Tokyo acts to stop corporal punishment after boy hangs himself

It took the suicide of a 17-year-old to galvanise government efforts to ban corporal punishment

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 February, 2013, 7:06am

Horrified by the suicide of a boy of 17 who was assaulted by his basketball coach, as well as a spate of similar cases, the Japanese government has announced plans to put a halt to corporal punishment, a practice banned by law but that goes on nonetheless.

Under the proposed law, to be debated during the upcoming session of the Diet, corporal punishment by a teacher will be considered a form of bullying and schools will be required to report serious cases to their local governments.

It comes too late for the captain of Osaka's Sakuranomiya High School basketball team, who hanged himself in his room on December 23.

The teenager had told his mother the previous evening that his coach was singling him out for punishment and had slapped his face as many as 40 times during the day's practice.

A swift investigation by the school revealed that the 47-year-old coach, who has also not been named, had physically abused 21 of the 50 players.

Initial reports suggested the coach's harsh methods had been tolerated for the previous 18 years because his teams were successful. It was revealed that the Osaka city government had received an anonymous tip-off more than a year ago that players on the team were being roughed up.

Ordered to look into the allegations, the school later said it had found no evidence of corporal punishment. It has since emerged that the school carried out no investigation.

Since the Osaka case came to light, authorities have opened investigations into a teacher in Aichi prefecture who ordered two pupils to drink diluted hydrochloric acid for making an error in an experiment, as well as into a teacher at an elementary school who bound the wrists of a 10-year-old autistic boy with a plastic strap.

According to the Ministry of Education, 357 teachers in elementary and secondary schools were subjected to disciplinary action in the last academic year for meting out corporal punishment.

But Tetsuya Yamada, a professor of sociology of education at Hitotsubashi University, said "these are only the reported cases" and the actual figure was likely to be far higher.

"In the world of Japanese sports, there is a deep-seated notion of using violence to enforce control," Yamada said. "Because the basketball coach's methods improved their performances, it was difficult for other teachers to stop it from happening."

There is a sense within the education system that the application of physical hardship and making pupils gaman, or endure, is good for them.

"When these situations occur in a school's closed environment, the first plan of action is to try to resolve the problem internally," Yamada said. "Unless the problem becomes huge, this system makes it hard for this information to be reported."

And it does not end in schools; 15 members of the female Olympic judo squad wrote a letter to the Japanese Olympic Committee complaining of being slapped, struck with a bamboo sword and sworn at during a training camp in the run-up to the London Games last year.

On Thursday, judo coach Ryuji Sonoda resigned from the post, admitting the allegations were "more or less true".

"I deeply regret that I have caused trouble with my behaviour, words and actions," Sonoda said.

Yamada is optimistic that change is coming, albeit slowly.

"Cases of corporal punishment have occurred time and again in the past," the professor said. "However, from a long-term point of view, the accountability of schools is rising and, with the internet and other changes in the media environment, schools are becoming less closed."