Excerpt — More Than Medals: A History of the Paralympics and Disability Sports in Postwar Japan

Cover of Dennis Frost, More Than Medals: A History of the Paralympics and Disability Sports in Postwar Japan

AAS Member Dennis Frost is Wen Chao Chen Associate Professor of East Asian Social Sciences in Kalamazoo College’s Department of History and East Asian Studies. Frost is also author of More Than Medals: A History of the Paralympics and Disability Sports in Postwar Japan (Cornell University Press, 2021). In this book, Frost narrates the development of disability sports in Japan and analyzes how this reflected and contributed to broader discussions within Japanese society about disability. Below, we are pleased to share an excerpt from the introduction of More Than Medals with #AsiaNow readers.

The success of the Paralympics is really the key to the success of the overall Games here. I believe putting weight on hosting a successful Paralympics is more important than a successful Olympics.

Governor Koike Yuriko, 2017

As Tokyo prepared to make history in August 2020 by becoming the first city in the world to host the International Paralympic Games on two occasions, countless organizers, athletes, promoters, volunteers, and politicians lent their enthusiastic support. Many expressed their expectations that the 2020 Paralympics would be an inspirational success, raising awareness and ultimately leading to improvements in the lives of those with disabilities in Japan. Tokyo governor Koike Yuriko exemplified such enthusiasm and hope when she spoke to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in August 2017 about the upcoming Games. Her striking statement that “putting weight on hosting a successful Paralympics is more important than a successful Olympics” was instantly picked up and circulated as a ringing endorsement of the Paralympic Movement and its benefits. Whether or not this was a case of political hyperbole, Koike’s declaration three years before the 2020 Games put everyone on notice that for her, Tokyo, and Japan more generally, the Paralympics mattered—perhaps even more than the Olympics.

Less than sixty years earlier in Japan, the situation could not have been more different. In early 1961, a small group of Japanese organizers began discussing the possibility of holding the 1964 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. At the time, the very notion of hosting any athletic competition for individuals with disabilities—let alone an international event deemed on par with the Olympics—would have struck many in Japan as ludicrous. Government support and institutions promoting disability sports were lacking, and very few people in Japan seemed aware that such sports existed. No Japanese athletes had ever participated in Paralympic events, and even medical professionals tended to scorn the idea of sports for those with disabilities. It was no small achievement, then, that a few years later Japan became the third country, and the first outside Europe, to host the Paralympics, bringing Japan’s first Paralympic Games to Tokyo in November 1964.

As Tokyo prepared to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games for a second time, organizers for 2020 were able to point to a rich history of involvement in the Paralympic Movement beginning with these efforts in the 1960s. In the years since, the establishment of new institutions, events, and forms of support allowed Japanese athletes with disabilities to compete in a range of domestic and international sporting competitions, often with marked success. As Japan constructed its domestic disability sports environment and continued engaging at the international level, the country also took leading roles in promoting these sports in the Asian region and beyond, especially through events like the FESPIC (Far East and South Pacific) Games and the Oita International Wheelchair Marathon. Particularly in the wake of the 1998 Winter Paralympics in Nagano, disability sports events and their athletes in Japan garnered a degree of popular attention and support that would have been unimaginable for Japanese advocates in the 1960s. Governor Koike’s seemingly wholehearted embrace of the Paralympics, then, is just one more example of how different the present situation in Japan is compared to just a few decades earlier. More Than Medals tells the story of how this dramatic transformation came about.

As the first comprehensive English-language study of the impact of the Paralympic Movement outside a Euro-American context, More Than Medals addresses histories of individuals, institutions, and events that played important roles in the development of the Paralympics and disability sports in Japan but remain little known or explored. Asking how and why Japan engaged with international movements as it developed domestic approaches to disability sports, this book focuses on discourses and practices surrounding five international sporting events held in Japan for athletes with disabilities: the 1964 Paralympics, the FESPIC Games, the Ōita International Wheelchair Marathon, the 1998 Nagano Winter Paralympics, and the 2020 Summer Games. Most narratives of Japan’s past have overlooked these events entirely, and the combination of language barriers and limited access to resources has prevented scholars of the Paralympic Movement from studying their histories as well. This book aims to change that.

While understanding the institutional histories of sporting events for those with disabilities is important in its own right, I also argue that the influence of such events has extended well beyond the playing field. Because of their international scope and media prominence, the events examined have had disproportionate impacts on approaches to and understandings of disability in Japan. Sporting events in Japan’s postwar era (1945–present) have repeatedly served as forums for promoting new policies, pushing international ideals, fostering improved awareness, or seeking to address a variety of concerns expressed by individuals with disabilities. Providing new insights on the culturally and historically contingent nature of disability, this book demonstrates how these sports events and especially representations of their athletes have challenged some of the stigmas associated with disability while reinforcing or even generating others.

Whereas organizers in 1964 linked the Paralympics to efforts to promote changes in rehabilitation techniques in Japan, the efforts to use the Games to promote changes in approaches to disability were equally—if not more—apparent in the lead-up to Tokyo’s second Paralympics. Koike’s emphasis on the Paralympics, for instance, was intertwined with her understandings of Japan’s future social and infrastructural needs. As she observed at that same press conference in August 2017, “In Tokyo and Japan we have an aging society, and it is clear there will be more and more people who will be requiring the use of wheelchairs or canes in coming years. Preparing for the Paralympics is preparing for Tokyo’s aging population. The challenge of an aging city is a common theme all developed countries will be facing.” She continued, “In the case of Tokyo we take the Paralympics as an opportunity to prepare for these coming challenges and how to make the city fully accessible to people with disabilities or other special needs.” Koike also explained how her experiences trying out a wheelchair herself on some of Tokyo’s non-barrier-free sidewalks left her even more motivated “to eliminate the uneven paving of Tokyo’s streets and make them accessible and welcoming to match the hospitality provided by the people of this great city.” Given that uneven pavement and sidewalks have little to do with medal counts, it is readily apparent that Koike’s support of the Paralympics was about much more than highlighting Japan’s prowess in sports. Her commitment to disability issues was also clear: the Tokyo government under her watch launched a concerted effort to improve the city’s accessibility. Examinations of these sorts of policies, as well as legal reforms, institutional materials, media reports, biographical sources, direct observations, and interviews with Japanese organizers and athletes, allow me to highlight some of the profound, although often ambiguous, ways in which sports have shaped how disability has been perceived and addressed in Japan from the 1960s through the present.

Copyright of Cornell University Press