Paralympian Mami Sato speaks during the Tokyo 2020 bid presentation of the 125th IOC Session – 2020 Olympics Host City Announcement on September 7, 2013 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

In commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, here is an excerpt from my book “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes.”

二〇二〇年に向かって

An Olympic legacy is commonly thought of as the tangible benefits of having hosted an Olympiad—the new sporting venues or transportation systems, the organizing know-how and the practical technology. But it is also the intangible benefits—the inspiration of an entire generation who see the very best athletes in the world strive to their utmost. And on occasion, citizens of the host nation get to see their own athletes and teams take their country on a thrilling ride to victory. These moments can jolt children and young adults, sparking them to dream, to believe that “anything is possible, even for me!”

 

This aspect of that first Tokyo Olympics carries great significance today as Japan gears up for its second hosting of the Games in 2020. Once again, the country is seeking to create a symbol of resilience, hope, and forward-looking energy as it faces a future encumbered by events of the recent past.

 

After the collapse of the financial bubble in the early nineties, the Japanese economy fell into protracted doldrums, a period which came to be known as the “Lost Decades.” Markets and corporate profits (with some notable exceptions) languished. Japan was superseded by China as the world’s second largest GDP. Overall, Japan’s presence on the world stage seemed to have dimmed.

 

In addition to economic and demographic issues (declining birthrate, rapid aging, the emptying out of rural areas), Japan has been beset by a series of natural disasters: torrential rains, floods, and mudslides that have claimed hundreds of lives and demolished whole communities in the western part of the country; the major earthquake in Kumamoto, Kyushu, in 2016; and most devastating of all, the earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan and triggered a nuclear disaster, on March 11, 2011. Recovery from that disaster, complicated by radioactive debris and contamination, is still far from complete.

 

Understanding the power of context, the Tokyo 2020 Bid Committee was wise to select a relatively unknown Paralympian named Mami Sato from the March 11 disaster area to kick off their presentation to the International Olympic Committee in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2013. Sato, a two-time Paralympian long jumper, thirty-one at the time, spent long hours of preparation on the speech she had to make in English, a task for which she had almost no background. But her honest and unaffected delivery of a very moving story created an emotional swell of support that helped propel Japan to the winning bid.

 

I was nineteen when my life changed. I was a runner. I was a swimmer. I was even a cheerleader. Then, just weeks after I first felt pains in my ankle, I lost my leg to cancer. Of course, it was hard. I was in despair. Until I returned to university and took up athletics.

For Sato, the simple idea in sports of having a goal and working to reach and surpass it became a passion, the loss of her leg serving as a catalyst to a sporting life as a long jumper. Sato competed at the Paralympics in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008. “I felt privileged to have been touched by the power of sport,” she said. “And I was looking forward to London 2012.”

 

Then disaster struck.

 

The tsunami hit my hometown. For six days I did not know if my family were still alive. And, when I did find them, my personal happiness was nothing compared to the sadness of the nation.

 

Like so many other survivors of the earthquake and tsunami in Northern Japan, Mami Sato helped others—forwarding messages, talking to victims, delivering food, and even organizing sporting events to take children’s minds off the daily worries of the aftermath.

Only then did I see the true power of sport…to create new dreams and smiles. To give hope. To bring people together. 

 

(Go to the 5 minute 25 second mark of the video below to see Mami Sato’s moving speech.)

Mami Sato has spent her recent years passing on that power to others—among them a young woman named Saki Takakuwa from Saitama. When Saki was in sixth grade, she loved playing tennis and running in track. One day she felt pain in her left leg after practicing hurdles, a pain that would not go away. It turned out to be a tumor below her knee, and at first the doctor couldn’t tell if it was malignant or benign. But after enduring four surgeries, including amputation, chemotherapy, hair loss, and the constant reliance on others for assistance, Takakuwa was despondent, wondering if she would ever walk again.

 

Her mother, Yoko, was determined to help her daughter turn her mindset around. She received a book from a friend called Lucky Girl, by Mami Sato. The mother scanned the book, looking for similarities in experience and stories that might make her daughter feel hopeful for the future. Those stories worked.

 

It was inspiring to read such a positive story by someone who’d gone through something similar to me. Her book made me realize there were opportunities out there and that I didn’t necessarily have to give up on sport. At a real dark time in my life, it gave me encouragement, but that doesn’t mean I suddenly decided to become a Paralympian. At that point I wasn’t really thinking about my future at all. It was just about getting through each day.

