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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.

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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.

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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.