Key to success of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games (Prequel) -The Legacy of Japan's Paralympic Pioneer Puts Tokyo 2020 in Good Stand-


Fifty-three years ago to the day, on 8 November, 1964, the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo Paralympic Games was held. The origins of the Paralympic Games can be traced back to 28 July, 1948, when, at Stoke Mandeville Hospital near London, Dr. Ludwig Guttman gathered 16 athletes for a wheelchair archery competition to correspond with the London Olympics that opened on the same day. Twelve years later, a Japanese doctor arrived for a placement at Stoke Mandeville. Strongly influenced by Dr. Guttman's teachings about the use of sport to rehabilitate patients with spinal cord injuries and help them reintegrate into society, he decided to try and implement those ideas upon his return to Japan.

That doctor's name was Yutaka Nakamura. After his return, with a particular emphasis on the power of work and sport to aid independence and self-reliance, he actively worked to help persons with an impairment, not only in his then-base of Oita Prefecture, but throughout Japan, and across Asia as a whole, to reintegrate into and contribute to society. Furthermore, starting with his contributions to the organization of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympic Games, he also became a driving force behind the Paralympic movement throughout Japan.

As part of its efforts to trace the roots of the Paralympics in Japan, the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee spoke to Taro Nakamura, son of Dr. Yutaka Nakamura, about how his father dedicated his life to promoting para sports in Japan, and how his father's passion and determination has influenced his own life. We also spoke to local residents of Oita City, in Japan's southern island of Kyushu, about the Oita International Wheelchair Marathon which has been taking place in the city for over 35 years and is one of the legacies left behind by Dr. Yutaka Nakamura, and how local residents have developed a special relationship with para sports. Through these interviews with Taro Nakamura and the local residents of Oita City, we have been able to further deepen our understanding of the significance of the Paralympic Games, and have received some invaluable insights into how the Games can contribute to the realisation of society for all.

Q. Dr. Nakamura, you have vast experience of working with athletes with an impairment including serving as the doctor for the Japanese Paralympic team. Could you please tell us a little about how you came to be so involved in para sports?

I think it's probably my father's influence. He was heavily involved in para sports, and I grew up with it from an early age. My father passed away when I was a student. At that time, with few people to consult about my choices, just like my father, I opted to pursue orthopaedic surgeon. It is usual for orthopaedic surgeons to want to become skilled surgeons. But as I had carefully watched my father as a young boy, I felt that it was my job as an orthopaedic surgeon to help people with an impairment to reintegrate into society. Looking back, my mother also had great respect for my father and his work for social welfare facilities for people with an impairment, so I suppose I grew up with the emphasis on a very particular set of values.

Dr. Yutaka Nakamura

Q. In what specific ways did your father develop the Paralympics in Japan?

Back in 1964, when my father was working to establish social welfare facilities for people with an impairment, the mere fact of having any sort of impairment was considered an embarrassment, and people generally tried to hide them. My father went to the UK to learn about treatment for those with spinal cord injuries. When he returned to Japan, he set up the first ever competition in Japan for people with an impairment in Oita City, and I have heard that he was widely criticised for this. There were so many negative comments, many of them along the lines of: “It's cruel let people with an impairment parade in public like that”; “Don't treat them like they are circus acts!”; or, “Just as they're beginning to get better, making them take part in sporting competitions will only set them back again.” But even amid that climate, he still took two of his own patients from Oita to represent Japan in the UK, and contributed to Tokyo's hosting of the Paralympics. In my father's day, the general feeling was that society should make people with an impairment strive to become more like able-bodied people. As times have changed, today we have to some extent created an environment in which people with an impairment are not expected to strive to become like able-bodied people, and more people these days are calling for diversity and an inclusive society for all. This wasn't necessarily something my father thought about, but back in those days, people with an impairment had to strive just to work and make a social contribution through their taxes. Back then, people didn't understand the word “Paralympic” without an extra explanation, but today, everyone knows the term, and Paralympic results are routinely broadcast on TV, so you can definitely feel a major shift.

Q. At the Tokyo 1964 Paralympic Games, your father served as the head of the Japanese team. In 2020, the Paralympic Games will be held in Tokyo again. Do you think there is anything that we can learn from the 1964 Games that should be incorporated into the 2020 Games?

