The Paralympic Games transforms the region (Vol. 2)

Shigeo Aono takes the Athletes' Oath at the Tokyo 1964 Paralympic Games as Dr Yutaka Nakamura stands behind him (Courtesy of Japan Sun Industries)
Shigeo Aono takes the Athletes' Oath at the Tokyo 1964 Paralympic Games as Dr Yutaka Nakamura stands behind him (Courtesy of Japan Sun Industries)

The man who dedicated his life to putting para sports on the map

The Tokyo 1964 Paralympic Games were the first held in Asia, and transformed the way the people of Japan saw people with impairments as well as the status of para sports. The locus for this tremendous shift was not just in Tokyo, but in Oita, a prefecture on Japan's southern island of Kyushu, about 1,200km from Tokyo, as well - driven by the passion and tenacity of a single man.

The struggle to bring the Paralympic Games to Japan

There is an iconic photograph from November 1964, taken at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 1964 Paralympic Games, which shows Shigeo Aono in a wheelchair taking the Olympic Oath for athletes. Just behind him is a man in suit and glasses, standing firmly at attention.

The man is Dr Yutaka Nakamura, an orthopaedic surgeon from Oita who not only served as team leader for the Tokyo 1964 Paralympic Games, but who was also one of the most instrumental people in bringing the Paralympics to Japan.

The story of Dr Nakamura's life is itself the story of how the Para sports got their start in Japan. The Paralympics got their start in the United Kingdom, and Dr Nakamura travelled there in 1960 to study with the man known as the “father of the Paralympic Games”, Sir Ludwig Guttmann.

Dr Guttmann was incorporating sports in his rehabilitation treatments for patients with spinal cord injuries, and building on these as a way to help reintegrate his patients into society. Dr Nakamura was deeply impressed with his European colleague's completely opposite approach to treatments practiced in Japan, where the concept of rehabilitation had not yet become widespread. He returned home determined to put what he had learned into practice, immediately organising Japan's first full-scale athletic competition for people with impairments: The First Oita Prefecture Para Sports Tournament.

However, this was a time in Japan when treatment was still focused on immobilisation and bed rest. Dr Nakamura's idea of having patients participate in sports was met with heavy criticism and dismissed.

Nakamura with Dr Goodman (Courtesy of Japan Sun Industries)
Nakamura with Dr Goodman (Courtesy of Japan Sun Industries)

Fighting discriminating criticism, Dr Nakamura refuses to give in

“The criticism was harsh. People told him it was cruel to ‘put people with impairments on display’ that was ‘the same as showing them off like in a circus', and that he was trying to ’undo all the rehabilitative work that had been achieved' by having patients participate in sports," Taro Nakamura, Dr Nakamura's eldest son said.

But Dr Nakamura refused to be bowed by the condemnation of his event. In fact, he set his sights even higher - making it his personal mission to bring the Paralympic Games to Tokyo. He made the rounds of the relevant government offices to promote his cause, but was met with a chilly reception. Officials repeatedly insisted that Japan was far from ready to host the Paralympic Games, but Dr Nakamura would not be discouraged. He pushed even harder for the miracle that would keep his dream alive.

In 1962, Dr Nakamura used his own money to send two para athletes from his Oita hospital to England to participate in an international wheelchair athletics competition called the Stoke Mandeville Games. News that the first-ever participants had arrived all the way from Japan in far-flung East Asia electrified the British media, eventually spreading to the global press. It was exactly what Dr Nakamura had hoped. The Japanese media, which until then had shown little interest in the story, ran it everywhere as soon as the international news broke.

For the Japanese public, para sports was finally on the map.

In 1963, the following year, Dr Nakamura's tireless efforts led to official approval for the Paralympic Games to be held in Tokyo. With government backing in hand and grassroots support taking care of the difficult financial hurdles previously in place, Dr Nakamura's dream had finally become a reality. The Paralympic Games would follow the Olympic Games as a historic national event.

Shocked by the huge gap between Japanese and international athletes

Dr Nakamura had won a great victory, but he soon realised that the long, uphill battle had only just begun. The majority of Japan's para athletes were his own patients, and though he enjoyed moments in the spotlight as their team leader, his expression remained troubled throughout the Games. It wasn't because he was upset about the Japanese athletes' medal count. It was the painfully obvious gap between the Japanese competitors and their overseas counterparts. It far exceeded differences in competitive ability, and would not be easy to close.

“Most overseas athletes have careers. They're priests, lawyers, accountants, secretaries, clerks, electricians, welders, assemblers, salesmen, reporters, managers, mechanics, watchmakers, booksellers, typists. Their lives are just as same as those of people without impairments.”

