by Shoko Egawa
Egawa is an investigate journalist who made her name doing early work on the Aum death cult. Here she looks at the situation surrounding 2005 Helsinki World Championships marathon team member Yumiko Hara, who blamed a string of arrests for shoplifting on an eating disorder she claims to have developed as a result of the psychological trauma of the strict dietary and weight restrictions her corporate league coach put upon her.
"The weight restrictions were severe, way beyond what any other team did, and it was especially hard to take because I was the only they were being applied to. At meals the head coach told me, 'Eat this. Don't eat this.' I was weighed repeatedly throughout the day to the point that I was afraid to drink water because I thought my weight would increase by the amount of the water."
Earlier this summer former marathon national team member Yumiko Hara underwent questioning under Maebashi District Court Ota Branch judge Masaya Okuyama in her second trial for shoplifting after being caught stealing candy from a supermarket. Hara talked about the trauma of her experiences and eating disorder as context for her actions and of her personal situation at the time of the incident.
Hara joined the corporate leagues after graduating from high school. The head coach ordered her to lose weight and set specific numerical targets for her to follow. "My BMI had to be less than 16," said Hara. "The coach would get angry if I weighed more than 100 grams more than the previous day, and it became a situation where I always had to weigh less than I had the day before. I was always hungry, always thirsty."
BMI, Body Mass Index, is a numerical indication of obesity calculated based on height and weight. The standard range is considered to be 18.5 to 24.9, with a lower score indicating underweight and a higher score overweight. Professor Masakuni Suzuki, a physician at Seisaku Kenkyu Graduate School with expertise in eating disorders, was stunned by Hara's assertion. "A BMI of less than 16 is not a score that can be thought of as representing a healthy body," he said. "In cases of anorexia, a patient with BMI16 would be diagnosed as severe. Without a BMI of at least 17 a women's menstruation will stop. If that situation persisted the person's entire body would have been in a starved condition and she would have felt constantly hungry."
At that point in her life Hara seems to have thought about food constantly. According to her testimony, "I was always thinking, 'I want to eat, I want to eat.' If I gave in and told myself, 'OK, just a little,' and ate a cookie, it tasted so good that I couldn't stop. I'd eat the whole bag, but it still wasn't enough. That's how my overeating started. But that would make me gain weight, and the next morning the coach would yell at me, furious, and the whole day would be terrible. So, I started waking up in the middle of the night to get on a bike or go in the sauna."
In this way Hara slaved away to burn off the calories from the things she had eaten. During that time she began to vomit food she had eaten since throwing the food up meant she wouldn't be consuming those calories. This led to the desired weight loss, all while she tried to endure the simple act of finishing her meals. By December of the year she joined the corporate team, still just 18 years old, she had full-blown bulimia.
And then came her first time shoplifting. During a team training camp her coach took Hara's wallet away so that she couldn't go buy food. Her stomach was empty. She wanted food, so she took some candy, juice and bread. She ate and drank it all. Then threw it all up.
After that she started shoplifting even when she had money. In the evening she would sneak out of the team dormitory and go off to buy large quantities of food. She was desperate to eat and felt that the sheer amount she was buying gave it away, that the store clerks at the register were looking at her with strange eyes, like they knew. She starting stealing it just to avoid their gaze.
In the summer of 2012 she was caught by the police for the first time. Her eating disorder continued even after she retired from the corporate leagues. When the stress was stronger, so were the impulses to vomit and to steal. "When I couldn't control my bulimia I tried to escape by stealing," she said. "In that moment I could forget all the horrible things."
Every time she was caught the fines became larger, the punishment heavier. In November last year she was sentenced to one year imprisonment suspended for three years by the Utsunomiya District Court Ashikaga Branch. As a consequence of that trial she entered a specialized hospital to begin receiving treatment for her disorders. When the main part of the program was over she left the hospital late last year. The symptoms of her bulimia continued, but Hara felt that the compulsion to shoplift was gone.
