Japan isn’t the easiest place to live for people with disabilities. Buildings and transportation aren’t always accessible; people are apt to regard disabilities as shameful; and a societal tendency to turn away from anything unpleasant makes it difficult to effect change. Nevertheless change is possible, as evidenced by the recent visibility of women with one specific disability — those who have lost a leg.
The catalyst was the publication last year of a collection of photographs by Takao Ochi that capture the beauty and vitality of 11 Japanese women who live active lives with artificial legs. The project was the brainchild of Fumio Usui, a noted prosthetist who made the legs the women use. It had long been Usui’s dream to present the public with positive images of women who have been through an amputation. First published in Japanese as “Setsudan Venus” (Hakujunsha, 2014), an international edition is now available in English with the translated title “Amputee Venus.”
Most Japanese amputees hide their disability, according to Usui, who works at the Prosthetic and Orthotic Care Center of the Tetsudo Kosaikai Foundation in Tokyo. Founded in 1932 to aid disabled railway workers, the organization builds and fits approximately 80 percent of prosthetic legs in Japan.
“They themselves may feel ashamed, or their family may have pressured them not to tell neighbors and relatives,” Usui explained. “As a result, many amputees become isolated and depressed, reluctant to even leave their homes. As long as amputees remain invisible, the public cannot learn that it’s possible to live a full, fulfilling life after an amputation — and discrimination will persist.”
In Japan, an estimated 70,000 people are missing all or part of a leg. The top cause for amputation is diabetes, which accounts for about 40 percent of cases, followed by cancer and traffic accidents. National insurance pays 90 percent of the cost of a prosthetic, which must be custom made and carefully fitted and adjusted. In some parts of the country, however, it is difficult to find a prosthetic maker and amputees are forced to use crutches or wheelchairs. The more rural the area, the more likely it is that amputees face difficulties and discrimination, according to Usui.
“People have negative images about the disabled because they aren’t informed,” said Ochi, who has been photographing sports for the disabled for many years. “But if they get to know someone with a disability, and begin to learn, they can move beyond preconceptions. By presenting these women as the attractive, vibrant individuals that they are, we hope to break down stereotypes about the disabled.”
Ochi gave the women who agreed to be photographed freedom to express themselves exactly as they wished to be portrayed, encouraging them to select their own outfits and locations for their shoots. The result is a collection of images that are fascinating and often surprising. Hitomi Onishi, who lost her right leg above the knee in 2000 after a medical procedure went wrong, chose to be photographed while scuba diving off the coast of the Izu Peninsula. For a subsequent shoot, she made herself up like a Terminator, the cyborg assassins made famous by James Cameron’s 1984 science-fiction movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The photobook has sold surprisingly well, given what might be seen as a niche subject, and it has attracted widespread attention in the Japanese media. What’s more, the exposure has led to new opportunities for the “Amputee Venus” models to step into the public eye. Sayaka Murakami was invited to appear on a fire-prevention poster, a high-profile annual tradition sponsored by the Japan Fire Retardant Association. Murakami, who is now training for the Paralympics, lost a leg in 2009 when she was struck by a train after fainting from anemia on a station platform. For the poster, she struck a confident pose wearing her sports prosthetic.
“The poster not only helps raise awareness about sports for the disabled, but it sends a positive image of amputees to parts of the country that might otherwise be hard to reach,” Murakami noted. About 150,000 copies of the poster were distributed to fire departments, libraries and workplaces throughout Japan.
The photobook also led to an invitation to present an amputee fashion show in which women from the book, joined by other amputees, modeled clothing on a runway, while also demonstrating jump roping and sprints. Held last December as part of a sports exhibition in Tokyo, the show was widely reported in the media and has since inspired similar events.
One keen participant was illustrator Makiko Sugawa, who posed for her contribution to the book in antique lace dresses and stockings that she designed. Ten years ago, a malignant tumor required the removal of Sugawa’s entire left leg, leaving her with an empty hip socket. “I’ve always loved clothes and fashion, and it was devastating to think I would never wear high heels or walk stylishly again,” she recalls. Now 41, Sugawa wowed the audience by removing the coat she was modeling to reveal her prosthesis and how it attaches with a belt around her waist.
“Clothes and fashion may seem trivial, but they can have a huge impact on how women feel about themselves. That’s why it’s important to show that women with disabilities can dress stylishly like anyone else,” she said. “If we reach even one girl or woman who is suffering in isolation, we will have accomplished something.”
Takao Ochi, Fumio Usui and one of the models will speak about “Amputee Venus” on Feb. 8; 3 p.m. at Al’s Cafe near Takadanobaba Station in Tokyo. English interpretation provided. Entry is ¥1,000 and includes one drink. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to confirm. “Amputee Venus” fashion shows will be held Feb. 14; 12:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. at the Hasselblad booth of the CP+2015 camera show in Yokohama. Entry to CP+2015 is ¥1,500 at the door; free with online registration at www.cpplus.jp/en. The book can be ordered at www.hakujunsha.com/amputee-venus.