Tokyo Olympics haunted by country’s history of discrimination and abuse in sports, finds report

If the organisers of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are to be believed, the Games will be defined by these three aims: “Achieving personal Best: striving for your personal best”; “Unity in Diversity: Accepting one another”; and, “Connecting to Tomorrow: Passing on Legacy for the future”. Having already suffered a series of recent setbacks, the Games in Tokyo are set to be haunted by societal and institutional challenges that go back decades before the city—and country—was selected as a host.

However, critics point out that, even before the opening ceremony this Friday, the Games are set to struggle to achieve two of its main ambitions: embracing diversity and creating a legacy that’s worth passing on to future generations.

They point to the lamentable history of discrimination against members of the LGBTQ+ community in Japan, and highlight longstanding cases of physical and sexual abuse in Japan’s sports system.

On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch laid out a damning indictment of the host country’s treatment of sexual and gender minorities: “I think that it is quite shocking that not a single out athlete, as we understand it, [an] out LGBT athlete, will compete for the host nation . . .”, said Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives (sport) at Human Rights Watch, speaking at the organisation’s press conference online.

Kanae Doi, the organisation’s Japan director, said that in a 2021 report, Human Rights Watch highlighted a number of concerns, chief among them being “the lack of legal protection of LGBT individuals [and] . . . abuse against athletes”. The study also covered general human rights concerns in Japan, including the forced sterilisation of people who wish to undergo gender realignment treatment.

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Japan-based LGBTQ+ activist Gon Matsunaka says the latter may come under renewed focus when Kiwi weightlifter Laurel Hubbard takes to the stage, becoming the first transgender athlete to compete in any Olympic tournament.

In 2020, Matsunaka and Pride House Tokyo, an organisation he founded, conducted a survey of 1,600 young LGBTQ+ members in Japan. Over 40 percent replied that, owing to Covid-19-related social distancing rules, “they lost their connection with the people or spaces where they can speak about their sexual orientation and gender identity safely”.

Pride House Tokyo is a chapter of an international grassroots organisation that provides services to, and lobbies for the rights of LGBTQ+ communities. Seventy percent of respondents in their survey said they felt unsafe at home because family members didn’t really understand them, with some respondents suffering abuse at the hands of family.

Perhaps the most harrowing account of abuse came from Keiko Kobayashi, a parent and founder of the Japan Judo Accident Victims Association. Kobayashi set up her association 10 years ago, following a brain injury that her then 15-year-old son suffered during judo practice.

Speaking via a translator, she said: “I would like to share with you the fact that many children in Japan have been killed or seriously injured by judo. My son, who only had a year of judo experience, suffered a serious brain injury during practice at the age of 15”.

Since 1983, she pointed out, over 130 children in Japan have died while practicing judo—arguably the sport where Japan is likely to win most of its medals—and yet the adults who caused their death walked away scot-free owing to a lack of institutional oversight.

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