National / History

Pioneering Japanese interpreting team opened nation's eyes to disabled athletes at '64 Paralympics

Volunteers recall attempt to get Japan's Paralympians to interact with foreign athletes in Olympic Village

by Ryusei Takahashi

Staff Writer

Foreign residents and wheelchairs — much less Paralympic athletes — were a rare sight in Japan in 1964.

Preparations to host the Summer Olympics and the second-ever Paralympics were well underway. Stadiums, highways and hotels were being built at breakneck speeds, cutting-edge photographic and timing technologies were being developed from scratch, and billions were being poured into transportation, infrastructure and urban development.

On March 18, 1964, volunteers with the Japanese Red Cross Society formed an official translation team under the leadership of a woman named Sachiko Hashimoto, former national director of the Japanese Junior Red Cross. Comprising mostly college students, the team was created to provide language services for athletes competing in the Paralympics.

Despite their best efforts to serve as a bridge between multiple cultures, traditions and backgrounds of the Paralympians, however, the interpreters could not persuade the Japanese athletes to mingle with them. Prejudice, misconceptions and low social recognition of people with disabilities at the time, it seems, presented a barrier too tall for them to overcome.

At an exhibit that opened at the Japanese Red Cross Society earlier this month, three former members of the translation team spoke about their experiences at the 1964 Games.

“Most people in Japan understand at least a little English now,” said Akiko Gono, 76, who was stationed at the International Club in the Olympic Village during the 1964 Paralympics. “It used to be that Japanese people were afraid of foreigners, and would run in the opposite direction if one spoke to them. Nowadays, it’s about how well we can give them directions so they don’t get lost.”

Japanese athletes march in the Tokyo Paralympics opening ceremony in 1964. | KYODO
Japanese athletes march in the Tokyo Paralympics opening ceremony in 1964. | KYODO

Gono’s original task was to act as an intermediary between the Japanese athletes and others who would gather at the International Club or elsewhere in the Olympic Village. But as the club became a gathering place for athletes to spend their downtime, she realized she had a bigger role to play than mere interpreter.

“Athletes from other countries would gather all the time, sometimes bringing a guitar and playing music or teaching each other how to cook meals from their home country,” Gono said.

However, she added, the Japanese athletes “rarely ever showed up.”

She said that’s because the foreign athletes had jobs and families back home while the Japanese were most likely going to return to hospitals after the games ended.

“Back then, we rarely had the chance to interact with people with disabilities because they were confined to hospitals most of the time,” said Mutsuko Inada, 76, who provided language support for athletes from Switzerland during the 1964 Paralympics. “The athletes cared only about what they could do, not what they couldn’t.

“It’s easy to think of them as limited because of their disabilities,” she added. “But I had to reconsider the way I think after what I saw and the people I met.”

The Paralympics were first held in Rome in 1960, but the roots of the event can be traced back to a spinal injury trauma center established in 1944 by Dr. Ludwig Guttman at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Great Britain.

Over time, rehabilitation led to recreation, which led to competition. Four years later, on the same day as the opening ceremony of the 1948 London Olympics, Guttman organized a competition for wheelchair athletes that he named the Stoke Mandeville Games. More than a decade later, the first Paralympic Games were held at the Rome 1960 Olympics, featuring 400 athletes from 23 countries.

“At the time, even in Tokyo, it was very rare to see a foreigner,” said Akiko Wakai, 77, the translation team’s first chairperson, recalling the first Tokyo Olympics.

Former members of the translation team that volunteered during the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics (from left) Akiko Wakai, Mutsuko Inada and Akiko Gono speak about their experiences during the opening of an exhibit at the Japanese Red Cross Society in August. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
Former members of the translation team that volunteered during the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics (from left) Akiko Wakai, Mutsuko Inada and Akiko Gono speak about their experiences during the opening of an exhibit at the Japanese Red Cross Society in August. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

Since its inception, the number of athletes, countries and types of disabilities included in the Paralympics has steadily grown.

The Tokyo 1964 Paralympics hosted 378 athletes from 21 countries, all of whom had spinal cord injuries. In comparison, the Rio 2016 Paralympics featured more than 4,300 athletes from 160 countries with a much wider range of disabilities, including amputations, vision impairments and cerebral palsy, among others.

At the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, 4,400 athletes will compete across 22 sports, including, for the first time, taekwondo and badminton.

The Tokyo 1964 Olympics and Paralympics were the first to be held in Asia and the first to be telecast in color, albeit partially, without having to send tapes to countries around the world. They were also held in October to avoid Tokyo’s infamous summer heat. This time around, however, the games will kick off in July, with the Paralympics following in August, and instead utilize fans, strategically planted trees and other cooling devices to create shade and make spectators comfortable.

Gono, Inada and Wakai, it seems, were drawn by the charisma and conviction of Hashimoto’s willingness to volunteer for the Paralympics. Through honesty and straightforwardness, she taught the students “what it means to be a volunteer.”

When Hashimoto died in 1995, she left behind a legacy as a pioneering leader of the Red Cross. She was appointed national director of the Japanese Junior Red Cross in 1960 and helped expand the organization in Japan, where its reputation was basically defined by its activities caring for wounded and sick soldiers after World War II. Hashimoto is credited with launching a youth education program, a volunteer sewing service for disaster victims, a hospital visitation program and a volunteer corps to help those with disabilities.

The three former interpreters fondly recalled Hashimoto’s mantra: “It’s not about whether something is possible, it’s about whether you have the will to do it.”

“Looking back, I learned a lot during my time as a volunteer at the Paralympics,” Inada said. “The most important lesson, I think, is that you have to forget about what you want in order to understand the needs of other people.

“Japanese people in particular are good at figuring out how someone feels but they’re bad at expressing themselves in words,” she added with a chuckle. “Foreign people are much better at that.”