 

Even better, a doctor gave mother and daughter a sense of hope they simply had not imagined.

 

Once [Saki] becomes accustomed to the prosthetic, she will be able to go to school again. She will be able to go to senior high school and university. She will also be able to find a job and get married.

 

Buoyed by Sato’s example and the doctor’s new prognosis, Saki discovered that with practice, she could get around on her prosthetic leg. She could indeed walk again. And then she learned something even more powerful. By focusing on her thigh muscles and using them to maintain balance, Saki found she could run again, run straight, run hard.

 

At that time, I did not know what my own limitations were. But I was just happy to be able to do the same thing as everyone else, so I tried various challenges. I gave it my all in everything I did. I want to continue running while never forgetting that feeling.

 

Inspired, Takakuwa went on to compete in both the 2012 London Paralympics and the 2016 Rio Paralympics. At the age of twenty-eight, 2020 in Tokyo should be in her sights, with hopes of inspiring others.

 

Speaking of her own devastated hometown area, Mami Sato told the IOC delegates in Buenos Aires that athletes and their expression of Olympic values, can inspire:

 

More than 200 athletes, Japanese and international, making almost 1,000 visits to the affected area are inspiring more than 50,000 children. What we have seen is the impact of the Olympic values as never before in Japan. And what the country has witnessed is that those precious values, excellence, friendship, and respect, can be so much more than just words.

 

The legacy of the Olympics is the children and young men and women bearing witness to feats of peak performance, honest humility, exhaustive effort, and a perseverance beyond belief. It is also the respect the athletes have for one another, an appreciation on the part of all concerned of cultural differences and strengths, and a chance for the host country to display resilience, competence, goodwill, and hospitality to the rest of the world. Tokyo took full advantage of this opportunity in 1964. By all indications, it appears determined to surpass that performance in 2020.

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

In commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, here is an excerpt from my book “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes.”

気持ちは晴ればれ

Only two weeks after the exhilarating Tokyo Olympiad, the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, which ran from November 8 to 12, created an entirely new set of images and impressions on the Japanese psyche regarding notions of what disabled people could do.

 

Hundreds of foreign Paralympians were in Japan, serving as role models in terms of performance and attitude. According to Kazuo Ogoura, in his paper, The Legacy of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, their presence and their bearing were a jolt to Japanese society, which had until then tended to shun people with disabilities. As an administrator of the Paralympic Village put it, according to Ogoura, he remembers his surprise at seeing foreigners with disabilities so happy and full of life.

 

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.

 

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 only just begun in Japan in the early 1960s. But when placed in a situation that tested their skills on an international platform, Japanese participants felt a rush of elation at being asked to stretch and compete.

 

A Japanese fencer, Shigeo Aono, felt empowered by the Paralympics in Japan, in a life-changing way.

 

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.

 

Japanese discus thrower, Masayoshi Koike, said it more succinctly, “I had so much fun, with my spirit lifted high into the sky.”

 

With confidence came the realization for Japanese athletes that they were not disabled, but enabled. They took heart in seeing how independent the foreign athletes in Tokyo were, refusing assistance from officials and getting around on their own far more than the average disabled Japanese. They also learned that part of being more independent was being more accountable to one’s own health and condition.

 

Another demonstration of overseas athletes’ independent mindset was the day-to-day effort that went into boosting 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 the large number of injuries sustained by their teammates during the Paralympics. Two Japanese athletes suffered Achilles tendon injuries and fourteen others sustained a range of other injuries during their respective events.

 

The common attitude was to treat anyone with a disability with kid gloves, as 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 one of the swimmers:

 

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 five meters. She would start sinking, but get back afloat. Rescue staff was swimming about two 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.”

 

Thanks to these examples, the government also awakened to the possibilities. Seiichiro Ide of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, acknowledging that “Japan had the culture of shunning people with disabilities,” asserted that from then on, “making the disabled more visible in society” was a new goal for the new Japan.

 

Another significant effect of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics was the shift in the medical world, where doctors and institutions began to realize the need to focus more on rehabilitation, not just cure or prevention of 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.

 

The exposure to foreign equipment used by the disabled was also hugely impactful. When the hundreds of foreign Paralympians, coaches, and administrators came to Tokyo in 1964, 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. Said one athlete, “Overseas players are bigger, but very skilled at handling their 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 mind shift in Japanese society. 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.