The 1964 Tokyo Paralympic Games Part 8: Japan Holds Not One But Two Paralympics in November, 1964

1964 Paralympics_Japan delegation opening ceremony
Japanese delegation at the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics from the book, 1964 Tokyo Olympiad, Kyodo Sports Agency

Holding the five-day Tokyo Paralympics from November 8 -12, was an amazing triumph for Japan. As previous posts have explained, Japan went from zero awareness about the rehabilitative power of sports on the disabled to hosting the first Paralympics in Asia in a matter of years.

Even more amazingly, Japan organized not one, but two competitions for the disabled, one right after the other. The first competition was the Tokyo Paralympics, an international event. The second competition is less well known, a domestic competition that was more daring than the famous first competition, for it expanded the scope of competitions.

According to Kazuo Ogoura, in his paper The “Legacy” of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, the British, led by Ludwig Guttmann of Stoke Mandeville Hospital, focused the competition of disabled athletes only on those who had spinal cord injuries, who got around via wheelchairs, but that “in the 1960s, there emerged a growing call for including those with vision impairment and amputees in such sporting events.

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The logo for the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics; note the use of the wheelchair wheel symbols, representing Stoke and Mandeville Hospital’s influence over the criteria for participation in the Paralympics.

In fact, as D. J. Frost has written in his paper, Tokyo’s Other Games: The Origins and Impact of the 1964 Paralympics, “by the early 1960s, a handful of Japanese medical experts interested in rehabilitation had established relationships with European specialists outside of Great Britain who were actively promoting sports for those with disabilities besides spinal injuries. Japanese organisers of the 1964 Games also appear to have been in regular contact with Norman Acton, who eventually became head of the International Sports Organisation for the Disabled (ISOD). In July 1963, at Acton’s urging, Japan dispatched a team of athletes to participate in what various Japanese sources identify as the First International Sports Festival for the Disabled held in Linz, Austria.”

Awareness of the impact sports can have on the disabled beyond those with spinal cord injuries was indeed growing in Japan. Frost explained that when a group of early supporters that included members of the Health and Welfare Ministry, The Asahi Shimbun Social Welfare Organization and the International Lions Club organized a preparatory committee to consider the organization of a Paralympics in Tokyo in 1964, they initially agreed that “that the International Games held in Tokyo should be a multi-disability event, including athletes with paraplegia, blindness, hearing impairments, and other physical challenges.”

But as Ogoura explained, the officials at Stoke Mandeville, who were the patrons and coordinators at the international level, were not ready to make that shift beyond wheelchair athletes.

During the preparation stage for the Tokyo Paralympics, Yutaka Nakamura, who was one of the event’s central figures, campaigned in response to requests from German officials to include athletes with vision impairment and amputees in the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics but failed to secure consent from Stoke Mandeville officials.

Amazingly, the Japanese organizers were not deterred, and decided to split the baby by keeping the Stoke Mandeville scope for the 5-day international Tokyo Paralympic Games, but also by holding a separate domestic 2-day event soon after the first one. As Frost wrote, “it was the perfect plan. It did not threaten to alter the approach of the Stoke Mandeville Games themselves, and it addressed Japanese desires to serve a larger portion of the disabled population. Yet, the Games were clearly not equal in length or prestige, and as a result, the National Sports Meet attracted far less attention.”

The so-called “National Sports Meet” ran from November 13 – 14, 1964, and despite the fewer number of days, was larger than the highly publicized “International Sports Meet.” The international meet was three days longer than the domestic meet, but had fewer athletes (375 vs 480) and fewer sports (9 vs 34). As Frost described, this pioneering decision was both intimidating and inspiring.

With more than 34 sporting events for men and women with a wide range of disabilities, the National Meet added a layer of complexity to the planning efforts that in later years would play a role in other potential host sites’ decisions to decline the Paralympics. The structure adopted for these Tokyo Games reflects the commitment to hosting a multi-disability event that was apparent in some of the earliest organisational efforts.

Today, the Paralympics is indeed a multi-disability, multi-sport event which includes a highly complex mix of disabilities, with thousands of competitors coming from over 100 nations. The 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, both its international and domestic meets, played a significant role in the evolution and history of disabled sports.