JUDO/ National women's coach resigns over violence scandal

January 31, 2013

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

Ryuji Sonoda announced Jan. 31 he will resign as head coach of the Japanese women's judo team following revelations he used violence and harassed judoka under him.

"I made the decision myself that it would be difficult for me to play a role in strengthening the national team," Sonoda, 39, said at a news conference at Kodokan Judo Institute in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward.

He had been expected to serve until the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, even after admitting to the violence on Jan. 30.

Fifteen judoka, including a London Olympic medalist, submitted a written complaint to the Japanese Olympic Committee in December detailing violence by Sonoda and other coaches, according to the JOC and the All Japan Judo Federation.

The coaches beat the athletes with bamboo swords and told them to "die," a senior JOC official said. They also slapped the women's cheeks, shoved their breasts and kicked them, a senior judo federation official said.

According to the officials, the athletes said they were subjected to physical violence and harassment on five occasions between August 2010 and February 2012, but they were worried they would be unable to secure a berth on the national team if they stood up to Sonoda. The head coach wields strong influence in picking team members.

Also on Jan. 31, All Japan Judo Federation President Haruki Uemura said he will step down from his post as chairman of the JOC sports panel.

Uemura effectively took responsibility for the scandal's impact on Tokyo's bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics.

Sonoda, a member of Tokyo’s Metropolitan Police Department, became the subject of complaints from athletes after the London Olympics.

The federation received a report of violence in September, and issued a warning to Sonoda after deciding to retain him as head coach.

Sonoda apologized to one judoka in November, but a number of athletes apparently felt they could not rely on the federation to adequately address the problem.

On Dec. 4, 15 judoka submitted an anonymous letter to the JOC complaining about the violence.

However, all JOC officials did was to ask the federation to look into the allegations.

On Dec. 25, the 15 athletes revealed their names and filed a petition with the JOC calling for a review of the training system.

The federation finally issued a written reprimand to Sonoda on Jan. 19 after four judoka visited the JOC and described the violence.

However, neither the federation nor the JOC announced the punishment or what had happened, apparently because they had wanted to retain Sonoda.

The two organizations also failed to report on the issue to the education and sports ministry.

Noriyuki Ichihara, secretary-general of the JOC, defended its faith in the federation.

"We put ourselves in the mind of athletes and thought an announcement would make them extremely anxious," he said Jan. 30. "We wanted the federation to resolve the issue at an early date, rather than report it to the ministry."

The JOC has not identified the athletes.

JOC President Tsunekazu Takeda apologized to education and sports minister Hakubun Shimomura on Jan. 31.

Shimomura told the JOC to take the initiative in conducting investigations into possible violence in judo and other sports, and called for efforts to prevent the incident from harming Tokyo's bid to host the Olympics.

Sonoda confirmed the reports of violence on Jan. 30.

"Basically, what has been reported is true," he told The Asahi Shimbun. "I got excited while coaching."

Violence in sports has attracted renewed attention after the captain of a high school basketball team, repeatedly beaten by his coach, committed suicide in Osaka in December.

The mother of a judoka who competed in the London Games said she knew her daughter has suffered repeated beatings from her coaches since her high school days.

“There have been so many things that run counter to common sense,” the mother said. “I have put up with them because she has been practicing hard. The only thing I could do was to hope that she would not be injured.”

Others say such violence is an entrenched practice in Japanese sports, one that could harm Japan's aspirations to host the Olympics.

"It may not be surprising to us because we have lived in the world where hazing is taken for granted," said Chiharu Igaya, former vice president of the International Olympic Committee. "But the IOC has consistently condemned violence."

Sergio Echigo, a soccer commentator from Brazil, said corporal punishment is unfortunately part of Japanese culture.

"The issue attracted attention when a sumo wrestler died following violence, but I do not think the sports world has changed,” said Echigo, who played soccer in Brazil and Japan.

"In Brazil, if a coach beats an athlete, the athlete will return the blow and get into a furious brawl," he added.

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
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Ryuji Sonoda, head coach of the women's judo national team, bows to cameras after announcing his resignation at Kodokan Judo Institute in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward on Jan. 31. (Shiro Nishihata)

Ryuji Sonoda, head coach of the women's judo national team, bows to cameras after announcing his resignation at Kodokan Judo Institute in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward on Jan. 31. (Shiro Nishihata)

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  • Ryuji Sonoda, head coach of the women's judo national team, bows to cameras after announcing his resignation at Kodokan Judo Institute in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward on Jan. 31. (Shiro Nishihata)

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