The 1964 Tokyo Paralympic Games Part 5: Japan’s Crown Prince and Princess and Their Impact on the Paralympic Movement in the 1960s

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The Crown Prince and Princess greet athletes at the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics.

Today, Emperor Akihito is 83 years old, a revered father figure in Japan, looked upon kindly by old and young alike. The Emperor took the unusual step to ask the Japanese government for permission to abdicate in 2019 so he could hand over the countless royal duties to his son, the Crown Prince Naruhito.

In 1959, then Crown Prince Akihito married a wealthy commoner named Michiko, in a highly publicized and popular wedding ceremony, a television extravaganza in a time when Japan was just getting its footing back after years of post-war American occupation.

When the nascent Preparatory Committee began to seriously consider the hosting of a Stoke Mandeville Games in Tokyo after the Tokyo Olympics, the head of the committee, Yoshisuke Kasai, knew he needed powerful allies and influencers to build the awareness of disabled sports and a possible Tokyo Paralympics, as well as raise the organizational infrastructure and funds required to pull off an international sporting event successfully…in only two years.

As explained in this post, part of the plan to grow awareness was to send athletes from Japan for the first time to the annual Stoke Mandeville Games in London, in 1962. According to D. J. Frost and his article, Tokyo’s Other Games: The Origins and Impact of the 1964 Paralympics, Kasai appears to have leveraged the opportunity to celebrate Japan’s participation in the Stoke Mandeville Games to introduce the importance of sporting events for the disabled to the Imperial Family. He arranged for the Crown Prince Akihito to meet the returning athletes and members of the Preparatory Committee, which was heavily covered by the Press.

In addition to the Crown Prince’s expressed hopes for the Paralympics to come to Tokyo in 1964, the newspapers were filled with pictures of the Crown Prince, the Crown Princess, and the disabled athletes showing off their skills. Members of the government, including then Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda, pledged their support for the Tokyo Paralympics. As Frost wrote, thus began a long-lasting relationship between the Imperial Family and the Paralympic movement.

Although it remains unclear how the meetings with imperial family members came about, it seems likely that committee members, and perhaps Kasai specifically, mobilised their social connections to establish what proved to be a long-lasting and critically important link between the Paralympics and the imperial household. Associations with the Crown Prince, in particular, practically guaranteed the Games increased media attention. At a moment when the ruling conservative party in Japan, led by Prime Minister Ikeda, was looking to revive the influence and prestige of the imperial family, the potential power of the Crown Prince’s expressions of support should not be underestimated.

A cording to this paper called The “Legacy” of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, from the Journal of the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Research Group, Kazuo Ogoura explains that the involvement of the Imperial Family in the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics was significant, as “at least one of the members of the Imperial family went to see some events every day,” and that their commitment to disabled athletes was heartfelt:

Even after the Games ended, they extended full-scale cooperation and support to those involved. This experience helped them establish in-depth knowledge and interest in the Paralympics in general. It must be noted that the Imperial involvement came from their heart, rather than physical and systemic arrangement. A member of the Paralympics’ International Secretariat said, “When the Crown Prince and Princess unofficially invited the members of the Secretariat to the Imperial Palace, the Crown Princess Michiko told us that their young prince made a Teru Teru Bozu doll to pray for sunny weather during the Paralympics.”

The Japanese government was conscious now of the possibility of the Tokyo Paralympics, and the impact that such a successful international event right after a successful Tokyo Olympics would help boost Japan’s standing in the global community. They also understood that to succeed, the institution of the Imperial Family and the increasing star power of the Crown Prince and Princess were needed. That in turn would continue to enhance the Imperial Family as a fundamental pillar of Japanese society. As Frost wrote,

The Tokyo Paralympics, emerging from this same historical and cultural milieu, proved no less important as a tool for reviving national symbols and bolstering Japan’s international prestige. Indeed, viewed in this light, the Crown Prince’s oft-mentioned involvement with the Paralympics reflected more than a personal commitment on his part; it was a carefully cultivated and highly politicised link designed to benefit both the Games and the international reputation of Japan’s future monarch.

The Crown Prince and Princess, as you can see in the video below, were present during a good part of the 5-day Paralympics. Unlike Emperor Hirohito, whose appearance at the opening ceremonies of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was most official and formal, the Crown Prince and Princess walked among the athletes, stopping to greet and talk with them. Their exit during the closing ceremonies of the Tokyo Paralympics was a stroll across the gymnasium flow, waving and smiling at the wheelchair athletes – a modern royal family for changing times.