The 1964 Tokyo Paralympic Games Part 4: Yutaka Nakamura: A Visionary and a Key to the Realization of the Tokyo Paralympics

Dr Yutaka Nakamura at the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics 2

It’s easy to lead people where they want to go.

It’s difficult to lead people where they don’t want to go, but ought to.

As I had written in this post, Dr. Yutaka Nakamura played a key role in making the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics a reality. But he did so in the face of considerable challenge.

A graduate of Kyushu University in 1951, Nakamura was a medical doctor in orthopedics, with a growing expertise in rehabilitation. At the age of 31, Nakamura headed orthopedics at the national hospital of Beppu. At the time, like many others, he did not consider sports as a way to rehabilitate people with disabilities.

But a Health and Welfare Ministry grant in 1960 to support a six-month trip to the United States and Europe to study rehabilitation facilities and practices overseas opened his eyes. Like the elite Japanese students sent to foreign countries in the Meiji Era of the late 19th century, returning to Japan as institution builders, Nakamura became aware of better ways to improve the conditions of the disabled in Japan.

This thinking crystalized in his time spent with Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, who ran the National Center for Spinal Cord Injuries at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital. During his time with Guttmann, according to D. J. Frost in his paper, Tokyo’s Other Games: The Origins and Impact of the 1964 Paralympics, “Nakamura repeatedly expressed amazement at Stoke Mandeville’s success: after six months of treatment, 85% of patients with spinal injuries experienced at least some level of rehabilitation, with many leaving the hospital and returning to society.”

Apparently, Guttmann viewed Nakamura skeptically, one of many Japanese visiting his facilities who came and went. According to Frost, Nakamura quoted Guttmann from his biography as saying, “So you’re Japanese? Several Japanese have come here already. All of them have said that they want to imitate what we are doing here, and then they go back to Japan. So far, not one of them has followed through and done it.” As Frost explained, Nakamura agreed with that assessment, but was also determined to apply these new ideas in Japan.

Yutaka Nakamura
Dr. Yutaka Nakamura


However, Nakamura faced resistance at home. Beppu is world-famous for its hot springs, and was a center for bath and massage treatments. When Nakamura explained to colleagues that he wanted to treat people by having them participate in sporting activities, he was, according to Frost, “openly ridiculed” by other doctors. At the heart of this resistance was a fear that Nakamura was trying to “simply undo all the rehabilitative work they had achieved, and putting the disabled on public display at a sporting event was the moral equivalent of showing off freaks at a circus.”

And yet, Nakamura persevered, connecting with local government officials, local disability organizations, instructors and other medical specialists to organize Japan’s first ever disabled person’s sports competition – The Oita Prefecture Sports Meet for the Disabled – which was held on October 22, 1961. Frost explained that very few noticed this pioneering event, but fortunately a few who did notice were the proponents of holding the Paralympics in Tokyo. Perhaps to his surprise, Nakamura was invited to join a newly formed Preparatory Committee in 1962. It was one of the most important decisions the committee would make.

To the committee members, Nakamura provided a practical case study that Japan could organize a sports competition for disabled people. To Nakamura, the committee needed to move faster. As a newly minted committee member, he recommended that they send a Japanese team to the Stoke Mandeville Games in London in July, 1962. Since that competition was only 2 months away, the committee members were reluctant to rush because Japan really had no athletes and there was little funding available. But committee leader, Yoshisuke Kasai, understood the impact media coverage could have if they sent Japan’s first-ever athletes to the Stoke Mandeville Games in London, so he approved the trip.

Nakamura identified two athletes from Oita, likely participants of Oita’s 1961 competition. Nakamura also had to personally apply for a loan to fund the trip. There was a donation by British Overseas Airway Corporation to pay for one round-trip airfare, but since a total of five people were heading to London, Nakamura sold his car so that he could fund the remaining travel expense for the entire team.

According to Frost, Kasai was grateful, considering Nakamura’s effort essential to securing consensus and final approval in 1963 for Japan to host the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics.

Recounting his experiences at the Stoke Mandeville Games in 1963 when Japan’s bid to host the Paralympics was formally approved, Kasai later commented, ‘If it hadn’t been for Nakamura, we would have had nothing but problems’. According to Kasai, Nakamura’s familiarity with the staff and facilities, his knowledge of the Games themselves, and especially his relationship with Guttmann proved invaluable. “Without Nakamura,” Kasai observed, “the Paralympics might not have happened.”