The world takes notice! Oita as the "most inclusive city": The Paralympic Games transform the region (Vol. 3)

Over half a century has passed since the Paralympic Games were first held in Japan in 1964, and Japan will soon be hosting for the second time. Since its last time as host of the Games, Japan has built a legacy of promoting independence in people with impairments and promoting Para sports. Right now, in Oita, the movement to truly integrate people with impairments into the community is reaching an important phase, leading to the revitalisation of the entire region.

Athlete Pieter du Preez (right) enjoying the hot springs with his family

“All the way to the edge of the bath in my wheelchair...”

On 15 November 2018, a few days before the 38th Oita International Wheelchair Marathon, a visitor from overseas savours an open-air bath in Beppu, one of Japan’s most famous onsen (hot spring) cities.
“This is the first time I have ever made it all the way to the edge of the bath in my wheelchair. It makes enjoying the hot springs so much easier.”
These words of amazement came from South African athlete Pieter du Preez who would go on to claim his third consecutive T51 class victory at the race three days later. Du Preez had five trips to Japan already under his belt, but had rarely explored outside the vicinity of the race course with his attention focused solely on the races. This was one of the first times he finally made it to one of the hot springs that Beppu is world-famous for.

“I’ve been to all sorts of countries, but I can say that Oita is the most inclusive place I’ve ever been to. There are flat surfaces everywhere you go to accommodate wheelchairs and considerations for other types of impairments too, like textured paving blocks all around the city for people with visual impairments. As someone who uses a wheelchair, I was quite impressed with this city.” (Du Preez)

Du Preez voices his amazement at making it all the way to the edge of the bath in his wheelchair

Oita is gaining recognition as an example of a progressive regional city offering safe tourism for older people and people with impairments

Progressive example of a regional city to attract overseas visitors

Du Preez had been invited by the Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), a government agency that promotes foreign tourism to Japan. Du Preez, a top wheelchair marathon athlete, boarded a bus equipped with a wheelchair lift that took him and his family to a spa, a seaside park, and other major tourist attractions where they could experience barrier-free facilities first-hand. The JNTO hoped to show them the great accessibility regional cities in Japan have to offer. Heading into 2020, many of Japan’s big tourist cities are predicting a huge influx of overseas visitors. While those cities pursue their own promotional efforts, the JNTO is focusing instead on Oita as an example of a progressive regional city offering safe tourism for people who are older or have impairments.

“We are taking the Olympic and Paralympic Games as a chance to show the world that Japan is kind to everyone. One way we are doing this is by highlighting our facilities that allow anyone, regardless of age or ability, to travel comfortably. Oita has hosted the International Wheelchair Marathon 38 times, and the entire city accepts it naturally with no particular thought towards impairments. I want to take this opportunity to show the world that Japan is a place that embodies the concept that anyone, with or without an impairment, can live an ordinary life.” (Katsue Takeshima, JNTO Cross-Market Promotion Division)

Hot spring town offering superb accessibility and diversity

Beppu is a city in Oita Prefecture that is famous as a hot spring area with the highest volume of hot spring water and number of hot springs in the country. Thanks to the legacy built by Japan Sun Industries, a social welfare organisation founded by Dr Yutaka Nakamura, and many years of international Para sports competitions like the Oita International Wheelchair Marathon, Beppu is also gaining recognition in Japan and worldwide as an accessible hot spring area that is comfortable for people who are older or have impairments.

“Oita is associated with tourism and hot springs, but Beppu is promoting itself to the rest of Japan and the world as a place of symbiosis. Beppu has a population of about 120,000, but around 8,800 of its residents have impairments and about 4,300 are from other countries. I doubt there are many other places in Japan with so much diversity. I want to spread the word to inspire more places around Japan to become places of symbiosis like Beppu.”

These words were spoken by Tatsuo Yamashita, fifth and current director of Japan Sun Industries. More than half a century has passed since Japan Sun Industries was founded by Beppu native Yutaka Nakamura in 1965, and the company has grown to five offices inside and outside Oita Prefecture with about 1,800 employees (of which 1,100 have impairments) and is now jointly owned by six corporations and eight companies. At the start, priority was given to creating a workplace for people with impairments, but as the company has grown, the number of employees without impairments has also increased and currently makes up about 40 per cent of the employee base. The company is infused with Yutaka Nakamura’s strong desire to create a community where people with and without impairments could live and work together in symbiosis.

From independence for people with impairments to a symbiotic community for people with and without impairments

Japan Sun Industries today has accommodated its increase in employees by adding a supermarket, bank, medical clinic, public bathhouse, gym, and other businesses, creating more than just a workplace for people with impairments—it is now a hub for interaction used by both people with impairments and neighbouring residents. It is no longer rare to see Japan Sun Industries employees with impairments leaving the complex and enjoying dining and shopping in the town amongst the tourists and locals. Japan Sun Industries employees and the other members of their households number over 2,000 people and are recognised as a major customer base for the economy of Beppu, a city of not much more than a 100,000 people, and many businesses have voluntarily made barrier-free adjustments to accommodate them. One such business is the Mona Lisa, a bar in Beppu City.

“The bar is on street level and wheelchairs can enter, so we have many customers from Japan Sun Industries. Our restroom used to be too small for wheelchairs, so we renovated on our own to make it more accessible. The company has been here forever, so we don’t really think of them as having impairments. They join our other customers and everyone has a great time drinking together here.” (Yoshiko Shimizu, Bar Owner)

While Japan Sun Industries manufactures handrails and other equipment for barrier-free facilities, the nearby train station and the surrounding neighbourhood also has taken up steps to increase its accessibility, with ramps, universal design restrooms, and barrier-free hot springs, for example. The concept of symbiosis has transcended beyond the boundaries of Japan Sun Industries as an organisation and is spreading through the entire city.

