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.

1964_Summer_Paralympics_logo
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.

031164 - Crown Prince and Empress meet teams Tokyo Games - 3b -
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.

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.”

Girl skiier_love over bias

P&G’s long-running series of “Thank You Mom” commercials have been a powerful testament to the importance of the love and support of parents, particularly mothers. The global consumer goods company has worked hard to make the connection to caring mothers and their brand, and have leveraged sports stories during Olympic cycles to send particularly emotional messages.

Their most recent commercial, “Love Over Bias,” has – at least to me – a more intense resonance.

These are divisive times, with tensions emerging out of the economic dislocations that have slammed the middle classes in developed economies all over the world. The tensions have at times, in my view, manifested themselves in balder declarations of intolerance, in angrier expressions of victimization, and more frequent impulses to violence.

Ooh child, things are going to get easier

Ooh child things will get brighter

Love Over Bias

The message is that children at times suffer unnecessarily from bias, whether they are black with hopes of making it in a sport dominated by whites, or boys in a sport where boys’ sexuality are questioned, or children who have not compete with those who have, or girls of Islamic faith whose hibabs become emotional lightning rods, or disabled children who simply want a chance.

“Imagine if the world could see what a mom sees,” Is the tagline.

The message is universal. And yet…..

1964 Paralympics_US vs Japan basketball
1964 Paralympics_US vs Japan basketball. from the book 1964 Tokyo Olympiad, Kyodo News Agency

The 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, which ran from November 8 to 12, had an immediate impact on Japanese society.

Only a few weeks after the exhilarating Tokyo Olympiad, the Paralympics created an entirely new set of images and impressions on the Japanese psyche regarding notions of what disabled people can and can’t do, as well as the individual Japanese attitude towards disabled people.

Hundreds of foreign Paralympians were in Japan, serving as models in terms of performance and attitude, which was a jolt to Japanese society. Seeichiro Ide of the Ministry of Health and Welfare said, “Japan had the culture of shunning people with disabilities,” and that “making the disabled more visible in society” was a new goal for the new Japan.

A paper entitled The “Legacy” of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, from the Journal of the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Research Group, examined the areas of impact of the Paralympics on Japanese society. My labels for those impacts are: Confidence in Ability, Not Shame in Disability; An Emerging Independent Mindset; Paralympians as Athletes; Medical Shift from Curing the Disease to Rehabilitation; and Instant Advances in Equipment Technology.

Confidence in Ability, Not Shame in Disability

The Japanese athletes who were asked to participate in the 1964 Paralympics likely had very little time to prepare as the institutionalization of sports for disabled people had really only just begun in Japan in the early 1960s. But when placed in a situation that tested their skills on a n international platform, Japanese participants felt a rush of elation at being asked to stretch and compete. The paper, written by Kazuo Ogoura, quotes a Japanese fencer, Shigeo Aono, a Japanese discus thrower, Masayoshi Koike, on the Paralympics:

Some said we were out of our minds for trying to compete in fencing, a traditional western sport, after just eight months of practice. Yet, we rejected the naysayers, followed through with our intentions and managed to win the silver medal…, which gave us a powerful realization that we could do anything if we tried. That sense of confidence gave me strong insight and courage, which has been a guiding force of my life ever since. – Aono

I had so much fun, with my spirit lifted high into the sky. – Koike

An Emerging Independent Mindset

With confidence came the realization for Japanese athletes that they were not disabled, but enabled. They took heart in seeing the foreign athletes in Tokyo, and how they carried themselves, particularly in terms of being independent. The paper cites the example of the Paralympians from Argentina, who “upon arrival in Japan, refused to use a lift vehicle provided by Japanese officials, and used crutches or had their arm around the shoulder of assisting Self-Defense Force personnel to walk down the gangway stairs by themselves to the wheelchairs on the ground.” Ogoura concluded that

Most of the athletes from overseas had worked… and lived a life the same way as able-bodied persons did. This difference forced Japanese Paralympians to face the importance of developing an independent frame of mind.

