“Horses are very gentle and kind to the weak,” Dr. Masanao Murai said. “A child suffering from cerebral palsy can sit on a horse and feel the animal’s warmth. He can see farther. The horse’s movement reaches the child’s brain through the spine, so that a child who cannot walk feels he has one body with the horse, and is himself walking.”
Murai keeps horses at his Warashibe Institutes for the Physically Handicapped in Osaka and Hokkaido. He is keen on importing Connemara ponies from Ireland, and hoping to breed from them in a long-term project to provide suitable mounts. Riding, however, is only one of the therapies for the disabled that he practices and promotes.
He came in a roundabout way to the work that he has been doing for many years. Belonging to a Shikoku family, he grew up in Korea before the war.
“When my family came back after the war, we found our house in Shikoku had been destroyed,” he said. “We had nothing. My father didn’t come back until three years later. They were difficult times for my family.” He was the eldest of four brothers, who all had to pitch in to help their mother and rebuild their lives.
Murai made his way into Tottori University, and at age 27 became a doctor. “I chose to study anatomy because I could do it without learning a foreign language,” he said with a laugh.
Despite the difficulties he has run into in other countries, he has never seriously regretted not learning another language. He keeps a note pad in his pocket, whips it out and draws pictures when language breaks down. As with his other methods, this one is effective.
Murai specialized in anatomy, then went on to surgery. He earned money in private practice so he could conduct independent experiments. “Whatever I earned, I spent on research for surgery,” he said.
He was interested in the relationship in development between the two-legged body and the four-legged body, and so bought land where he could keep cats and dogs to work with. Then by chance a child patient with severe cerebral palsy was taken to him. Murai switched his field of active interest to the physically disabled.
“In 1970 I went to London to study for six months at the Bobath Cerebral Palsy Center,” he said.
On his return he faced two major difficulties in the program that he set up at his institute, the Warashibe Gakuen. “It was not possible to have one doctor per patient,” he said. “And I wanted to follow the ‘no-touch’ system, whereby the patient is taught by verbal instructions without physical contact. That is more effective, more educational, in mental and emotional development too.” He found his solutions in judo.
Murai had practiced judo since boyhood, and was a judo instructor. “I thought of judo as a method,” he said. “I put afflicted children in training classes with normal children. Instead of one-to-one, I could be one-to-many. I gave verbal instructions to them all, and watched for response.
“Children in groups develop group consciousness, so that each helps the others. The normal children helped the handicapped in their training classes, so the method was very good for them too.”
Murai travels regularly to the Peto Institute in Budapest, and has been much influenced by its corrective treatment programs.
He has a store of stories that point up the strength of motivation in developing physical control. He witnessed a child on crutches put them away when he was inspired to copy some sumo postures.
He knew another child who couldn’t stand and was obsessed with toy fire engines. “When there was a fire somewhere nearby, and the children had to be evacuated, this boy walked to watch the fire and the firemen. He didn’t realize it himself until someone, looking for him, called out, ‘You’re standing!’ Then the boy fell.”
Murai has a high ratio of staffers to patients at his institutes. He cares for mentally and physically handicapped adults as well as children. “They are boarders,” he said. “When they live together, they help each other.”
Last year Princess Anne of Britain visited Warashibe Gakuen in Osaka. She was so impressed at the standards observed there that she asked if she might reserve a room for herself later on, if she ever came to need to kind of care that Murai gives.