The first Games that were known as the Paralympics were held in Rome in 1960, and they were only open to athletes with spinal cord injuries. However, when my father returned from Stoke Mandeville Hospital and set up a sports competition for wheelchair users in Oita City in 1961, he didn't restrict participation to persons with spinal cord injuries but opened the competition to all persons no matter what kind of physical impairments. Conversely, the International Games for Physically Impairments held in Tokyo in 1964, the first part was the 13th International Stoke Mandeville Games which was open to athletes with spinal cord injuries, and the second part of the national sports competition, what is called the 2nd Paralympic Games, was open to all athletes with physical impairment, including those with visual impairment, as well as those amputating limbs and so on.*

In Europe and the United States, there was a tendency to classify athletes by their particular type of impairment, and it was only much later that all persons with an impairment were able to take part in the Games. In contrast, however, Japan managed to hold a competition for all persons with an impairment in 1964, something of which I think Japanese people should be proud. That, back in 1964, we were able to hold a competition not only for athletes with spinal cord injuries, but for all athletes with an impairment, is wonderful. While this may have been influenced by Japanese culture, I believe it was pioneering work. In 1964, Europe and the United States were the models, and the goal was to catch them up. But now Japan is among the world leaders in this field, so there are high hopes for the kind of Paralympic Games we can present in 2020.

In addition to Japan, some countries took part in the competition.

Quote by Dr. Yutaka Nakamura
      The concept of a “handicap” is a construct of society. It was not created by actual people with an impairment. If society is able to rid itself of its prejudices against people with an impairment, for example, parents stopping their children playing with other children who have an impairment, then there would be no such concept as a “handicap.” *Quoted in a speech entitled “The Future of Welfare and Education” at a meeting of head teachers of prefectural elementary and junior high schools, 26 July 1979.

Q. One legacy that the Tokyo 2020 Games is aiming to achieve is the realisation of society for all. What things will be vital for us to realise this vision?

There are currently around 1,000 people at the social welfare facility my father set up in Oita City 50 years ago. These people have children and families of their own, are members of school PTAs, participate in school sports days, and luncheons. Their normal participation in social activities demonstrates that having an impairment isn't viewed as negatively as it once was. At some point in the future, when the number of people with an impairment reaches a certain level, it will become commonplace for people to have friends and acquaintances who have an impairment. At the Tokyo 2020 Games and further into the future, I really hope that society will evolve to the point where people don't feel anything strange about someone having an impairment. To achieve this, first of all, we should try to come into contact more with people with an impairment in a natural way, and get to know them better.

Also, I think it's important to increase the number of opportunities we have to come into contact with persons with an impairment and spend more time with them. Becoming a volunteer would be a good way to go about it. Sport is a great way to bring people together. It gives them a common interest and something in common to talk about. People with an impairment are not special.

Q. Your father founded the Oita International Wheelchair Marathon and set up social welfare facilities in his hometown of Oita City. Consequently, Oita City residents seem to have a deeper understanding of people with an impairment than other towns or cities. What do you think is the reason for this?

I don't think that any particular efforts have been made to make pavements, buildings, and other public infrastructure more accessible for persons with an impairment. In that respect, Tokyo is way ahead.

But as people go about their everyday lives, it's quite common to come into contact with people with an impairment, The Oita International Wheelchair Marathon has been held in Oita City for over 37 years now, and each year there are hundreds of people with an impairment in the city. A month before the marathon, banners go up all over the city, so when we get to late October, people are very aware that it's almost time for this year's wheelchair marathon. On a daily basis, it is normal to see wheelchair racers practicing on the cycling routes around town, and the local newspaper has long been diligently reporting on sports and facilities for people with an impairment. During the period when the marathon takes place, there's always a full-page feature, and about half the newspaper is covered in marathon-related articles. In Oita, it's just natural. There are plenty of sports for people with an impairment and plenty of opportunities to come into contact with people with an impairment, so nobody feels it's strange at all. I hope that, rather than just a special event, para sports will have the opportunity to become a normal part of life.

Profile: Taro Nakamura

1960 Born in Beppu, Oita Prefecture
2006 Became president of Japan Sun Industries (Taiyonoie)
2007 Became director of Oita Nakamura Hospital

Notable Posts
Oita Nakamura Hospital, Chairman and Director
Social Welfare Organization Japan Sun Industries (Taiyonoie), President
Oita University Faculty of Medicine, Clinical Professor
Oita University of Nursing and Health Sciences, Clinical Professor
Japanese Para-Sports Association, Medical Committee Member
Japan Society of Para-Sports Science, Executive Director
Japan Medical Society of Spinal Cord Lesion, Trustee