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Preventing Serious Injuries in Kumi Taiso (Gymnastic Formations)
—A School's Safety Obligations in Sports Events

Makoto Hada
Teacher, Waseda University Honjo Senior High School

The second Monday of October is Sports Day. The weather tends to be stable during this time of year, so many schools hold athletic events such as sports festivals and tournaments for ball games. If you were raised in Japan, memories of yourself running as fast as you could across the schoolyard or cheering at the top of your lungs may bring nostalgia. Furthermore, you may have been moved by your child’s performance while you were watching them as a parent on Sports Day.

Controversy over the ever-growing height of kumi taiso

 Gymnastic formation, called kumi taiso in Japanese, is one of the main attractions in these sports events. Students can impress the audience and at the same time experience an incomparable sense of accomplishment when they successfully create a highly-difficult formation that required a lot of training. The educational benefits and eye-catching features of kumi taiso have motivated many schools to build even larger and taller structures. Meanwhile, the dangers of building a large human pyramid or tower have become a controversial issue because of the increased number of reports of serious injuries during kumi taiso training and performances.

In September 2015, a junior high school student in Osaka suffered from a broken bone when a 10-tier human pyramid, composed of 157 male students, suddenly collapsed. Considering the number of people and the total weight, the burden of students at the very bottom must have been excessive. Also, with a height of 10 tiers, it is easy to imagine that a collapse would put students in danger. Nevertheless, the school overrated its accident prevention measures; it believed that "proper instructions" could prevent serious accidents and went ahead with building the human pyramid. The school bears heavy liability in this incident.

Safety obligations of schools

Accidents in schools are usually followed by investigations to find out who is responsible. It is not uncommon for an accident to lead to a civil lawsuit, and an increasing number of trials have seen schools pay damages for violating their safety obligations. These obligations require schools to make sure that students have a safe, accident-free time at school and accompany the school education agreement between students and the school operator. If students are injured due to them not receiving appropriate education to avoid predictable dangers, the school operator (and individual teachers if it is a private school) is liable for damages in accordance with the State Redress Act or the Civil Act.

Waves of rulings with large damages and strict judgment on fulfilling obligations

There have been cases where school accidents resulted in serious lasting disabilities, and the court has ordered schools to pay damages of hundreds of millions of yen. For example, when a student was struck by lightning during a soccer match, the court ordered the private senior high school to pay damages of approximately 307 million yen (ruling by Takamatsu High Court on September 17, 2008). Although the rain had stopped and the sky was mostly clear at the time of the accident, the court still concluded that school teachers should have foreseen the risk of lightning strikes and taken appropriate measures to avoid them. In another example, when a senior high school tennis club member suffered heatstroke during practice, the court ruled for damages of approximately 229 million yen (ruling by Osaka High Court on January 22, 2015). The accident occurred at the end of May, which is generally considered a period with low risk of suffering heatstroke. The court still concluded that the supervising teacher should have given the student specific instructions on how to avoid heatstroke. The final example is an accident in which a student fell off the "vehicle" in a chicken fight during a school sports festival. For this, the court ordered the prefecture to pay damages of approximately 200 million yen (ruling by Fukuoka District Court on March 3, 2015). Although the school claimed that they did everything to ensure the safety of the students such as prohibiting punching and kicking, using rugby headgears, and allocating a judge (teacher) for each pair of fighting vehicles, the court still dismissed the claim due to insufficient measures.

These examples show that safety obligations are heavily imposed on schools when there is a risk of serious lasting disability. An average teacher may not be able to recognize such risks, yet considering that it is unacceptable to put students in danger in a supposedly-safe school environment, these apparently strict rulings are in fact reasonable.

Student safety first

Returning to the kumi taiso issue, what should be the maximum size and height of a human structure acceptable at school sports events? Human pyramids and towers are of course built with people. It is possible that something causes someone to lose their strength or balance. For school athletic events, even teachers who do not teach PE give students instructions as well. This implies that it is unlikely that these teachers can give students expert guidance on safety. As long as this is the case, the height needs to be controlled.

Let us look at the Ordinance on Industrial Safety and Health by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. To protect oneself against a fall, this ordinance requires installation of a working platform and wearing a safety belt and helmet for work at 2 meters or higher. The ordinance suggests that working from a height of 2 meters is dangerous for even highly skilled adults with a lot of work experience. Thus, it is clearly unreasonable to make junior and senior high school students build an unstable human tower of three tiers or higher without providing them any protective gear.

There are people who are against regulating kumi taiso. They value students' personal growth through compassion and endurance as well as a sense of unity and accomplishment. Students' lives and safety come first, however; they cannot be sacrificed to impress the audience or to educate the students. Osaka City has banned human pyramids and towers, and some local governments have put a tier limitation. These initiatives by local governments should be commended. Development of programs that lead to students' growth within set restrictions is what schools are designed for.

Makoto Hada
Teacher, Waseda University Honjo Senior High School

Makoto Hada earned his master's degree from Waseda University Graduate School of Law in 2005. He started to teach at Waseda University Honjo Senior High School in 2009 after teaching at Toin Gakuen Junior High School. He is a member of the School Compliance Society and the Japan Society for Law and Education. He is also a researcher at the Waseda University Institute for Advanced Studies in Education, a contract researcher at the Japan Private School Education Research Institute, and a member of the Honjo-shi Administrative Review Board.

His recent papers include:
- Kokka Baisho Hou 1-Jo 2-Ko ni Okeru "Jukashitsu" [Definition of "Gross Negligence" in Section 1-2 of the Act Concerning State Liability for Compensation], Education and Research (Kyoiku to Kenkyu) Vol. 34 (2016).
- Gakko Jiko no Minji Sekinin—Bukatsudo-chu no Rakurai Hisai to Insotsu Shidosha no Anzen Hairyo Gimu—[Civil Liability of School Accidents—Lightning Strike During a Club Activity and Obligations of the Teacher for Safety Considerations—], Education and Research (Kyoiku to Kenkyu) Vol. 33 (2015).
- Koutou Gakko no Seitoryo ni Okeru Anzen Hairyo Gimu [Obligations for Safety Considerations at Senior High School Student Dormitories], Education and Research (Kyoiku to Kenkyu) Vol. 31 (2013).
- Ijime Jisatsu wo Meguru Oyano Joho Seikyuken to Gakko no Chosa Houkoku Gimu [Suicides Resulting from Bullying—Parents' Rights to Access Information and Schools' Obligations to Investigate and Report], Waseda University Graduate School Law Research Collection (Waseda Daigaku Daigakuin Houkenron shu) Vol. 126 (2008).