The Oita International Wheelchair Marathon has been taking place in Oita prefecture for over 37 years, and is one of the legacies left behind by Dr. Yutaka Nakamura. The residents of Oita City welcome athletes from across Japan and throughout the world, and line the streets to support them as they compete in the wheelchair marathon. We spoke to several residents of Oita City about the special relationship they have developed with Para sports. Through these interviews, we have been able to gain some valuable insights into how the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games can contribute to the realisation of a society for all.
Q. In what ways has the Oita International Wheelchair Marathon changed the city?
The wheelchair marathon is an event that immediately recalls a particular season in Oita City. Athletes from around the world gather in the city, and residents are used to seeing them practicing and training around town each year, so nobody is particularly conscious that they have an impairment. Local residents just assume they are all athletes here for the marathon. Most of all, the residents are very proud of the fact that the Oita International Wheelchair Marathon is the first ever wheelchair marathon to be held in Japan, and that it is an internationally-recognised event. As the event has continued over the years, local residents with an impairment have been fully integrated into the community, and made lots of friends. And the feeling among local residents that it's natural for people with an impairment to take part in sport has continued to expand. This is how the foundations for our community were formed.
For example, whenever people in Oita City or nearby Beppu City see a person with an impairment at a pedestrian crossing or in a dangerous situation, they naturally ask the person if everything is alright, or if they require any assistance. You can see this type of thing on a daily basis; it has just become a natural reaction. Nobody hesitates to lend a hand just because someone has an impairment.
Q. I have heard that the Oita International Wheelchair Marathon has had a major impact on the city, that the people live together in harmony and that it's a very comfortable community to live in. What do you feel are the most important factors in creating a community in which a diverse array of people are able to live happily together?
I think it's important that people with an impairment just go about their daily business around town like everyone else. That way people will become used to seeing them around and in due course it will be normal to come into contact with people with an impairment. Impairment is just an individuality, so there is no need to be particularly mindful that they have an impairment. There is a large number of wheelchair users living in Oita and Beppu cities, and many places around town have had facilities that cater to wheelchair users for a long time.
Oita City has lots of facilities for people with an impairment, and there are many hospitals as well. Beppu City is the same; there are several social welfare facilities and rehabilitation centres, and I think that is one of the reasons that the proportion of local residents with an impairment is so high. I have also heard that Oita prefecture has the highest number of instructors for Para sports in Japan. I feel sure that the impact of the work done by Dr. Yutaka Nakamura – a native of Oita City – is one of the main reasons for this situation.
Mr.Katayama(left), Mr.Ikenaga （right）
Q. Why have Para sports become so prevalent in Oita prefecture?
I have heard that Oita prefecture was the first place in Japan to hold a sports tournament for people with an impairment. At the time, there was a lot of criticism about encouraging people with an impairment to take part in sporting competitions, but Oita prefecture steadily carried on with such activities. In time, the Oita International Wheelchair Marathon came to be a firmly entrenched fixture in the Oita City event calendar, and it has become an annual ritual for local residents to line the course and cheer on the participants.
In addition, through the Tokyo 1964 Games, Para sports came to be widely acknowledged by the international community as “sport,” and persons with an impairment competing in these sports came to be widely accepted as “athletes.” I think that was a source of real pride for Oita prefecture residents, and it probably laid the foundations for the general acceptance of Para sports.
Q. Has the prevalence of Para sports had an influence on the lifestyles of local residents?
It has become fairly normal practice for locals to ask, “Is everything alright?” or “Do you need a hand?” when they see a person with an impairment.
Q. Do you have any particular expectations for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games?
I would love it if the Paralympic Games served as a catalyst to change Japanese people's perceptions and encouraged them to embrace diversity.
Q. You run a bar in Oita City that has been designed to enable full accessibility for wheelchair users. What was the reason for this?
I think the original reason was that my grandfather only had one leg, and I remember thinking how tough it must be for him. Then, when I went on trip to Sweden, I remember being really surprised and impressed by the amount of barrier-free facilities around town. When I came to open my own bar, I remembered what I had seen in Sweden, and decided I wanted to make my bar completely barrier-free. I asked for advice from a wheelchair user during the design phase for the bar. And it was at that time that I realised just how many barriers there were around town, and learned how hard it must be for wheelchair users to go about their daily lives. My thinking was that even if a customer had an unexpected accident, I wanted them to continue to come to the bar, so I made the effort to ensure the bar was completely barrier-free. For example, I had heard that it was often the case that wheelchair users couldn't get out of their wheelchairs to sit at the counter, so I installed a low bar just the right height for a wheelchair user. I also took out some of the seated toilets to make space for a wheelchair user to use the toilet in comfort, and expanded the overall toilet area.
It's 13 years now since I first opened the bar, and these days many of the athletes have taken to coming to my bar after the wheelchair marathon is over. Now, I'm really glad that I designed a bar that is able to welcome so many different types of people.
Q. Have the various Para sports such as the wheelchair marathon had a major impact on the city?
I do quite a lot of sport, and I remember that around 30 years ago people with an impairment often weren't allowed to take part in sports. Even then, many people with an impairment tried hard to take part in a variety of sports. The usual excuse was that they might get injured. But many people with an impairment said they weren't worried about getting injured, and I'm glad that they were so proactive about participating. When they first started taking part, some people were perplexed and didn't know how to deal with the situation, but as the games went on everyone was able to enjoy it. I think it was because they wanted to make people understand that there were plenty of things they could do even though they had an impairment. That's one of the great things about sport. These days, it's much easier for people with an impairment to take part in different sports, but residents of Oita Prefecture with an impairment have been very proactive about taking part in sport for a long time. And I think that attitude has had a major impact on the city
Q. Do you think that there are any other factors apart from sport that have made Oita a community that embraces diversity?
When Dr. Yutaka Nakamura opened a social welfare facility for people with an impairment in the rather remote town of Kamegawa in Beppu some 50 years ago, many people with an impairment went to live in the town. These days, it has become much more common for shops to install slopes and other barrier-free facilities, but in Kamegawa, shops installed slopes and gave a lot of thought on how to make their shops accessible for wheelchair users around 50 years ago. If they hadn't they might have lost valuable custom. It was natural to take this kind of action. Some people have wondered if this might inconvenience able-bodied customers, but this isn't the case at all. It's actually very convenient for mothers with pushchairs and baby strollers, and older people. So Kamegawa has developed into a very comfortable town for everyone to live in, and many of the people who once worked in the social welfare facility have now retired and carried on living in the community.
Q. The Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee is searching for ways to ensure that visitors to the Tokyo 2020 Games are able to respect each other and spend time getting to know each other. From your experiences of living in Oita, what do you think are important factors to create a community in which a diverse array of people are able to live together in harmony?
First of all, it's important to create an environment in which people with an impairment can live comfortably. If the surrounding physical environment is comfortable for people with an impairment, there will be more places where people with an impairment and able-bodied people will be able to frequent together. Able-bodied people will see people with an impairment shopping, eating in restaurants, and so on, and will soon realise that they are really no different from other people. For residents of Oita City, like myself, it's a natural state of affairs – people have been living together for many years. That's one of the things that connects my generation with the younger generation.
In days gone by, many people with an impairment didn't want to be seen by society at large, and used to hide themselves away. But those days are a thing of the past. People with an impairment should go out and about as much as they want to, and I feel we should communicate the fact that there are some things that people with an impairment are unable to do. I think that there are a lot of people in Oita City who feel that there are many things that even able-bodied people cannot do, so we should help each other in the same way that people with an impairment and able-bodied people sometimes work together to resolve a particular problem.