Commentary / Japan

Making inclusivity a goal for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics

by Takeo Hirata

There is now a little more than a year to go before the 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo. Preparations for this major event are well underway. It is a massive, intricate process that calls for an ongoing reassessment and fine-tuning of what I view as a unified undertaking. The Olympic and Paralympic Games should be viewed as interlinked and unified entities, much like a tandem bicycle. Success will be measured by the efforts and achievements of both the Olympic and Paralympic events.

As I begin a series of columns ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Games, I would like to start by focusing on the Paralympics for two related reasons. First, Tokyo is the world’s first city to host the Paralympic Games for a second time, following the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games. Second, the forthcoming Paralympic Games are an extraordinary opportunity for Japanese society to increase and deepen its awareness and understanding of inclusiveness and the importance of honoring and learning from athletes with physical and intellectual limitations.

When I first learned that Tokyo had been selected to host the 2020 Summer Games, I created the word “Ori-Para” to refer to both the Olympics and Paralympics. The term “Olympics” is a common word, understood and used by virtually everyone in Japan for decades. On the other hand, Japanese have been less aware of the Paralympics. By abbreviating and combining both words, I believed that awareness of the Paralympics and the integral nature of these games would increase. Besides it is a mouthful to say, for example, “Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games” during conversations. My hope is that Ori-Para will become widely used to describe these interlinked events.

Several steps have been taken to increase the visibility of the Paralympics. At present, the opening and closing ceremonies of the Paralympic Games and 16 disciplines in 14 sports are scheduled to be broadcast live on TV. The number of disciplines has already exceeded those of the London 2012 Games and Rio 2016 Games. Additional sports and disciplines are expected to be broadcast live during the Tokyo 2020 Games.

NHK’s almost daily live broadcast of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Paralympic Games totaled approximately 62 hours, about twice the hours broadcast of the Sochi Games in 2014. These broadcasts drew the attention of viewers to the performance of Japanese para athletes. At present, commercial TV broadcasters are airing programs and advertisements featuring para athletes. I hope that this focus on para athletes and the Paralympics by TV and other media will increase throughout the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Lapel pins were also designed to juxtapose the emblems of both games to help build the momentum for perception of the Olympics and Paralympics as a unified event. Pins are being widely distributed there.

The government also began issuing special automobile license plates in October 2017. The license plates feature the emblem of the Olympic Games on one plate, and the Paralympics on the other. These are becoming increasingly popular throughout Japan along with the “universal design taxi.”

The second reason for beginning this series by focusing on Paralympics is the fundamental importance of inclusiveness. For many years, I have thought about inclusiveness in Japan and its flip side, exclusiveness. Exclusiveness has existed in many forms, from denial and disregard to prejudice and discrimination resulting in blatant inequality. When the selection of Tokyo to host the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics prompted the Japanese government to promote the barrier-free concept, I was determined to do my best to remove physical and non-physical barriers for all. The games would be a potent catalyst for concrete progress in achieving a barrier-free, more equitable Japanese society. Realizing this goal will require our society, and the global community, to make changes in legal, educational and social rules and attitudes. I believe that the time has come when major international events such as the 2020 Ori-Para games can lead to the realization of this noble goal.

Thus far, we have already made progress in a number of areas, including accommodations, transportation and school education. By amending relevant laws, the government has improved the standard for guest rooms that accommodate wheelchair users. In addition, as host city of the 2020 Games, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has revised the standards of general guest rooms, such as the width of entry and bathroom doorways. I have had many opportunities to listen to the opinions and suggestions of persons with disabilities who actually use guest rooms, and have been repeatedly reminded of the importance of engaging as many people as possible, especially those who will be affected directly by the improvements.

Turning to transportation, second-time visitors to Japan will no doubt notice new fleets of taxis, the so-called universal design taxi. The number of these taxis is increasing year by year. The manufacturer of these taxis has made mechanical improvements which makes it easier for wheelchair users to get into and out of the vehicles. In fact, these comfortable taxis are easier for everyone to use.

School education will also change. The government-determined school curriculum will be altered so that all children will learn about the value of achieving a barrier-free society and will be empowered to lead greater acceptance of people of all abilities. These actions, when taken to heart by government and society, can lead us to new mental attitudes and remove old barriers to inclusiveness. I have also made efforts to expand corporate training programs to promote mental barrier-free working environments for employees.

I have no illusions that our goal to become a physically and mentally barrier-free society will be fully attained by the time of the Ori-Para opening ceremony. However, I am confident that Japan will make substantial progress toward this goal by the summer of 2020 and help inspire the growing acceptance of inclusiveness globally. I also believe that by hosting the Paralympics for the second time, Japanese society’s awareness of both soft and hard barriers will be heightened and that more people will participate in the Paralympics. I hope that the Tokyo 2020 Games will send a message throughout the world that Japan is making concrete progress in becoming a more inclusive society.

The games will be held in Tokyo and its environs, but we are doing our utmost to make them a nationwide event. I hope that the para-athletes, staff and supporters who gather from around the world will not only take part in the games and interact with their counterparts but also visit cities and towns throughout the country and enjoy encounters with Japanese society and culture.

Takeo Hirata, a professor at the Waseda University Graduate School of Sports Sciences, is concurrently serving as secretary general of the headquarters for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games and special advisor to the Cabinet. He is responsible for coordinating the government’s overall efforts regarding the Tokyo 2020 Games. This is the first in a series of articles in which Hirata will discuss a range of issues and measures related to the government’s support and activities that have been planned and implemented to contribute to the success of the Tokyo Games and beyond.