Japan’s Toxic Sports Culture is a Global Problem

American Football on a Field

A nasty tackle by a Nihon University American Football player made headlines last week – but the problems it reflects are endemic to sports culture, not unique to Japan.

One might expect a dirty tackle in a sports game to be the kind of news story that only surfaces when there’s not much else happening in the world. On the contrary, though; last week the tale of a dirty hit in a college American football game, allegedly committed on a coach’s orders, led the Japanese news agenda in spite of the (temporary) collapse of the Trump-Kim summit, the announcement of possible U.S. tariffs on automobiles, and the continued noise of the Moritomo and Kake Gakuen scandals.

Even by the standards of American football, the tackle replayed endlessly in slow motion on Japanese TV news shows was a particularly dirty hit. Even before NFL rules adapted to protect the quarterback from late hits once the ball was released, defenders at least tried to maintain the pretense that a hit on the quarterback was part of regular play, usually taking no more than two steps to create the appearance that contact was only the result of forward momentum. There was no such pretense in this case – the quarterback had thrown the ball and had pulled up his run to a near stop when the the defender dove at his knees in full stride from behind.

The window-dressing of the scandal is quintessentially Japanese – but the event itself is not

The scandal that followed was quintessentially Japanese. The morning news and tabloids were covered with grainy stills of the hit, there was a news conference where the disgraced player apologized amid the rush of shutter clicks and flashbulbs, and the president of the offending school, Nihon University, made a formal apology to his counterpart. Perhaps it’s this uniquely Japanese window-dressing – the style of the reporting, the nature of the apologies – that led to the ensuing torrent of think-pieces wringing their hands over what this incident can tell us about Japanese society. Nihon University’s coach allegedly instructing his player to carry out a nasty and dangerous tackle, then retreating to allow the young man to shoulder the blame alone, was held up as a microcosm of just about any Japanese societal ill you care to mention.

But there is nothing uniquely Japanese about what happened. In American sports alone, the National Football League’s New Orleans Saints were found to have paid out bonuses to their players for injuring opposing team players. John Chaney, former head coach of Temple University’s men’s basketball program, admitted to sending in his “goons” to intentionally foul and injury opposition players. National Hockey League teams often continue to carry a player – a goon – on their roster whose only purpose is to fight and injure opposing players.

Japan is as susceptible as anywhere to problems that plague sports culture in much of the world

The problem that the Nichidai scandal reveals is not specifically a Japanese issue. Of course, there is a specifically Japanese context and history to this particular event and how it was reported – most notably, journalists can easily spin a narrative of foul play and violence about Nihon University’s sports teams, which have borne that association since the school employed its sports and physical education students to violently break up student meetings and protests on campus in the late 1960s. The broader strokes of the scandal, however, are far from being unique to Japan, as the above examples should make clear.

If anything, this scandal – along with the rape allegations against a university lawn tennis team and the hazing issues that plague virtually all high school sports – show that Japan is just as susceptible as anywhere to the violent masculinity and militarist indulgences that plague sports culture in many parts of the world. The profile of the scandal reflects the fact that Japan is slowly starting to question aspects of its youth sports culture, especially in the wake of a disturbing wave of deaths of young athletes caused, directly or indirectly, by their sports coaches – a phenomenon known as shidoushi. Rather than trying to analyse these events as some unique reflection of Japanese culture, a far better question to ask is athletes everywhere can be protected from the toxicity that allows these scandals to happen.

A version of this article originally appeared in Tokyo Review’s newsletter, which is emailed directly to subscribers and includes a round-up of the best writing on Japan from our site and across the web, along with early access to this op-ed column. It’s free to subscribe, so sign up below!

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Paul Nadeau is an adjunct assistant professor at Temple University's Japan campus, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Geoeconomics, and an adjunct fellow with the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He was previously a private secretary with the Japanese Diet and as a member of the foreign affairs and trade staff of Senator Olympia Snowe. He holds a B.A. from the George Washington University, an M.A. in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University, and a PhD from the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Public Policy. He should be general manager of the Montreal Canadiens.

Assistant Professor at Waseda University | Website | + posts

Rob Fahey is an Assistant Professor at the Waseda Institute for Advanced Study (WIAS) in Tokyo, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Milan's School of Social and Political Sciences. He was formerly a Research Associate at the Waseda Institute for Political Economy (WINPEC). His research focuses on populism and polarisation, the impact of conspiracy theory beliefs on political behaviour,  domestic Japanese politics, and the use of text mining and network analysis techniques for political and social analysis. He received his Masters and Ph.D from Waseda University, and his undergraduate degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

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