“The organisation my father (Yutaka Nakamura) built about 50 years ago now has some 1,000 employees with impairments. They have their own families, and if they are parents, they join the PTA at school, attend school athletic meets and dinner parties, and so on. Through these completely normal interactions, their impairments gradually fade into the background. Over the years, with impairments being very common, it becomes natural to have friends with impairments as well.” (Dr Taro Nakamura, eldest son of Dr Yutaka Nakamura)

The local government also supports this virtuous circle. While the aging population of Japan continues to increase, Beppu is leading the way with its development of infrastructure featuring universal tourism that is comfortable for people who are older or have impairments. In December 2018, it was announced that the actual employment rate for people with impairments in Oita prefecture was the third highest in Japan, at 2.46% (as of 1 June 2016), breaking its own record for the seventh year in a row.

Not only that, but the ratio of the number of Para sports instructors to help people with impairments participate in sports to the number of people with certificates of impairment was 0.65% (in a 2016 survey), the highest in the country (with a national average of 0.31%). This is also said to be a legacy of Dr Nakamura’s push to hold the Oita International Wheelchair Marathon; an organisation was established to train Para sports instructors to assist in the overall running of Para sports, greatly contributing to the holding of the marathon.
What is interesting is that the place providing offices and sports facilities for this effort is none other than Japan Sun Industries, one of Dr Nakamura’s other legacies.

The younger generation saves the town from its tourism crisis

International university in Beppu with about 3,000 international students

Oita was built as a harbour town, and they say it was more accepting of people and products from outside from the very beginning, boosted by its development as a hot spring area. With this history, since the opening of Japan Sun Industries and the start of the Oita International Wheelchair Marathons, Oita had actively been developing itself into a comfortable place for people with impairments to live in. Then, at the turn of the century, it reached a crossroads. Domestic tourism had dropped so low because of the shrinking and aging of the population and the collapse of the bubble economy that the number of lodgers in the area was down to around 60% from its peak. Just like many other famous regional hot spring areas, Beppu was in trouble. What saved the city were the young students at an international university that Beppu enticed to open there in 2005. The founding of this university instantly brought in around 3,000 international students from 88 countries around the globe and an equal number of Japanese students—6,000 students in all. Beppu had been gradually aging, but its population composition of 19- to 22-year-olds jumped to 5.53% (compared to a national average of 3.76%). Not only that, but the active involvement of the international students in development of the community led to more shops with multilingual and multicultural services and the city as a whole becoming more international and livelier.

Meanwhile, the university had begun a totally new experiment, running a campus with 3,000 international students. One of the greatest challenges was building a harmonious relationship between the international students and locals in which the students had a positive influence on the community.

“I am glad we chose Beppu. As you can see from the success of Japan Sun Industries, Beppu has a culture of tolerance that accepts diverse people from outside. We do not think of our international students as a stopgap measure for the shrinking population; we felt that bringing in people from 90 different countries and creating a diverse campus would enable us to nurture our students into people who can perform well internationally. Oita was already diverse and wanted to boost its diversity even further, so it helped greatly that our intentions were aligned. We could not have done this so quickly anywhere else.” (Masahiro Makita, Liaison Director of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University)

The Paralympic Games and achieving a multicultural society

One of the legacies of the Tokyo 1964 Paralympic Games is how the importance of Para sports became widely known in Japan, as you can see from the establishment of the Japan Sports Association for the Disabled (now the Japanese Para-Sports Association) the following year in 1965. But perhaps another legacy that we must not forget is how the Paralympic Games served as a catalyst for transforming Oita into a multicultural society.

Many people think that promoting Para sports is only relevant to those with impairments. But look at the multicultural society developing in Oita. This is surely proof that promoting Para sports is relevant to all people with a wide range of characteristics.

When the Tokyo 1964 Paralympic Games were held, about 30 per cent of people with physical impairments were aged 65 or older. The aging of Japan has since progressed, and that proportion has now grown to over 70 per cent (74 per cent as of April 2018 according to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare). The proportion of people with physical impairments tends to increase with age, and it is expected to continue increasing as the population continues aging. As this happens, striving for a society that accepts diversity—the aim of Para sports—will become even more important.

The most important thing is not accessibility

Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games spokesperson Masa Takaya says this about the “Unity in Diversity” that is one of the three core concepts of the Games:

“The Summer Paralympic Games are back for the second time, over half a century after the Tokyo 1964 Games. Japan has become a mature society and must become a force that drives progress even further. Fostering not only universal design, but also a barrier-free mentality, and having as many people as possible learn through the Games to appreciate all sorts of differences including in abilities and to accept diversity. Achieving a positive and inclusive society without prejudice would be one success of the Games.”

Du Preez (left) chatting with local athletes in wheelchairs

South African athlete Du Preez, who we met at the beginning of this article, left the following message about the main point for evaluating Oita after his tour, stressing that physical accessibility is only one facet and what truly impressed him was something else.

“What impressed me the most was the people here. Everyone here has treated me totally normally. I feel that this is really inclusive. While creating accessibility is important, what is most important is the people. It is important for me not to be considered as someone ‘special,’ but to be able to communicate with people just like everyone else.”

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