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.

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Kazuhito Sakae Kazuhito Sakae

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.

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Icho and Sakae
Kaori Icho, right, is one of Japan’s biggest stars but has yet to announce her plans for Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images

“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.