“But of the 53 Japanese athletes who participated in the Paralympic Games, only 5 are self-employed; the rest are being cared for at home or at convalescence facilities. The difference is staggering.” – The Story of Yutaka Nakamura, Founder of Japan Sun Industries

The international athletes at the Paralympic Games were different from their Japanese counterparts in every way.

“The Cabinet decided that two police officers would be permanently assigned to the international athletes as escorts in order to make sure nothing happened to them. This was seen as a necessary measure in Japan, where an injury to the spinal cord meant living the rest of your life in the hospital," Dr Taro Nakamura said.

"But the athletes that came to Japan from abroad were actually fine living independently. They would do things like hang out and have drinks in Ginza or change into suits to do business between events. When the Japanese athletes saw this, it made them realise that they too could live independently despite their impairments.”

At the closing ceremonies, the athletes implored Dr Nakamura to help them become more like their Western counterparts.

“We've finished setting the stage to capture public interest. It's time to stop clinging to charity and build facilities where people with impairments can be independent. The real battle begins now.” – Extract from The Story of Yutaka Nakamura, Founder of Japan Sun Industries.

From sheltering people with impairments to fostering financial independence

Dr Nakamura acted quickly. In October 1965, less than a year after the end of the Paralympic Games, he opened a facility called Taiyou no Ie (Japan Sun Industries) in his hometown of Beppu, Oita Prefecture, to help people with impairments work and go about their daily lives. While past facilities focused on sheltering and protecting people with impairments, Japan Sun Industries was designed to provide them with opportunities to participate in work and sports, serving as a platform from which they could develop financial independence and become integrated into their local communities.
The project was initially a bare-bones facility where seven people with impairments did small-scale woodworking and sewing out of a tiny office, but they soon began receiving work orders from large companies, and continued to expand steadily. They were even able to build Japan's first factory for workers with impairments in 1972.

The founding of Japan Sun Industries (Courtesy of Japan Sun Industries)
The founding of Japan Sun Industries (Courtesy of Japan Sun Industries)

Dr Nakamura took an uncompromising attitude towards work, insisting that producing better-quality work was essential if people with impairments were to achieve independence. But employing numerous people with severe impairments and people with various types of impairments was always more important to him than economics and efficiency. To this end, he created a diverse array of tasks ranging from simple jobs to highly-skilled labour and intellectual work - and even developed his own tools and other necessities to create better working environments for people with impairments.

Awards ceremony at the first FESPIC Games (Courtesy of Japan Sun Industries)
Awards ceremony at the first FESPIC Games (Courtesy of Japan Sun Industries)

A tireless passion for para sports

Meanwhile, Dr Nakamura continued to pour himself into para sports even after the Tokyo 1964 Paralympic Games. His life's mission was to see people with impairments integrated seamlessly into society - not just in Japan but all over the world and especially in developing countries - to the point that the term “people with impairments” disappeared entirely. Driven by these convictions, Dr Nakamura always approached his work as addressing a global issue that transcended national boundaries, even as he based his efforts out of Oita Prefecture.

In 1975, the first Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled (FESPIC) was held in Oita. A total of 973 athletes from 18 Asian and Pacific countries, including Japan, participated in the event. Dr Nakamura wanted to create a sporting event in which athletes from developing countries, where para sports had not yet taken hold, could participate - as these countries were facing the same disadvantages versus the West that Japan had experienced prior to the Paralympic Games. He worked together with like-minded people in Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and elsewhere, ultimately persuading key players in those various countries as well as companies in Japan to support the effort.

The first Oita International Wheelchair Marathon in 1981 (Courtesy of Japan Sun Industries)
The first Oita International Wheelchair Marathon in 1981 (Courtesy of Japan Sun Industries)

Then, in 1981, Oita became the site of the world's first wheelchair marathon - the story of which was told in Vol. 1 of this series. The leading advocate for this momentous event was, again, Dr Nakamura. He was certainly a powerful driving force behind making a world-first event like this possible in Oita, but there was another key factor as well. In the wake of the Tokyo 1964 Paralympic Games, the successive establishment of Oita-based medical rehabilitation facilities, independence facilities, and worksites that Dr Nakamura was involved in turned out a large number of local para athletes. In fact, 20 Japan Sun Industries employees participated in the race, and all of them made it to the finish line.

Dr Nakamura also used the event as an opportunity to conduct medical research, demonstrating that participation in a wheelchair marathon had outstanding medical rehabilitative effects for people with spinal cord injuries. He then presented his findings at an international medical conference the following year.

In 1984, three years after the first Oita International Wheelchair Marathon, Dr Nakamura passed away at the age of 57.

The facilities he established and the sporting events he founded have continued to develop to this day, so that even in the 21st century his legacy is still evolving on a global scale. In Oita, that development has reached a phase that has transcended the idea of integrating people with developments into local communities, becoming even greater than a force of revitalisation for the entire region.

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