Notes from the Obstacle Course
Dr. Michael Peckitt
It is 2016, four years until the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, and Olympics fever has begun to spread Japan. Japanese television has programs celebrating the achievements of previous Olympians from the Land of the Rising Sun, the breaks between sections of television programs contain adverts either for the Olympics, or for Japan in general, and as a tourist destination in particular. The government sponsored advert that is Cool Japan is in full swing, and no country celebrates their homegrown talent quite like Japan.
Which is as it should be, Japan should be boastful of its athletes as it gets nearer to 2020. I was organizing my visa to come to Japan early in the summer of 2012, at the embassy in London. I looked around embassy’s foyer, which at the time was filled with images from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. There were images from Kon Ichikawa’s 1965 film Tokyo Olympiad, there were photographs of the stadiums used, of the famous Japanese athletes and of course, of then newly constructed ‘bullet train’, the Tokaido Shinkansen, built just in time to shuttle people from Osaka to Tokyo to watch the games.
It was all very impressive, there was as far I was concerned, only one thing missing, and that was any significant mention of the 1964 Summer Paralympics. Here is a little history lesson. The 1964 Sumer Paralympics was the second official Summer Paralympics after Rome 1960; previously it was The Stoke Mandeville Games or World Wheelchair Games. The opening ceremony was held in Oda Field and the closing ceremony at Yoyogi National Gymnasium. It was the first Paralympics to feature wheelchair racing, by having a sixty meter dash, hitherto all events had been field events.
In 1964, it was perhaps understandable that precious little attention was paid to the Paralympics, they were after all, a new idea, maybe there would not have been any future Paralympics, not making special note of the event then, whilst disappointing, is forgivable. However, it is now 2016, the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo will be the 16th time the event is held, it now certainly an established part of the sporting calendar and yet, the occasional appearance of a wheelchair user in TV promotions for Japan aside, very little mention is made of the Paralympics in the Japanese print and broadcast media. Aside from confirming the sporting events to be held – which is ultimately decided by the International Paralympic Committee – as well as the venues and dates (August 25th to September 5th 2020), it would be quite easy to forget that there will in fact be a Paralympics in Tokyo, a mere four years from now.
You may ask what more is to be done other than deciding the evets to be held, as well as the time and place of the event, there will after all, actually be a Summer Paralympics Games in Tokyo. An Olympics is not merely about selling a sporting event but a country, the 2020 Olympics will be a chance to demonstrate just how cool is Japan. Already the media machine is linking news items to the 2020 Olympics. There are TV programs with biographies and interviews with Olympians, and if an athlete visits the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster area in the Tohoku region, then they will be asked what their hopes are for Tokyo 2020. This is how you sell an Olympic event to a country, you keep interest alive through human interest stories, and in Japan you connect that story to the idea of Cool Japan, the broadcast media has done everything but have an Olympian duet with a member of AKB48.
However they are nearly always media spots about Olympic athletes and rarely Paralympians, so in terms of media saturation, the Paralympics is noted by its absence. One might respond by saying that it’s just television and that nobody really pays attention to such stories, and you would be correct and to be perfectly honest, such stories bore me. However, the fact remains such stories are almost exclusively about able-bodied athletes are rarely (if ever) about sportspersons with a disability.
The absence of Paralympians and the Paralympics in general points to a kind of paradox about the issue of disability in Japan. When it comes to physical accessibility, Japan and in particular the major cities of Tokyo and Osaka is good, in terms of getting around it is a little easier here, then my country of origin of Britain. However, when it comes to attitudes towards disability, Japan, it is fair to say has much work to do. Despite anti-disability discrimination laws coupled with the relatively disability accessible pubic transport, it is still difficult for Japanese people to find employment. As a recent an article in The Japan Times (October 29th 2015) reported:
For the disabled, getting a job is not easy. The majority of companies in Japan flout decades-old laws that require them to hire a minimum number of disabled workers. Now their unwillingness to take them on is clashing with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to increase and diversify Japan’s dwindling labor force.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has appointed a new minister to deal with the issue of employment, Katsunobu Kato, along with commissioning an advisory panel that includes Paralympian alpine skier Kuniko Obinata. So there is hope. However, I feel that simply using gentle persuasion to alter business practices will not be enough to change the way disability is perceived in Japan, that a change in mindset towards disability is needed and that the media can help change that mindset. As Yusuke Hatsuse, a law graduate and Beijing 2008 Paralympian competitor states:
“When people see us compete, pity is not usually the first thing that comes into their minds,” he says. “People are just in awe at what we can really do.”
Paralympics: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paralympic_Games#Forerunners, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1964_Summer_Paralympics
The Japan Times: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/10/29/national/social-issues/blind-judoka-fights-put-japans-disabled-work/
Dr. Michael Gillan Peckitt is an academic who lives in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, Japan. He runs the Japan and disability related website ‘The Limping Philosopher’ (https://thelimpingphilosopher.wordpress.com) and you can find him on Twitter @Peckitt. Check out his ebooks on Amazon.