As she had promised to the judge, Hara went shopping with members of her family whenever possible, and when she went out alone she wouldn't take a bag with her, just her wallet. In mid-January she happened to come across an online article about herself on a newspaper's website. "Even though the trial was over it felt like the media were still after me," she said. Stress like that of always being watched began to build, and not long after that she shoplifted for the first time since leaving the hospital.
This incident happened the night of February 9th. Hara went out to return a rented DVD, and on the way back home she thought, "I'd better stop and buy some food for the long weekend." She already had bread and other food at home, but one of the characteristics of patients with eating disorders is a compulsion to hoard food. Stopping at a supermarket in Ota, she took a bag of candy and two bags of crepe cookies and put them in her coat pockets. She then went to the bakery area and put some half-price bread and pastries in her shopping basket.
Hara said that she doesn't remember the moment of taking the candy and cookies except for feeling that "the range of my vision narrowed, everything in front of me going white as if clouds had suddenly rolled in. When my shopping basket touched my body it make a sudden crinkly sound and I thought that I'd better put the candy in the basket and pay up, but it felt like everyone around me was looking at me and I couldn't figure out when to do it so that they wouldn't see."
According to security camera footage, the whole event took place over the course of 15 minutes. During that time she heard the voices of people around her whispering, "That's Yumiko Hara!" "That's the shoplifter!" Whether those voices were real or only in her head, nobody knows. But what was certainly real was the voice of a female plainclothes security officer who stopped her and took her into the store office.
After posting bail Hara was readmitted to the hospital to undergo further treatment. As a repeat offense during a suspended sentence she is likely to face jail time this time around. If she receives another suspended sentence she will not be able to return home immediately after being discharged from the hospital but will instead have to undergo additional rehabilitation at an intermediate facility where she can receive the needed supervision.
Takeshi Yamauchi, a professor of sports science at Osaka Gakuin University who has warned of the dangers of schemes to reduce female long distance athletes' weight in an effort to enhance their performances, commented on Hara's case and the development of her eating disorder. "This went far beyond what can reasonably be expected," Yamauchi said. "It seems to me that by today's standards you would have to call what this team was doing a human rights violation."
The head coach of Hara's corporate team had previously had tremendous success as a high school girls ekiden coach. It may have been due to that success that he was so convinced of his methods. But, warns Professor Yamauchi, as the level of high school ekiden competition has increased, measures to suppress athletes' weight in order to improve their performances have led to many adverse outcomes including weaker bones, higher injury rates and levels of people quitting the sport as a result, and an increased prevalence of eating disorders.
"Even for adult athletes," warned Yamauchi, "weight loss strategies should ultimately be the decision of the athlete, and, keeping in mind the risks, put into practice only for a short period of time just before a key competition. In no case should it be done for a long time without the athlete understanding the risks like Ms. Hara."
Underlying the problem, says Yamauchi, is Japan's traditional sports culture. "Athletes are obliged to obey their coaches and the old-fashioned structure of their sports world, and this leads to situations like the Nihon University football scandal," he said. Hara was afraid to go against her coach and to make him angry and as a result obeyed his orders to lose weight. "The situation has improved recently at the corporate level, but at the high school level I think there are still coaches operating in this manner," he said. "In that kind of environment you have to recognize that there are athletes who have developed eating disorders and many more just waiting for it to happen. The problem is not limited only to Ms. Hara."
Translator's note: When Hara joined the corporate leagues at age 18 she ran for the Kyocera corporate team under head coach Kunio Omori. Omori was head coach at Saitama Sakae H.S. prior to taking over at Kyocera, leading the Saitama Sakae girls to three-straight National High School Ekiden titles from 1995 to 1997. In 1998 he became head coach at Kyocera, serving there until 2009. Along with Hara, he coached Miho Sugimori to the women's 800 m national record. Hara later transferred to the Universal Entertainment team under the leadership of Yoshio Koide.
translated by Brett Larner