The Complex Case of Sae Miyakawa and Power Harassment in Japanese Women’s Gymnastics


Sae Miyakawa

The coach slapped the teenage gymnast’s face and pulled her hair while preparing her for the biggest competitions in her life. On August 15, 2018, gymnastics coach, Yuto Hayami, was banned indefinitely by the Japan Gymnastics Association (JGA) from coaching gymnasts.

And then the fireworks really began.

On August 29, 18-year-old gymnast, Sae Miyakawa, held a press conference emotionally protesting the banning of her coach, saying she was harassed by leaders of the JGA, and that she was threatened with being left off the Tokyo 2020 team. The vault specialist on the women’s gymnastics team at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Miyakawa also said that while her coach, Hayami, did sometimes hit her, she wanted him restored as her coach.

According to the Mainichi, she said at the press conference “I did not ask for such a punishment and I cannot agree with its severity.” The Mainichi also reported that “she may withdraw from consideration for a spot on the national team for the Doha competition as it is difficult to train without Hayami, who has taught her since she was in the fifth grade.”

Not only did she protest the ban, she shot back at the powers that be, stating that on the contrary the head of the women’s national gymnastics team, Chieko Tsukahara, is guilty of power harassment. According to Asahi, the Japan Gymnastics Association established a new system after the Rio Games of identifying the top gymnastics prospects and sending them on special training sessions in Japan and overseas, but that Miyakawa did not take part in the early stages. Miyakawa claims she was pressured to take part in that special training.

At the news conference, she quoted Chieko Tsukahara as telling her, “If you do not take part, the association will not be able to provide cooperation and you will not be able to participate in the Tokyo Olympics.” Miyakawa said she wanted that action to be recognized as power harassment because she “felt it was a form of violence using authority” on the part of Chieko Tsukahara.

Chieko Tsukahara is part of a power couple in the Japan Gymnastics Association. While she heads the women’s gymnastics team, her husband, Mitsuo Tsukahara is a Vice-Chair of the association. He was part of Japan’s legendary run of team gold medals in four straight Olympics from 1964 to 1976, himself a 9-time Olympic medalist. She was a member of the women’s gymnastics team at the 1968 Mexico City Games when Japan came in a strong fourth.

According to NHK, Mitsuo Tsukahara denies the allegation.

The gymnast said that she was questioned by the association’s deputy chief Mitsuo Tsukahara, and his wife Chieko, about her coach’s violence. Miyakawa stated that Chieko Tsukahara, who is in charge of training the women’s national team, told her that she had not grown as a gymnast because her coach was not good enough. Miyakawa said Tsukahara had annoyed and harassed her. Mitsuo Tsukahara has denied the allegations. He said that he and his wife have done nothing wrong, and that they have always tried to put the athletes first.

While the Tsukahara’s say they are providing guidance to gymnasts, panelists of the Sunday morning television program, Terebi Asahi Live on September 2 stated that the Tsukahara’s bear responsibility. They are not only senior people on the National Gymnastics Association, but also the head of one the most prominent gymnastics clubs, The Asahi Mutual Life Insurance Club, one considered a great stepping stone for promising gymnasts. And so with so much influence at the national level and as the head of the most influential clubs, can the Tsukahara’s be exerting undue influence, was the question.

Power Harassment Womens Gymnastics_5
From the television program, Terebi Asahi Live, broadcasted on Sunday, September 2.

Miyakawa asserts that the Tsukahara’s “were trying to separate me from the coach, using the issue of his violence as a pretext, because they wanted to put me in the Asahi Mutual Life Insurance team.” The Tsukahara’s assert they were simply removing a coach who used violence as a coaching tactic, which they said was unacceptable.

For now, it’s he said, she said. But JGA will appoint a three-person panel to investigate the allegations in depth, and then release a report in two weeks.

In the wake of fairly prominent power harassment cases in sports, including one involving four-time gold medal Olympic champion, Kaori Icho, it’s now gymnastics turn to deal with the uncomfortable need to examine its development processes and possibly engage in some soul searching.