Tokyo works to boost Paralympic profile before 2020 Games

by Kyoko Hasegawa


Nearly half of Tokyo’s residents can’t name a single Paralympian, and international sporting officials are worried about the capital’s readiness to accommodate athletes. As the 2020 Games approaches, Tokyo has work to do.

“If the Paralympics are not a success, the Tokyo Games are not a success,” said Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike in a recent interview.

With an eye to filling stadiums, Tokyo has embarked on an overhaul of its infrastructure — making its subway system more accessible and reaching out to hotels to check on their ease of access for wheelchair users.

But while disabled people agree that navigating the city can be a challenge, many say it is the lack of awareness and visibility that rankles most.

With the Paralympics looming Japan is running a raft of new campaigns ranging from television programs to manga, aimed at ending public ignorance of disabilities and celebrating the community’s athletic accomplishments. Yuki Goto, 21, is one of several disabled reporters enlisted by NHK, which has also sought to feature Paralympic athletes on its popular sports programs.

“I applied for this job because I realized how ignorant people are about disabled people when I came to Tokyo” from Gifu Prefecture, Goto said.

She was disappointed to see passengers berating mentally disabled people for “talking loudly on the train,” and believes raising awareness is the key to tackling bigotry.

Goto was born with a hearing impairment but can make herself understood thanks to extensive training as a child. Ultimately she hopes to erase what she describes as the invisible barrier between the able-bodied and disabled, which she says is “as insignificant as the difference between a tall person and a short one.”

The campaign to popularize sports involving the disabled has also tapped manga — which has a long tradition of drumming up enthusiasm for sports, with stories featuring soccer-loving heroes like the beloved Captain Tsubasa.

Major publisher Shueisha last year released “Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Jump: Volume 1” which features contributions on wheelchair basketball from the author of the much-loved “Slam Dunk” comic series, and a story about a blind judoka by Tetsuya Saruwatari, a manga star known for martial arts comics. “Manga has to be fun to read, and if readers learn something about para sports as a byproduct, that’s great,” said Shueisha chief editor Jun Tanaka.

Efforts also extend to schools, where children are being encouraged to experience para sports. “I can’t see. Help!,” yelled blindfolded children playing goal-ball, a sport for the visually impaired.

They scrambled across the floor trying to snag a basketball-sized ball with small bells inside before knocking it into the opponent’s goal. “I was surprised at the darkness when I put on the blindfold, but once I got used to it I enjoyed it a lot,” said Kaito Onogi, 11.

“We expect children to tell their parents about the experience, and if children say they want to watch the games, parents will bring them,” said Keigo Tokudome, an official with the I’mPOSSIBLE fund, which developed the school program.

Such efforts have been welcomed by Japanese with disabilities, who hope the program will produce a lasting change in local attitudes. “Japanese are often described as being polite and very kind but they tend to be really awkward around people with an impairment,” said Miki Matheson, a three-time Paralympic gold medalist for Japan in ice sledge skating.

“In many cultures, disability has been associated with stereotyping, prejudice and stigma,” and Japan is no exception, she said.

Matheson, who now lives in Canada, hopes the Paralympic Games will be a chance for Japan to “eradicate or at least reduce (the) stigma toward people with impairments.”

The games are also a chance to overhaul local infrastructure to accommodate the disabled. Elevators and ramps are being installed across Tokyo’s subway system, with officials saying around 90 percent of stations are now wheelchair accessible.

Paralympic officials have also asked Tokyo to ensure the accessibility of bathrooms in hotels. Bathrooms in Japan are often entered via a step.

Koike said the adjustments could have benefits for the capital well beyond the games, helping prepare “our city for the super-aging society” that Japan faces.

With two years to go, NHK’s Goto hopes Japanese viewers will discover just how thrilling para sports can be. She was a top sprinter in her region as a teen, competing against able-bodied athletes despite the split-second delay she experiences in detecting the starter gun.

“The more I have gotten to know about disabled athletes — not only their performance but also their personality, the more passionate I have become about cheering for them,” she said.