Voices | FOREIGN AGENDA

Japan must open minds to disability, not just physical spaces, in time for Tokyo Paralympics

by Michael Gillan Peckitt

Special To The Japan Times

The 2016 Paralympic Games concluded almost exactly a month ago on Sept. 18, with Rio de Janeiro passing the host’s baton to Tokyo.

The Rio Paralympics have been widely lauded for defying expectations, after the buildup to the games was dominated by headlines about funding shortfalls, potentially empty stadiums and even the possibility of national teams being stranded in their home countries without promised support grants.

However, there was disappointment for Japan, which for the first time in its Paralympic history failed to win a gold medal. While Japan had set a target of 40 medals, including 10 gold, it struggled to make just over half that number. Although Japanese Paralympians took home 24 medals, 10 silver and 14 bronze — including its first ever medal in mixed wheelchair rugby — the country only placed 64th in the final medals table.

Speaking before the Rio Paralympic closing ceremony, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike mentioned funding issues.

“In the Olympic and Paralympic Games it seems there are budget overruns occurring everywhere,” she said.

Koike is already making waves as she scans the books for possible cuts to bring down the ever-ballooning cost of the 2020 Olympics to Tokyo, but the new governor has tried to assure athletes that their financial support is secure.

“If anything, we would like to earmark budget for training for athletes, to focus on athlete-first thinking,” she said.

While Koike’s remarks on “athlete-first thinking” may be encouraging, worries about “budget overruns” are sure to be a concern to the Japan Paralympic Committee, particularly after funds meant for the Rio Paralympics were basically pilfered to pay for the Olympics this year.

It is very difficult to train and support athletes capable of winning medals without spending a lot of money, and on this issue, Japan might learn a lot from Britain, a country with half Japan’s population yet a giant in terms of Paralympic success. The home country of the London 2012 Paralympics placed third at those games with 34 gold, 43 silver and 43 bronze medals. At the 2016 Games, Britain bettered this, finishing second in the country standings with 64 gold, 39 silver and 44 bronze.

One of the reasons for Britain’s success was that in December 2012, UK Sport, a funding body, announced a record amount of investment ahead of the Rio Games — a 43 percent increase in funding for Paralympic athletes, which worked out in real terms as £70.2 million (¥8.9 billion).

While money may not always translate to medals, it’s worth comparing and contrasting the figure above, which applies only to Paralympic athletes, to the increase in funding for all athletes — Paralympic and Olympic — offered in Japan earlier this year.

“In fiscal 2016, government subsidies to sporting bodies provided through the Japan Sport Council topped ¥1.42 billion — leaping about 35 percent from the previous fiscal year,” reported the Mainichi. “And from this fiscal year, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government launched a system covering a portion of equipment and tour expenses for recognized athletes.”

Looking ahead to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games and reading about the preparations already being made, I have been struck by how much attention is already being paid to plans to improve accessibility for disabled people. Koike commented on those plans at the aforementioned Rio Paralympic press conference.

“We have developed roads that are too narrow. This is a legacy of Tokyo. Furthermore, the doorways are not wide, the ceilings are low in some typical housing. As we welcome athletes as well as spectators from all over the world at the venues, we must overcome these challenges,” she said, according to the Asahi. “I’d like to expand the width of the roads by doing away with the utility poles so we can provide accessibility to everyone.”

It is, of course, very important to highlight the need to improve access for disabled people and to constantly review those improvements. When it comes to accessibility, four years away from Tokyo 2020, I do feel that Japan is doing a lot more than Britain did so far in advance of its home games. The Japanese national government and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government announced plans to improve access to the public transport system as early as 2013.

However, I find myself, as a disabled person, in the odd position of thinking that too much attention is being paid to accessibility while issues surrounding attitudes toward disabled people in Japan are being overlooked.

The recent killing of 19 disabled people at the Tsukui Yamayuri En care home in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, underscored the need for Japan to address and challenge its culture of shame with regards to disability. The Tokyo 2020 Paralympics is a chance for Japan to not just sort out roads and facilities, but also to begin a kind of national conversation about how Japan thinks of and treats people with disabilities.

As Gov. Koike said: “Barrier-free facilities are by all means important, but I believe that a barrier-free mind is equally vital.” I share her hope that Japan will develop a “barrier-free mind” in time for the 2020 Games.

Michael Gillan Peckitt is an academic living in Kobe. His e-book “Gaijin Story: Tales of a British Disabled Man in Japan” is available on Amazon. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion on issues related to life in Japan. Comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp