Fashion enthusiast Mana Yokoyama, wearing a light cream lace dress, strutted down the catwalk during a beauty pageant in Tokyo, hoping the experience would bring her a step closer to a fashion career.
But while she’s as determined as her nondisabled counterparts, the 24-year-old Yokoyama is aware that as a person with autism she faces major hurdles in pursuit of her dream.
She is one of the thousands of people with disabilities seeking social acceptance and opportunities in a society where the disabled are often pushed to the margins.
Yokoyama, who hails from Fujieda, Shizuoka Prefecture, was competing in a beauty pageant for people with various disabilities.
The pageant, held March 3 and 4 at Yamano Beauty College with 30 contestants, is a unique initiative in Japan that is aimed at breaking down barriers for young people with mental and physical challenges.
The annual event is called Special Beauty Japan and was launched a year ago. The participants, who have autism, Down syndrome or other developmental difficulties, compete in six age divisions ranging from 7 to 25.
“I’d like to be a model, but if I can’t make it, a job at an apparel store would do,” Yokoyama said after rehearsing her violin performance for the talent portion of the pageant.
Makiko Yokoyama, Mana’s mother, explained that her daughter, like many autistic people, has long found it difficult to express emotions and understand other people’s feelings well.
She hoped the pageant would provide more opportunities for people like Mana and help strengthen their self-esteem.
“Many fall prey to bullying in childhood, so even after they grow up they are unable to notice their strengths,” Makiko said. “Although they likely won’t be able to pursue the careers they’ve dreamed of, I hope this show will help them realize they do have abilities.”
Some contestants spoke of their dreams of becoming an athlete and representing Japan in the Paralympic Games, while others stunned judges with magic tricks, dance or music performances.
Of course, the performances were not always free of error.
But Jason Hancock, 42, an American actor, singer and dancer based in Japan who got the project off the ground, said people with disabilities deserve more recognition for “the time and effort they put in to get to that point.”
Hancock, who was inspired by similar initiatives in his home country, wants to alleviate the stigma faced by such people in Japan and hopes events like this will contribute to building a disability-inclusive society.
He believes people with disabilities are treated in Japan more severely than in American society, pointing out that they are often seen as shameful.
He referred to the 2016 massacre of 19 people with mental disabilities at a care facility in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, after which the police withheld the victims’ names as requested by their families, who did not want it known that they were related to people with disabilities.
“The message I want to get across is that you shouldn’t be ashamed if your son or daughter has special needs. … I want (parents) to be proud of their children’s accomplishments,” he said.
Takako Nakayama, from Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, helped her daughter, Aya, 23, apply for the pageant, hoping she would serve as a role model for other people trying to overcome their disabilities.
“I wish there were more platforms where people like Aya could express themselves,” Nakayama said. “There’s so much we can learn from people like Aya.”
Aya, who has Down syndrome and is a fan of Michael Jackson’s music, performs in a rock band on a daily basis. She took part in the men’s section of the competition.
“I’m aware that many people hold stereotypes (about gender) … but now we know more about transgender issues,” said her mother, who supported her child’s choice. “I believe Aya, who was born a girl, comes under this category. I hope (Aya’s) performance can help eliminate those biases.”
Mayumi Mitogawa, a board member of the Japan Down Syndrome Society, thinks public ignorance remains a serious problem. “In Japan, people with special needs have fallen into a separate classification — ‘the disabled’ — with limited opportunities to try what they’re interested in,” she said.
Mitogawa, who helped run the two-day pageant, has a 34-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy and a 19-year-old son with Down syndrome.
She said children with disabilities need more opportunities and new challenges to help them develop their skills.
“It’s important that participants can spend time with people other than their family members, which helps them grow,” Mitogawa added. “If there is a specific goal, they do their best to achieve it.”
Shizuno Takeuchi, a 19-year-old student at Yamano Beauty College, was a makeup artist for the participants as one of around 40 volunteers. She said the experience gave her insight into how to interact with people with physical and mental challenges.
Takeuchi said she learned that with the right kind of approach and encouragement, disabled children can easily awaken their abilities.
Wearing a big sunflower pin on his lapel as he prepared for the last day’s ceremony, Renya Anzai entered the stage to rehearse a song.
The 10-year-old stumbled over the lyrics, and it took him a while to get started. He wasn’t selected to perform on the final day, but even so he was named the winner of his age category.
The boy only raised his thumb when asked what he felt about winning.
Anzai was deaf for the first three years of his life. Although his hearing loss was reversed by placing tubes into his ear drums, the deafness resulted in speech and other developmental delays, according to his mother, Yumi Anzai.
“I don’t think he’ll fully understand the meaning of this competition. He’s always so frightened of everything,” she said. “But he’ll for sure be happy to have been in the spotlight … and will get stronger.”