National / History

Legacy of pioneering Japanese doctor lives on in communities for disabled

JSI founder Yutaka Nakamura made self-reliance a goal, not a dream, in Japan after '60 stay in U.K. opened eyes to sports therapy

by Takaki Tominaga

Kyodo

As Japan prepares to host its second Paralympics next summer, one social welfare group can look back on over five decades of effort it has made to achieve the vision of a pioneering doctor who many consider to be the father of sports for disabled people in Japan.

Set up in 1965, just a year after the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, Japan Sun Industries has been building communities where disabled people can live independent lives based on the mission of its late founder Yutaka Nakamura, who believed in providing opportunities rather than charity.

In the hot-springs resort of Beppu, Oita Prefecture, for instance, JSI set up a host of facilities, including a grocery store, bank, training facility and several workplaces, all designed to be easily accessible by people with disabilities.

But the core of the project is to provide job opportunities as an essential component of independent living, with JSI unique among social welfare organizations in Japan in setting up joint ventures for that purpose with major firms around the country.

“I heard Dr. Nakamura visited more than 200 companies” in the hope of doing business together with them and finding better work with better pay for people with disabilities, said JSI President Tatsuo Yamashita.

Yamashita, 60, joined JSI as a trainee at the age of 18 after a bout with polio left him with paralysis in his upper and lower limbs.

“That’s the main reason we attract attention from around the world. Without those companies, we are not much different from any other social welfare organization,” Yamashita said, stressing how important it is for people with disabilities to earn an income.

As of April 1, over 1,860 people, including 1,104 with disabilities, were enrolled at JSI facilities, including ventures and cooperatives established with such major companies as Sony Corp. and Omron Corp. in Oita, Kyoto and Aichi prefectures, according to the organization.

Yamashita traces this vision of independent living to the work Nakamura, an orthopedic surgeon, did to introduce sports therapies for disabled people in the years leading up to the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics.

Nakamura studied at the National Center for Spinal Cord Injuries at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Britain in 1960 under Ludwig Guttmann, a neurosurgeon who pioneered sports as a means of rehabilitation and led the then fledgling Paralympic Movement.

Back then, it took around two years for patients in Japan with spinal cord injuries to be discharged from hospitals and re-enter society, compared with six months for Stoke Mandeville patients with similar injuries.

At first, Nakamura thought the difference must lie in the surgical procedures, but he discovered that the methods were basically identical, leading him to the conclusion that rehabilitation treatments incorporating sports made the difference. Japan, at the time, was still focused on immobilization and bed rest.

Returning from Britain, Nakamura tried to put into practice what he had learned from Guttmann, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany whose philosophy was that “it is ability, not disability, that counts.”

Nakamura’s approach was not universally accepted at first, according to the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Criticism leveled at him included the claim that it was cruel to put people with disabilities on “display” and that their participation in sports events was equivalent to showing them off in a “circus.”

But he continued to advocate sports for disabled people in Japan, and played a role in the establishment of the Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled, a precursor to the Asian Para Games, as well as the Oita International Wheelchair Marathon, after heading up Japan’s 1964 Paralympics team.

According to Yamashita, Nakamura, who died in 1984 at age 57, had also been early to spot the potential of personal computers to shift the economy from factory-based production to IT jobs, and how that might open up new job opportunities for people with disabilities.

JSI’s current president is keen to exploit the potential of telecommuting. He has already launched such a program at Mitsubishi Shoji & Sun Co., one of its eight joint ventures, and is thinking of pushing it further.

But while JSI is keen to roll out its independent communities across Japan, the financial challenges surrounding many social welfare organizations mean Yamashita is focused more on protecting what he has now than on expanding, he said, adding that today the outlook and skills of a corporate manager are essential for running a social welfare organization.

In following the vision of founder Nakamura, Yamashita ultimately envisions a true barrier-free society where organizations such as JSI will no longer be necessary.

“After all, Dr. Nakamura hoped that people could integrate into their communities to work and live their lives not only at facilities like these, but anywhere,” Yamashita said.

“I also hope legal quotas for the employment of disabled workers will no longer be necessary someday,” he said, while insisting the quotas were necessary to start advocating for the employment of people with disabilities in Japan.

Over the years, Japan Sun Industries has attracted some high-profile support from like-minded advocates, including former Emperor Akihito and former Empress Michiko. The former was honorary patron at the 1964 Paralympics when he was Crown Prince.

The couple visited Japan Sun Industries in 1966, encouraging disabled workers and others. They also visited the facilities to commemorate the welfare organization’s 50th anniversary in 2015.

During the latter visit, the then emperor made a surprise offer to table tennis player Takumi Shukunobe, a JSI employee who was aiming to make the Paralympics, and participated in rallies for several minutes as his practice partner.

A former JSI official said sports for the disabled could never have reached the level of recognition it has today without their encouragement and support.

Yamashita said he hopes JSI can significantly contribute to the Paralympics next year, such as through events related to the torch relay.

“We have been talking with the city and prefecture on holding a departure ceremony for the Paralympic flame here before sending it off for the torch relay, after the flames are lighted across the prefecture and combined into one, possibly in front of the statue of Nakamura” in front of JSI headquarters.

“We are thinking of creating something like a cauldron and uniting the flames there,” he said, adding, “Since it will be quite an opportunity, we are planning to hold some kind of event as well in addition to the departure ceremony.”