Violent tackle hints at dark side of Japanese society

When Taisuke Miyagawa bowed to the nation for his college football hit, it resonated deeply

Japanese university American footballer Taisuke Miyagawa at a press conference in Tokyo on Tuesday to apologise for smashing into an opposition quarterback during a match earlier this month. Photograph: Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images

Japanese university American footballer Taisuke Miyagawa at a press conference in Tokyo on Tuesday to apologise for smashing into an opposition quarterback during a match earlier this month. Photograph: Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images

 

For over a week, the biggest story in Japan has not been diplomatic flip-flopping over the Korean Peninsula but an ugly tackle at a college football match.

Footage of 20-year-old Taisuke Miyagawa bulldozing into a quarterback from behind during an American football game earlier this month has gone viral.

The story has topped news bulletins night after night. Miyagawa’s shamefaced mea culpa at the Japan National Press Club this week was broadcast live on some channels.

A few days later it was the turn of Miyagawa’s coach to face the limelight. Masato Uchida admitted the player was told to “crush” his opponents but said he was not directly ordered to commit a foul.

Uchida has since quit as head coach of the Nihon University American football team but his denials infuriated many in Japan. The victim, who played for archrival team Kwansei Gakuin, has reportedly filed a criminal complaint with the police. The government’s sports agency has launched an investigation.

It’s hardly a slow news month. Apart from the drama over the fate of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal, which directly threatens Japan, government business has been paralysed by claims of cronyism and influence peddling by prime minister Shinzo Abe.

American football, which was brought to Japan by a missionary in the 1930s, is a niche sport at best, far less popular than sumo, baseball or soccer. Pundits have had to explain that tackling with intent to injure is breaking the rules.

Soul-searching

Why has a foul in a sport few watch triggered such soul-searching? One reason, perhaps, is that the media is bored after months of covering political scandals. Another, said Kiyomi Tsujimoto, a politician with the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, is that it seems to reflect events in the political world.

For over a year, Abe has denied involvement in a sweetheart deal to the operator of an ultra-nationalist kindergarten where children chant patriotic slogans in front of pictures of the emperor and pledge to give themselves “courageously” to defend Japanese territory.

He also says he played no direct part in nudging bureaucrats to help open a veterinary school for an old college friend. The approval is worth millions of dollars in free land and grants, and comes at a time when demand for vets in Japan is declining, along with the number of pets.

Opinion polls suggest these denials are widely disbelieved. Yet, like the football scandal, pinning down who exactly is to blame has been frustrating. The fragmented opposition has failed to land a knockout punch. “When the government stops taking response for its actions, it has a negative ripple effect on society,” said Tsujimoto.

Figures of authority

The tackle may also resonate, however, at a deeper level than politics. Miyagawa’s unwillingness to say no to a powerful older male reflects an “age-old total submission” to bosses, teachers and other figures of authority, says Mutsuyoshi Nishimura, a former government adviser.

“This is a dark side of our society – your boss is your emperor,” says Nishimura. Rigid hierarchies are common in government and the workplace, which is why the story has riveted the Japanese public, he says. Loyalty to a boss often triumphs, even to the point where “you dump your integrity”.

Japanese university American footballer Taisuke Miyagawa bows to apologise during a press conference in Tokyo on Tuesday. Photograph: Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images
Japanese university American footballer Taisuke Miyagawa bows to apologise during a press conference in Tokyo on Tuesday. Photograph: Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images

One player on the football team told broadcaster NHK that the regime under coach Uchida was akin to an “absolute monarchy.” During his press conference, Miyagawa described being bullied to toughen up or risk losing his place. After the invocation to “crush” the rival quarterback, he ran onto the field and took him out of the game.

Two more fouls later Miyagawa was sent off the field and retired to a nearby tent, where he wept in apparent remorse. Afterwards he said that although he knew what he was being asked to do was wrong, he felt unable to say no.

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