The 1964 Tokyo Paralympic Games Part 2: The Amazing Story How the Paralympic Movement in Japan Went From Zero Awareness to International Ready in Four Years

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The 1964 Tokyo Olympics ended on October 24, 1964 to universal praise. On November 12, 1964, the Thirteenth International Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralysed, otherwise known as the 1964 Summer Paralympics, also ended in success, and arguably with greater impact.

The Tokyo Paralympics helped maintain momentum, as the number of nations grew from 17 to 21, events from 57 to 144, and participants from about 180 to 375. As D. J. Frost wrote in his excellent paper entitled, Tokyo’s Other Games: The Origins and Impact of the 1964 Paralympics, “they were widely hailed as a success and credited with giving ‘hope, courage, and self-confidence to Japan’s physically disabled’.” The 1964 Paralympics raised awareness significantly for people around the world, particularly in Japan, and added to the tremendous global goodwill developed via the organization of the Olympic Games a few weeks before.

Incredibly, in contrast to the five years of planning and organizing devoted to the Tokyo Olympics, the Tokyo Paralympics came together quite suddenly, with an official organization to plan and execute the games coming together only in 1964. While the Paralympics and Olympics are a joint deal for host cities today, that was not the case in the 1960s. When the first Paralympics were held after the Rome Olympics in 1960, Frost wrote that “a mere handful of people in Japan were aware of their existence.” In other words, the idea of organizing an international competition for disabled athletes prior to 1962 was essentially non-existent. Frost tells the incredible story of how very quickly, how a small group of people established new organizations, created public awareness, built consensus among local and national leaders, raise funds and then actually run the event.

Again, citing a good chunk of Frost’s research, here is the timeline of disabled sports in Japan, which demonstrates the sudden alacrity with which Japan made the 1964 Paralympics a reality.

September 1960 – A Lone Japanese Meets the Father of the Paralympics: At the 1960 Rome Olympics, there were over 160 athletes, and likely dozens if not hundreds other Japanese scouting out the Rome Games in search of information and ideas to prepare them for their own Games in 1964. But there were zero representatives from Japan at the 1960 Paralympics in Rome, which was held in mid-September. The closest there was to a Japanese representative was Hanako Watanabe, the wife of the head of the Rome bureau for the Kyodo News Agency. Watanabe did have an academic background in labor and welfare policy, but more importantly, she had access to the father of the Paralympic movement, Ludwig Guttmann. It is said the two met and talked about the possibility of holding a similar event in Japan after the Tokyo Olympics.

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From the book, Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Agency

February 1961 – The First Major Document in Japanese on Disabled Sports: Matao Okino, the director of the Japanese branch of the World Veterans Federation (WVF), received materials about disability sports from the head office in Paris. Interested in bringing greater attention to the topic in Japan, Okino joined with Masatora Hieda, the head of the National Disability Rehabilitation Training Centre, to translate the materials and prepare a 157-page booklet, titled ‘Sports for the Disabled’.

April 13, 1961 – An Influential Workshop: Two emerging experts appeared at a workshop on disability rehabilitation training, where Okino gave a talk entitled “Elevating Sports for the Disabled in Japan,” while Watanabe shared her experiences in Rome during the Paralympics. According to Frost, Watanabe’s influence was not insignificant. Hieda acknowledged that Watanabe’s introductions to Guttmann, to labor and welfare experts, and to media via her husband, were key to building this ragtag network of disability sports community.

May, 1961 – The First Official Organization Devoted to Disabled Sports: Okino meets Guttmann at an international congress for the WVF in Paris. This leads to an agreement to form an official organization to promote disability sports in Japan. This group, the Association for the Promotion of Sports for the Disabled, was formed in August, and was made up of representatives of 24 groups related to disabled people. However, Okino and his colleagues were still not quite confident they could organize a Paralympics in Japan, and few concrete actions resulted.

October 22, 1961 – The First Disabled Sports Competition in Japan: All movements need a spark. Arguably, the spark happened away from the ivory towers of Tokyo, in the fields of Oita, Kyushu in Western Japan. Dr. Yutaka Nakamura, and a local government official, Atsushi Hirata, organized Japan’s first competition for disabled athletes. Their success, while not highly publicized, became the model for a practical application for the thinkers in Tokyo.

March, 1962 – The Lions Club and Asahi Shimbun Offer Their Weighty Support: Now that people in Japan could see what a Tokyo Paralympics might look like, supporters began to emerge. Susumu Iimuro, a leader of a large volunteer service organization called Lions Club International, joined hands with Muneyoshi Terada, an official of the Asahi Shimbun Social Welfare Organization to announce that they would be very supportive if Japan hosted the Stoke Mandeville Games, which was then the official name of the Paralympics. They announced “across-the-board support.” Terada then led the creation of a concrete plan to bring the Paralympics to Japan, the decision to establish a preparatory committee, and then consensus-building meetings with relevant officials in the Health and Welfare Ministry.

May 10, 1962 – A Committee is Finally Formed: The Preparatory Committee is formed, made up of 21 individuals, who go on to make one of the more important decisions they will make: selected Yoshisuke Kasai, the then chairman of the Association for the Promotion of Social Welfare, to lead this committee. Kasai is generally recognized as a powerful driving force in realizing the 1964 Paralympics.

May 30, 1962 – Lions Club Leads the Fundraising: The Preparatory Committee asks the Lions Club to help them raise funds, and resolves to send Japanese disabled athletes to the annual Stoke Mandeville Games in London.

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Preparatory work for the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics

July 1962 – The First Japanese Disabled Athletes in International Competition: Two men from Oita prefecture are sent to England to participate in the International Stoke Mandeville Games, the first Japanese to do so.

August, 1962 – The Crown Prince Supports: Of all the acts and decisions made towards building awareness about the disabled in society and the impact sports can have on the health of disabled athletes, one of the strategically important ones was involving the Crown Prince of Japan, Akihito, and his wife the Crown Princess, Michiko. The fairy story of a commoner meeting the Crown Prince on a tennis court, leading to a royal wedding covered feverishly by the media, was still strong in the hearts of the Japanese. So when the Crown Prince met with members of the preparatory committee, and stated afterwards that he hoped that the Paralympics would become a reality in Tokyo in 1964, media coverage and subsequently favorability by the public towards the Paralympics grew. Riding the wave of support, Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda pledged government assistance.

May 13, 1963 – It’s Official: The Health and Welfare Ministry approved the incorporation of a newly formed committee, the Organising Committee for the Paralympic Games in April, and a few weeks later, on May 13, Kasai sent a letter to Guttmann and his fellow committee members of the Stoke Mandeville Games of their intent to host the 1964 Stoke Mandeville Games in Tokyo, after the Tokyo Olympics.

At that stage, once the plan was in place, superior Japanese skills in execution took over, ensuring that the five-day event from November 8 to November 12, 1964 took place flawlessly.