Kaori Icho is arguably one of the strongest women in Japan physically. And after the 2016 Rio Olympics, she is arguably the best ever women’s wrestler, capturing her fourth straight Olympic title since wrestling became an Olympic sport at the 2004 Athens Games.
And yet, even the strongest are susceptible to power harassment. In April of 2018, after a thorough review of an independent panel, Kazuhito Sakae was fired from his position as head of top athlete development in the Japan Wrestling Federation, and then in June, fired as head coach of the Shigakkan University wrestling team, for harassment of two Olympians.
As the #MeToo movement hit the shores of Japan, the story of Icho and Sakae played out in the Japanese press, revealing, as Mainichi put it, “an outmoded relationship of master and disciple.” The bulk of the harassment took place in the period around 2010, after Icho had won her 2nd gold medal in individual freestyle wrestling at the Beijing Olympics, and as she was preparing for the 2012 London Olympics.
According to the independent panel, formed at the request of the Japan Wrestling Federation, there were four clear cases of power harassment suffered by not only Icho, but her coach and former Olympian and bronze medalist in men’s freestyle wrestling, Chikara Tanabe.
- In 2010 Icho moved to Tokyo from Aichi Prefecture where she was attending Chukyo Women’s University (which is now called Shigakkan University), in an effort to remove herself from the direct influence of Sakae who was the head coach there. When Icho participated in a training session for the Japan national team, which Sakae was overseeing, Sakae said to Icho, “you have the nerve to wrestle in front of me.”
- Icho, who effectively stopped taking any coaching from Sakae, asked Tanabe, the coach of the national men’s freestyle team, to coach her. Sakae then demanded that Tanabe to cease any coaching activities of Icho. When Tanabe refused he found himself harassed by other members of the wrestling team, as directed by Sakae, according to the independent panel.
- Quite inexplicably, the world’s best female wrestler in her weightclass, Icho, was left off the women’s freestyle wrestling team for the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China. The committee that left Icho off the team was headed by Sakae.
- In 2015, Sakae was seen harassing Tanabe to leave a national team training session, screaming, “You are an eyesore! Get out!”
Those were the four specific proofpoints of power harassment that the independent committee described. And while one may suspect there was more, this was enough for the Japanese public to nod their head and think, yes, I’ve seen that too.
According to a survey conducted in 2017 by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry in Japan, one out of every three workers had experienced power harassment over the previous three years. This was up from one out of every four when the survey had been conducted five years earlier in 2012. Additionally, 7,8% said they were harassed “many times”, while 17.8% were harassed “occasionally.”
Of those harassed, 41% took no action, citing the belief that nothing would come of it. According to this Deutsche Welle article, only 4% of the cases of sexual violence against women are reported, and that only one of every three rape cases reach the Japanese courts.
“Not speaking out is rooted in Japanese culture. Traditionally, people here are not accustomed to revealing details about themselves or sharing personal issues in public,” Makoto Watanabe, an associate professor of communications and media at Hokkaido Bunkyo University, told DW. “And society looks down on people who do break that unwritten rule.”
Supporting the tendency in Japan not to report, Icho said in a statement that she was not “involved in any way” in lodging the complaint, according to Inside the Games. Thankfully, three Olympians did send an official complaint to the Chief Cabinet Secretary of the Japanese Government.
On June 14, Sakae finally apologized. “I would like to express my deepest apologies to Icho and her coach (Chikara) Tanabe,” Sakae said. “I will treat people with respect at all times so I never make the same mistake again,” he said as he bowed his head in apology in a news conference.
Despite the swirl of controversy, there is still hope that Icho will commit to an attempt at an unprecedented fifth straight Olympic title in 2020, under the warm gaze of a home crowd. Now 34, she has refrained from competition since the Rio Olympics. If she does, she has said that she will resume her training in 2019.
Icho in 2020.
Imagine what she could do without being harassed by the head of the national wresting team.