took part in the survey between March and June, with more than 50 interviewed in person and the rest responding to an online questionnaire.

“Participation in sport should provide children with the joy of play, and with an opportunity for physical and mental development and growth,” the report begins. “In Japan, however, violence and abuse are too often a part of the child athlete’s experience. As a result, sport has been a cause of pain, fear, and distress for far too many Japanese children.

“Athletes interviewed by Human Rights Watch described a culture of impunity for abusive coaches. Of recent child athlete interviewees who experienced abuse, all but one reported that there were no known consequences for the coach.”

According to the report, in 2012 a 17-year-old high school basketball player in Osaka took his own life after suffering repeated physical abuse at the hands of his coach. Months later, the head coach of the Japanese Olympic women’s judo team resigned amid accusations that he had physically abused athletes in the lead-up to the 2012 London Olympics.

Those cases and Japan’s bid for the 2020 Games led to the introduction of several reforms aiming to root out a practice that is known as taibatsu in Japanese, with the declaration on the elimination of violence in sport in 2013 urging organisations to track athlete abuse and establish reporting systems for victims. Human Rights Watch researchers tried to discern the reporting systems of various sports organisations and the national federations and in the report concluded they are “inaccessible.” It is understood that HRW wrote to many sports federations in Japan to ask them to report their process and data on abuse investigations, and that with few exceptions the federations declined to respond.

“In order to end abuse of child athletes in Japan, the country will need a unified approach, guided by clear mandates and standards,” adds the report. “As a start, the government should explicitly ban any form of abuse as a coaching technique in sport, and establish a Japan Center for Safe Sport, an independent body tasked solely with addressing child abuse in sport. This body should have the responsibility to create and maintain standards for child athlete protection, and should serve as the central administrative authority for investigating abuse claims and issuing proportionate sanctions against abusive coaches. Abuse cases involving criminal behaviour should also be referred to police and prosecutors for concurrent criminal investigation.”

There have been other cases of suicide since 2018, with the 17-year old Tsubasa Araya leaving a note that read “volleyball is the hardest” after he had allegedly been verbally and physically abused by his coach. The report also explained how last year a 15-year-old junior high school table tennis player in Ibaraki prefecture took her own life, writing in a note she left behind that her coach had constantly threatened to “punch” or “to kill” her. With the 2020 Games delayed for a year because of the Covid-19 pandemic, HRW has called on Japan to take “decisive action”.

“Japan has a unique opportunity to show the world how it cares for its child athletes, and to lead in making sport safe for all,” says the report. “In doing so, Japan, as a pathfinding country of the UN Global Partnership to End Violence, would honour its commitment to ending violence against children. Taking decisive action to protect child athletes will send a message to Japan’s children that their health and well-being matter, place abusive coaches on notice that their behaviour will no longer be tolerated, and serve as a model for how other countries should end child abuse in sport.”

The International Olympic Committee said in a statement: “We acknowledge the Human Rights Watch report entitled ‘I was hit so many times I can’t count’ – abuse of child athletes in Japan. Harassment and abuse is unfortunately part of society and also occurs within sport. The IOC stands together with all athletes, everywhere, to state that abuse of any kind is contrary to the values of Olympism, which calls for respect for everyone in sport. All members of society are equal in their right to respect and dignity, just 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.”