Yokohama – For the past year and a half, Bengt Yamada has been making the rounds of Tokyo’s foreign embassies alongside people with disabilities, mostly children, to help tell their stories.
He hopes to have visited all 150 embassies to advocate for a truly barrier-free world by the time — pandemic-permitting — the rescheduled Tokyo Paralympics is held in the capital next year.
Yamada, who is of Japanese and Swedish parentage, began his odyssey after meeting a number of children with disabilities when his 9-year-old son was hospitalized for a congenital heart disorder some years ago.
He felt the children were almost invisible to society, eventually prompting him to initiate his 2020 Japan Barrier-Free Project, intended to lead up to what was then supposed to be Japan’s year to hold the Summer Games.
“As far as I know, there is no example in the world of (disabled) children’s stories being told and shown and talked about by diplomats” in this way, said Yamada, 52, in explaining his reason for the project, which has been endorsed by the Cultural Affairs Agency among other entities.
Along with the embassy trips, he has also made visits with the children to several government offices in his home city of Yokohama and elsewhere. Ultimately, he hopes to bring the children’s stories to a wider domestic audience with documentaries he is making based on his visits with disabled people and his prior interactions with them.
He is planning to submit one to Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia. Originally due to be held in June, the Tokyo-based film festival has been rescheduled to fall or later because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“If people in this country have more opportunities to know disabled people in the community, they will realize the potential of children with disabilities, which could lead to a society where those children can thrive,” Yamada said.
Before each of the visits, now on hold due to the pandemic, Yamada stays with the families of the children for a day or two, or even longer, to capture their everyday life on camera.
Yamada, who runs a film production company and has a background in acting and production, has a staff of three helping to record the footage, with four cameras following his subjects.
During his visit to the Jamaican Embassy last November, he introduced Yoichiro Nishizawa to the ambassador and others gathered for the occasion. Nishizawa injured his spinal cord while working at the age of 25 and now uses a wheelchair.
Nishizawa’s life story, including his bond with Lucky, a service dog that helps him conduct daily activities, moved and inspired the people at the embassy, as did his conversation with the ambassador, Yamada said.
In a video Yamada posted online, Ambassador Ricardo Allicock praised Nishizawa for showing his coworkers and society how all people should be treated and given equal opportunities.
Yamada’s visits started with a trip to the Swedish Embassy in February 2019, but the virus, and the subsequent cancellations of meetings and events, has slowed the project.
During the lull, Yamada has been engaging in other activities, such as posting videos of past visits. But he expects the project to resume on July 24 with a visit to the Swiss Embassy.
“We will make sure those children are sufficiently protected from the risk of infections,” Yamada said.
The Cabinet Office has highlighted four significant barriers for individuals with disabilities — architectural or physical barriers, systemic barriers, such as limited opportunities to earn qualifications, information or communication barriers derived from insufficient sign language and braille services, and attitudinal barriers.
For Yamada, attitudinal barriers are key. The other obstacles, he suggests, stem from a lack of “barrier-free minds.”
“People I met in the project often said Japan is advanced concerning barrier-free infrastructure — probably at a top level — but still a lot needs to be done regarding barrier-free minds,” he said.
An open mindset can develop when an individual becomes aware that everyone will have disabilities at some point in life as he or she ages, he said.
During the roughly six months he spent at the hospital with his 9-year-old son, he saw many children who had illnesses or disabilities. The experience made him feel that there is no clear distinction between able-bodied and other individuals, and that how one is affected by disability is instead a matter of degree.
“I believe (such awareness) will lead to a better society for everyone regardless of having or not having disabilities,” he said. “That’s the main reason I started this project, and the occasion of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics was a good time to start,” Yamada said.
The Paralympics are scheduled to open on Aug. 24, 2021, following the Olympics, which are currently scheduled for July 23 to Aug. 8.
As part of his efforts to raise awareness, Yamada installed a court for boccia — a variation of bowls for disabled people — at an eatery he runs in Yokohama called Tommy’s Cafe.
He also uses the Paralympic sport as an icebreaker when visiting embassies before interviewing ambassadors.
“Since many children in this project cannot speak due to their disabilities, we had to come up with an icebreaker which doesn’t necessarily require conversation,” Yamada said.
“Everyone, including ambassadors and children with disabilities, tried to outperform one another when they played boccia. In an atmosphere like that, there is obviously no barrier in their mind,” he said.
Due to the coronavirus, Yamada has removed the court for the time being as part of efforts to improve social distancing among customers at his cafe.
“I just hope the epidemic will quickly subside so that we can start revisiting embassies and local government offices,” he said.
The shutdown, he said, has been “a two-month vacation I suddenly got” that “in a way, was a precious moment for reflecting on the past and thinking of the future.”