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Student basketball player hitting ref spotlights environment for foreign athletes

In this frame grab taken from a YouTube video, a basketball referee who was punched in the face by a player is seen surrounded by organizers and others on the scene after falling to the court on June 17, 2018, in Omura, Nagasaki Prefecture.

After video of an exchange student on a high school basketball team assaulting a referee over a call during a game in Nagasaki Prefecture spread over social media, it ignited criticism against foreign students' participation in school club activities. While the student in question will be returning to his country soon, how to create an environment that is more welcoming to foreign students remains unsolved.

The incident occurred during a boys' basketball semifinal game at a Kyushu high school athletic tournament between Nobeoka Gakuen High School, of Miyazaki Prefecture, and Fukuoka University-affiliated Ohori High School on June 17. Ohori high was in the lead 78-66 over Nobeoka with roughly 40 seconds left in the game. The Nobeoka player used his 204 centimeter height to block the path of members of the other team in an illegal move to assist a teammate trying to make a shot. This was already the third foul by the study abroad student in the less than 2 minutes since he had been brought into the game, and he approached the referee and suddenly threw a right hook. The official needed 10 stitches inside of his mouth from the injury. The game was consequently awarded to Ohori.

On June 23, Nobeoka Gakuen High School Principal Norio Sato held a press conference to apologize over the incident, "This is definitely unforgiveable," and announced that the school would not be engaging in any games against other schools for a three-month period and that the coach had been dismissed.

The student himself is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa. He was introduced to the team coach by an acquaintance, and was contacted in February of this year to come to Japan. He enrolled in Nobeoka in April and spoke no Japanese, and only a few words of English. The school teacher that spoke French, the lingua franca of the Congo, had retired the previous academic year. At the end of May, the student had become homesick and did not participate in practice for about a week. The game where he punched the referee occurred at a tournament immediately after his return to the team.

A previous Nobeoka student from Senegal had a similar experience with the stress of living in a foreign country with completely a different culture and set of customs when he enrolled in 2003. While teams in Senegal would practice two to three times a week for at most two hours at a time, he had trouble adjusting to, let alone understanding the reasoning behind the tough Japanese club schedule of training every day for four to five hours at a time. Waseda University associate professor Yoon Jihyun, who specializes in study abroad student education, explains, "Many foreign students who come to Japan for sports suffer because of the top-down culture of Japanese club organizations where they cannot voice their opinions to their coaches."

There has also been criticism of allegedly skewed judgments of plays by foreign students and reactions from the audience. In the match where the punching incident occurred, a second-year student also from the Democratic Republic of Congo was judged to have accumulated five fouls and had to leave the court. Several parties related to the issue worried that there was a trend to be stricter when making calls against foreign players. There are also times when the crowd gets excited by foul calls, and the players may start to feel victimized.

Nobeoka Gakuen has also received discriminatory and malicious calls directed at the student involved in the June 17 incident. Worried that something unexpected might occur, the school decided to send the student back to his home country early. The referee, to whom the boy apologized in tears, was sympathetic, saying, "You came all the way to Japan, so don't let it go to waste. Good luck." While violence is unacceptable, an atmosphere intolerant of foreigners prevented the 15-year-old student from continuing to play with the Nobeoka Gakuen team.

Since Nobeoka has three other foreign students attending the high school and playing in the basketball clubs for boys and girls, the institution will be hiring a part-time instructor who speaks French to care for them.

Japanese high schools began calling on foreign exchange students to give their sports teams an edge starting in the 1990s, and it expanded to track and field events like the high school "ekiden" relay race and basketball. However, the presence of a foreign student, whose build and physical abilities may be well beyond that of Japanese students, playing on high school teams and influencing the results has been an area of bitter debate, and limits were put on the number of foreign team members in 1994.

But bringing in the students to strengthen teams also comes with a high cost. The Japanese school often must pay for travel to Japan, living expenses, tuition and other fees for the student. An administrator from a high school in the Kanto region disclosed that it cost over 20 million yen to bring over four students from African countries to play club sports. As a result, the pressure on the student to perform well is extremely high, and which schools get the player comes down to the amount of money a school can afford to pay.

The All Japan High School Athletic Federation's internal rules stipulate that "a foreign exchange student that is not engaging in academic studies cannot participate in national high school tournaments," to prevent schools from accepting students on the basis of wanting to win sports tournaments alone. However, a source related to the federation lamented, "Even if a school says, 'the student said they wanted to come themselves,' the truth is that the majority are probably decisions made by adults. It's difficult to distinguish between someone who is really studying abroad and someone who was just brought in to make the team stronger."

But there are also coaches and other club activity teachers who laud the opportunity for Japanese high school students to experience the "world" or have cultural exchanges while still in high school with the presence of the foreign students.

"The level of sports at our high school as a whole has risen," said the coach of a team that utilized study abroad students to at one time become the top high school team in Japan. "It also offers the chance for Japanese students to realize their own strengths."

As globalization spreads, the number of exchange students being accepted is rising. Regardless as to whether or not the school puts weight on athletic performance, it is still the duty of schools to create an educational environment that welcomes these students.

(Japanese original by Yuta Kobayashi and Kazuhiro Tahara, Tokyo Sports News Department, and Akitatsu Katsuno, Nobeoka Local Bureau)

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