The year was 1960, and a Japanese doctor named Yutaka Nakamura was studying at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the United Kingdom. His supervisor was the renowned neurologist, Professor Ludwig Goodman. At that time, the general belief in Japan was that people with impairments needed constant care and should be confined to bed; however, Dr. Nakamura was astonished to learn that his mentor believed the exact opposite. Professor Ludwig actively encouraged his patients to engage in sports, and he was getting some promising results, with patients either strengthening or regaining their motor functions.
Many of Professor Ludwig's patients recovered enough to rejoin society and resume their day-to-day lives after about six months of treatment. Their lively, energetic countenance was a stark contrast to that of disabled people in Japan, who tended to live sheltered lives and avoided being seen in public.
The Professor was quoted as saying, “Don't worry about what you have lost. Just make the most of what you have left. Remember, what counts is ability, not disability.” Those words would have a profound impression on Dr. Nakamura.
After returning to Japan, Dr. Nakamura dedicated himself to changing Japanese attitudes about people with impairments. Little by little, he began to gain others' support, and in 1964, he successfully brought the Paralympic Games to Tokyo. It was a great accomplishment for Nakamura, who served as director of the Japanese team. He had longed to see the games held in his home country after first witnessing them in the UK. As one of the wheelchair competitors read out the athletes' pledge during the opening ceremony, Dr. Nakamura stood beaming with pride in the background.
The 1964 Paralympic Games affected Dr. Nakamura even more than he had expected. Many of the Western athletes had fulfilling careers and family responsibilities, which raised the hopes of the Japanese athletes. They began believing that they too could lead more independent, rewarding lives. Encouraged by their growing self-confidence, the following year Dr. Nakamura established Japan Sun Industries in his home town of Beppu City, Oita Prefecture. Backed by its philosophy, “No Charity, but a Chance,” the social welfare organization began helping people with impairments to become independent, working members of society.
Also in 1965, Dr. Nakamura teamed up with Yoshisuke Kasai and other members of the Tokyo Paralympic Games Organizing Committee to establish today's Japanese Para-Sports Association (JPSA), which at that time was called the Japan Sports Association for the Disabled. Tomohiro Ida is currently in charge of the JPSA's planning and information department.
“We don't consider a parasports to be something that's specially designed for disabled people," he tells us. "All we do is tweak the rules and equipment so the sport can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of their abilities.”
The JPSA has raised not only awareness, but also the competitive appeal of parasports in Japan. For example, wheelchair marathons have proven to be thrilling spectator sports, with competitors traveling at speeds of greater than 40 km per hour in special chairs called “racers.” And in the wheelchair varients of basketball and rugby, wins and losses can often be determined by player substitutions and other subtle tactics. This is because point systems are employed to account for the competitors' varying levels of impairment.
The fan base for parasports has been growing in recent years too, as more people are starting to appreciate these sports' unique appeal. Furthermore, those taking up parasports are not only doing so for rehabilitation or health reasons, but also to compete against the world's best and set records at major international competitions. It would seem that the philosophies of Professor Goodman and his young protege, Dr. Nakamura, have had a lasting and profound influence on parasports in Japan.
The 35th Oita International Wheelchair Marathon was held on Sunday, November 8. Since 1991, MC has been helping to stage this event, which was the brainchild of Dr. Nakamura and first held in 1979. Every year the marathon attracts competitors from around the world, including employees from Mitsubishi Shoji & Sun, a joint venture that was established in 1983 by MC and Japan Sun. Mitsubishi Shoji & Sun remains dedicated to Dr. Nakamura's vision, providing people with vocational training and helping them to re-enter the workforce.
This article appeared in Asahi Shimbun's "GLOBE" feature of October 18, 2015.