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The fine line between corporal punishment and abuse: Sumo and society

On the final day of the Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament, Japan Sumo Association Chairman Hakkaku, center, bows his head in apology with other sumo wrestlers, in the ring at the Fukuoka Kokusai Center in the city's Hakata Ward, on Nov. 26, 2017. (Mainichi)

Former-yokozuna Harumafuji left the professional sumo world after a scandal erupted over his assault of a younger wrestler. But the problem is not just limited to the sumo world -- in schools, corporal punishment is passed off as "guidance," and at home, there seems to be no end to child abuse under the name of "discipline." Why is this acceptance of violence still so deeply rooted in the consciousness of society?

At the press conference announcing his retirement, the 33-year-old Harumafuji said of younger wrestler maegashira Takanoiwa, "He lacked politeness and manners, and as his senior, I felt it was my duty to correct his behavior by scolding him," never apologizing for hitting the other man in the head.

"The idea that for the purpose of guidance, violence is permissible, is not limited to the sumo world, but is prevalent in Japanese society as well," says 52-year-old author Tomoyuki Hoshino, who has watched sumo since the age of 13. "It's not a problem limited to a single former yokozuna."

In the world of professional sumo, violence in the name of guidance or discipline has established itself under the guise of "taking someone under their wing." In his recent works, Hoshino has been arguing that if the world of sports, including his beloved sumo, takes a tougher stance toward violence, then it will lead to curbing the acceptance of violence in wider society.

"We should think of what is happening to every member of society is being epitomized in the world of sumo," he stresses. At the Ryogoku Kokugikan, the country's main sumo venue, racial slurs like, "Beat the Mongolians!" and "Go back to Mongolia!" have been flying back and forth. There is a tendency for people to express their everyday frustrations in discriminatory remarks to get riled up together, even though ethnicity or citizenship have nothing to do with sumo bouts. Hoshino says, "Negative emotions that people have been holding back become spat out as verbal abuse."

In sports, it is the strong who lead and the weak that follow. However, as Waseda University professor of sports ethics Hidenori Tomozoe explains, "Manners and politeness are only learned because one has an intellectual understanding of them. This incident happened precisely because such concepts can't be taught using orders and subjugation." Even from a technical perspective, if the learner doesn't think about something for themselves, then a good performance can't be expected. An instructor must offer a diverse array of options while explaining the merits and risks and have the athlete choose for themselves in order to be the most efficient. "It is in a creative environment that respects the independence of an athlete that can best raise a strength that can be recognized internationally," insists Tomozoe.

In a survey carried out by international NGO Save the Children Japan, when 20,000 Japanese men and women aged 20 and over were asked about "disciplining a child by spanking," those that responded that it should be done "actively," "when needed," and "only when there are no other options available" made up a total of over 60 percent.

"There is no borderline between corporal punishment and abuse," says professor of child neurology Akemi Tomoda of the University of Fukui. Tomoda, who has examined children who had suffered abuse for 30 years as a pediatrician, cannot forget the damage left more on the mind than the body of a female junior high school student she once treated.

Whenever the student's father who was on assignment elsewhere for work returned home, he hit the student on the head with a wooden sword, saying her "willpower had weakened" because she didn't attend classes and slept at home all day. The father was dealing with stress concerning upcoming company restructuring. "Humans make people in weaker positions than them or children the outlet for releasing their stress," Tomoda says. The father did not realize that he was taking his stress out on his daughter, and she showed signs of insomnia, depression and a drop in her motivation.

Teaming up with Harvard University, Tomoda used MRI to examine the changes in the brains of people between the ages of 18 and 25 who had experienced corporal punishment as children. The results showed that the participants' prefrontal cortexes tended to be atrophied, with the nerve pathways that convey pain being narrower. This made them more likely to have trouble concentrating and suffer mood disorders and behavioral disorders where they repeatedly engaged in delinquent acts.

"The brain is still developing into a person's late 20s," Tomoda says. "Whether it is at the hands of a parent, or boss or superior at work, violence should absolutely not be tolerated."

Given the dire ill effects of corporal punishment, 53 countries have banned it under law. United Nations human rights treaty bodies have repeatedly called for all member nations to adopt a total ban on corporal punishment. In Japan, the NPO "Kodomo (children's) Sukoyaka Support Net" is actively working on the passage of legislation that would prohibit the practice nationwide. Of the role of corporal punishment, a representative from the NPO stated, "While there are a lot of negative results that stem from it, we concluded that there is no research proving that there are any merits."

However, over 800 cases of corporal punishment are known to occur each year in Japan's schools. "The lack of flexibility in educational institutions and in society as a whole is one contributing factor," says Tokyo Denki University assistant professor Hiroki Yamamoto, who specializes in the issue. "Violence is based in our primal instincts and eliminating it completely is difficult, but if we ignore it, it will only increase. A drop in tolerance and diversity is one factor in the increase of violence."

With growing poverty and social stratification, Yamamoto says that factor is only getting stronger. When social pressures or competition become excessive, it leads to organizations abusing their members, increasing the number of people who try to control others through violent acts. Children who appear to silently submit to corporal punishment do not try to improve their behavior, but instead continue the cycle of violence by using it on others.

"We must set up an environment where teachers can offer discipline or guidance to students while keeping an open dialogue," Yamamoto stresses.

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