Simon Denyer

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author. Former bureau chief with The Washington Post and Reuters.

Jul 31, 2021
Published on: Washington Post
2 min read

TOKYO — Japanese gymnast Mai Murakami broke down in tears Thursday when asked about hateful comments directed against her online for participating in an Olympics that many people in this country didn’t want to happen.

“I know there are people who are against the Olympics. But even if I didn’t want to see such comments, it reached me, and it really made me feel terrible,” she said. “That was really upsetting and sad. The pandemic really created a divide between those who were for and against the Games. But I worked hard this past year thinking that I wanted to show them, and I hope that they’ve been put in their place.”

Many Japanese athletes have faced similar abuse, and in many ways, they have answered the critics. The country has won 17 gold medals, second only to China’s 19 and its best-ever haul even before the halfway stage.

Triumphs in men’s gymnastics for Daiki Hashimoto and in judo for siblings Uta and Hifumi Abe and a “miracle” win in table tennis over the formidable Chinese for Mima Ito and Jun Mizutani have filled many hearts with pride. Two golds in the new sport of skateboarding, including Japan’s youngest gold medalist, 13-year-old Momiji Nishiya, brought early smiles.

But the pressures these competitors have faced have been especially intense in a host country that’s at best ambivalent to the Games.

“I hope that the athletes each working hard as representatives of their countries will be recognized, and less people will express hateful comments,” Hashimoto tweeted after winning his gold.

This is a country where mental health problems are stigmatized, where athletes are supposed to be strong and stoical and where support and counseling is often unavailable, experts say.

“It’s really difficult for athletes to come forward and talk about mental health or to say they are mentally unwell or unstable,” said Masami Horikawa, a sports psychology researcher at the Kwansei Gakuin University, adding that in her experience, athletes’ own teammates are often “strict” and unsympathetic if anyone faces mental health problems.

“Not all the pressure is bad, but as a culture, Japanese people expect that individuals can accomplish everything, and perfectionism is seen as a beauty,” she said. “So as a culture, we expect and praise individuals who are able to succeed all on their own without any help.”

The pressures on Japanese competitors and the stigma around mental health came out online this week when Naomi Osaka was knocked out in the third round of the women’s tennis tournament. Like Simone Biles, Osaka has spoken out about mental health and the pressure of the global media glare.

“If you’re really depressed as the news outlets say, your attitudes are no different from a child,” one reader commented on Yahoo Japan.

“You don’t want to answer questions when you’re in a bad mood. You shouldn’t use depression as a shield to get out of inconvenient things.”

In some ways the pressures may have been even more intense when Japan first hosted the Olympics in 1964. The athletes carried the hope of a nation ground down by defeat in World War II, desperately hoping the Games could bring a renewed sense of optimism and pride.

So when Japanese marathon runner Kokichi Tsuburaya entered the National Stadium in second place in the men’s marathon on the final day, the crowd erupted in frenzied joy and in hope for a first Olympic track and field medal. But as Tsuburaya struggled to complete that final lap, Britain’s Basil Heatley surged past him to collect the silver.

Tsuburaya, haunted by a feeling that he had let his country down, ended up cutting his carotid artery four years later and bled to death clutching his Olympic bronze.

This time around, of course, there are no home fans in venues to cheer on Japanese athletes, making their achievement so far all the more impressive. But the glory may have come at a hidden cost for some.

Japan has the highest rate of suicide among the Group of Seven industrialized nations — just ahead of the United States — and is the only country among the seven where suicide is the leading cause of death among 15- to 34-year-olds, according to the Ministry of Health.

The world of sports is particularly intense. In a study issued last year, Human Rights Watch found that athletes were subjected to extensive physical, sexual and verbal abuse in training, documenting consequences such as depression, suicide, physical disabilities and lifelong trauma.

“In the research process, I was shocked to find there are very few resources for athletes experiencing mental health crises or abuses we documented,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch.

Some athletes who committed suicide left notes, such as 17-year-old Tsubasa Araya, who wrote shortly before taking his own life in 2018, “Volleyball is the hardest.”

“Given the systemic nature of abuse and the lack of resources for kids or athletes in trauma or distress, Japan’s lack of resources for mental health is a big concern,” Worden added.

The International Olympic Committee says it has set up resources within the Olympic Village to help athletes facing mental health pressures, including psychologists and helplines in 70 languages.

But in the buildup to the Games, as the pandemic raged and opposition grew, athletes here found themselves the targets of abuse. Swimmer Rikako Ikee, who fought back from leukemia to compete here, tweeted about her experiences.

“There are positive message about the Olympics I get, but today I received a really hurtful message,” she wrote in May. “Just like everyone else, I also strongly feel that I want to change this dark mood. But it’s really painful as an athlete to be personally targeted. I hope regardless of the situation, not just me, but all the athletes working hard will be supported with a warm heart.”

Last year, the Japanese Olympic Committee surveyed nearly 1,000 athletes and found that more than 40 percent were feeling depressed or somewhat depressed, according to media reports. Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee and herself a seven-time Olympian, said she was “absolutely heartbroken” by the abuse.

“It shouldn’t be the athletes who should be attacked but myself, as the head of the Tokyo 2020 organization,” she said in May. “I feel that it’s unacceptable that individuals are being asked not to hold the Games or withdraw and that I must create an environment where athletes can prepare without worrying.”