This understanding extended to the need for disabled people in Japan to take care of their health, and strengthen their bodies.

Another demonstration of overseas athletes’ independent mindset was their day-today efforts to boost their physical strength and athletic abilities. Japanese athletes were reminded of the importance of maintaining and increasing physical strength in daily life, when they witnessed a large number of injuries sustained by their teammates during the Paralympics. Two Japanese athletes suffered Achilles’ tendon injuries and 14 others sustained a range of other injuries during their respective events.

More importantly, people saw in the example of visiting foreigners that it was normal in other countries for people with disabilities to be happy and full of life, quoting an administrator of the Paralympic village, Eiichi Machida:

We were stunned to see overseas athletes in wheelchairs, hanging onto the back of a slow-operating Athlete Village loop bus to hitch a ride. It was sheer astonishment to witness their energy, enjoying themselves at a dance party at the International Club, or catching a taxi at night and loading their wheelchairs as well to go to Shibuya’s entertainment precinct.

 

1964 Paralympics_youtube video of wheelchair holding onto bus
Wheelchair Paralympians hitching a ride at the back of a bus; a screenshot from a video about the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics; click on the image to watch.

 

Paralympians as Athletes

The common attitude was to treat anyone with disability with kid’s gloves, people who needed constant care and careful handling. But at the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, spectators and television viewers saw that the participants were athletes, not victims. Ogoura highlights this example of a Japanese swimmer.

One female athlete from overseas had to be carried by her husband to get into the swimming pool. When the race started, she was left behind the rest straight away. By the time the first swimmer finished the race, she had only just swum about 5 meters. She would start sinking, but get back afloat. Rescue staff was swimming about 2 meters behind her just in case. When she began sinking after so many times, the rescue staff proceeded to help, but her husband on the poolside used a hand gesture to tell them to stop. Two more meters to go…, one more meter… The progress was slow. Applause broke out in the spectators’ stand. After more than three minutes, she finally completed the 25-meter feat.” Episodes like this prompted eminent persons and sporting officials to express the opinion that “Disabled sports must be fostered as regular athletic events.”

Medical Shift from Curing the Disease to Rehabilitation

Another significant effect of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics was the shift in the medical world, where more doctors and institutions realized the need to focus more on rehabilitation, not just on cure or prevention of the disease, that to ignore the state of the disabled, who may have the potential of athletes seen at the 1964 Paralympics, is to ignore the opportunity to bring confidence and joy to a significant part of the population. Ogoura quotes a healthcare worker:

Modern medicine focused too much on diseases and ignored people who suffer from them. It was the case of hunters being too busy looking for deer to look at the mountain itself, as they say in Japanese. Take spinal cord injuries for example. If medicine had focused more on achieving patients’ recovery than merely treating the condition, I have no doubt that those with spinal cord injuries today would have enjoyed a higher level of physical recovery, even joining in on the funfair of the Paralympics.

1964 Paralympics_wheelchair fencing
Wheelchair fencing at the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics

Instant Advances in Equipment Technology

The exposure to foreign equipment used by the disabled was hugely impactful. When the hundreds of foreign Paralympians, coaches and administrators came to Japan for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, they brought things that Japanese people had never seen, and immediately set the standard for Japan. Ogoura cited wheelchairs:

The greatest technological impact the Paralympics had was on the development and proliferation of equipment and tools for the care of those with disabilities, which were still underdeveloped in Japan at the time. There was a clear performance gap between foreign-made and Japanese wheelchairs and urine collectors, etc.   Commenting on this matter, Yutaka Nakamura said, “The difference of wheelchairs was as clear as day. British sport-use wheelchairs weighed 13 kilograms, whereas Japanese wheelchairs were as heavy as 23 kilograms.   Overseas players had wheelchairs made to suit their physique, while Japanese sport wheelchairs were the case of one-size-fits-all.

The Japanese could see the difference in performance based on the foreign athletes’ use of the wheelchairs compared to themselves: “Overseas players are bigger but very skilled at handling wheelchairs. We looked more like the wheelchairs were handling us. Then again, the experience gave us confidence that practice would improve our skills.”

The 1964 Tokyo Paralympics caused a monumental mindshift in Japanese culture. Dr. Yutaka Nakamura, one of the key players in making the Tokyo Paralympics happen, wrote in 1964 something that is the essential message of inclusion today:

Our society in general tends to underestimate the capability of people with disabilities. An event like this is significant in that it is a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate their capability to the rest of the society.

1964 Paralympics_poster

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.

1964 Paralympics_dartchery
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.

1964 Paralympics_prepping for the Games
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.

Geesink vs Kaminaga 2_Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha
Geesink and Kaminaga, from the book, “Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha”

It was Friday, October 23, 1964.

The Nippon Budokan was packed. But perhaps there was a sense of resignation at this, the penultimate day of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Despite the fact that three Japanese judoka, Takehide Nakatani, Isao Okano and Isao Inokuma had already taken gold in the first three weightclasses over the previous three days, there was considerable doubt that Akio Kaminaga could defeat Dutchman, Anton Geesink, in the open category.

After all, Geesink shocked the judo world by becoming the first non-Japanese to win the World Championships in 1961. More relevantly, Geesink had already defeated Kaminaga in a preliminary bout. So while the Japanese, including Crown Prince Akihito and Princess Michiko who were in the Budokan, were hoping Kaminaga would exceed expectations, all they had to do was see the two judoka stand next to each other to be concerned – the 2-meter tall, 120 kg foreign giant vs the 1.8-meter tall, 102 kg Japanese.

Even though judo purists know that skill, balance and coordination are more important to winning than size, deep down many likely felt that the bigger, stronger foreigner was going to win. After all, the bigger, stronger US soldiers and their allies had defeated the Imperial forces of Japan in the Pacific War.

And so Geesink did, defeating Kaminaga handily, sending the Japanese nation into a funk.

That was late in the afternoon on October 23. About 13 kilometers southwest of the Nippon Budokan and the site of Kaminaga’s defeat, the Japanese women’s volleyball team was preparing for their finals at the Komazawa Indoor Stadium. They too were going up against bigger, stronger adversaries, from the USSR.

In this case, however, there was a lingering sense that their magical women of volleyball would defeat the Soviets. They had in fact already done so at the World Championships in 1962, walking into the lioness’ den in Moscow and winning the finals. So when nearly every citizen in Japan had settled in front of their televisions that Friday evening, having the choice of four channels to choose from to watch the match, they were gearing up to explode in celebration.

And yet, Geesink had just sunk Kaminaga, as well as Japan’s hopes of sweeping gold in the only sport at the Olympics native to Japan. Maybe we just aren’t big enough, or strong enough, some may have thought.

Hirobumi Daimatsu, coach of the women’s volleyball team, accepted the challenge and worked over the years to train his players to compensate for relative weaknesses in size and strength, with speed, technique and guts. And much to the relief and joy of the nation, the Japanese defeated the Soviet Union in straight sets: 15-11, 15-8 and a tantalizingly close final set, 15-13.

Japan's Women's Volleyball team victorious 1964_Bi to Chikara
Japan’s Women’s Volleyball team victorious from the book, Bi to Chikara

And on that Friday evening, the day before the final day of Japan’s two-week Olympic journey to show the world that they were a nation to be recognized and respected, a team of diminutive Japanese women took down the larger Soviet women.

Whatever lingering sting from Kaminaga’s loss remained, whatever bad feelings of boycotts by the Indonesians or the North Koreans may have left, even perhaps, whatever shame that came from “enduring the unendurable” after the nation’s defeat in the Second World War, may have washed away in that moment the ball fell to the ground for the final point of the match.

On that day, Japan was a nation re-born – young, confident, world-beaters.