The Paralympics in Japan: An Agent of Change

Written by Sterling Content
April 8, 2016

Written by Sterling Content
April 8, 2016

On the morning of March 25, 2016, the BCCJ in association with the British Council and GSK Japan held a seminar “What about the Paralympics?” aiming to raise awareness of Paralympic sports in Japan by sharing the challenges, inspiration and energy of Paralympic athletes from the world’s third largest economy – educating attendees on ways to support the Paralympics and People with Disabilities in the workplace, on the road to 2020, and beyond. The event was delivered with simultaneous interpretation in English and Japanese, as well as sign-language. 

Executive Director of the BCCJ, Lori Henderson MBE, opened the seminar, reinforcing the BCCJ’s commitment to Japan’s Global Sporting Events success.

“Since 2012, the BCCJ has been delivering a Global Sporting Events programme, supported by UK Trade and Investment at the British Embassy Tokyo, which currently focuses on supporting knowledge transfer between the UK and Japan – between London 2012 and Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics as well as the 2015 and 2019 Rugby World Cups.”

She went on: “The mission of this Global Sporting Events programme is to connect our members with the organisers of the 2019 Rugby World Cup 2019, and the 2020 Olympics, & Paralympics, to achieve the best possible organization, business and community results before, during and after the tournaments.”

Henderson then highlighted examples of successful UK-Japan GSE collaboration to date: a Joint Statement made in 2014 between PM Abe and PM Cameron announcing a strategic partnership for the 21st century; a visit by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson to Tokyo in 2015 to discuss the legacy of GSE; and in February 2016, Team GB selecting Yokohama, Kanagawa and Keio as training camps for its athletes.

Paralympics – the beginning

The Paralympic Games have grown from a small gathering of British World War II veterans in 1948 to become one of the world’s largest sporting events. The London 2012 Paralympics attracted a cumulated worldwide audience of 3.4 billion people – a billion more than in Beijing 2008, and more than any other Games previously. 

“As well as being a fantastic showcase for human achievement – focused on ability and not disability – these Games have become a transformation tool for changing attitudes towards people with disabilities in general”, she said.

Fast-forward to 2016, and on the horizon for Tokyo are the 16th Paralympics, featuring 22 sports – to be held from 25 August to 6 September 2020.

With all eyes on the first city in Asia to host the Paralympics for the second time, “can 2020 prove to be a game changer for advancing the Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) social agenda in Japan?” asked Henderson. Can the Games really change attitudes across the board towards people with disabilities in the workplace and throughout society as a whole? 

Grassroots support in Japan

In his opening remarks, Yasushi Yamawaki, Governing Board Member, International Paralympic Committee, Director of Japanese Para-Sports Association, President of Japanese Paralympic Committee, Director, Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Centre, praised the legacy of the London 2012 Paralympic Games, which to him he said communicated strong messages of “courage”, “determination”, “inspiration”, and “equality”.

“From a sporting viewpoint”, Yamawaki said, “the Games present a huge opportunity to get more people involved in para-sport at all levels, from grassroots right through to professional athletes. But most importantly, the Paralympics have the power to change and create a more equitable and inclusive society in Japan – to change mindsets, create a legacy of Diversity and Inclusion, accept difference, and create a barrier-free society for all.” He added, “Inclusive means equal opportunities and participation not only for people with impairments, but for every member of society.”

Moderator Suzanne Price, Representative Director of Price Global, welcomed Yamawaki’s positivity and enthusiasm, and highlighted the short period of time – just four years – that Japan has to start this “socialisation process”. Recognized as one of the top 10 Diversity and Inclusion consultants globally by The Economist, Price called for the corporate sector to influence government and lead the way in D&I awareness and education.

The panel discussion then began with an introduction from the four panelists.

Rina Akiyama, a swimmer, competed in the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Paralympic Games, winning a gold medal at the London 2012 Paralympics. She told the audience that the most important lesson she had learned in her life was “to have a winning and fighting spirit” and that this spirit spurred her on, not only in every day life, but in all the sporting challenges she had faced. In reference to the 2012 Paralympics, she praised the supportive and friendly attitudes of Londonders and said “the London Paralympics provided the ideal location for Paralympians”. Akiyama now works for GSK in Essential Training.

Hisano Tezuka, a snowboarder, competed internationally and at the Deaflympics in Italy, USA, Slovakia and Russia, including the Deaflympics in 2015 and 2011. She said that it had taken great pain, determination, and endurance to achieve her sporting and life goals, and that the Deaflympics were the key to positive change in her life. Her dream is “to create a society in which each person respects the others’ culture”, she said. Tezuka now works in Strategic Planning & Finance at GSK.

Daisuke Uehara, an ice sledge hockey international team player, who won a silver medal at the Vancouver Paralympics talked about the challenges of societal mindset and environment he had struggled against throughout his life and explained how he was trying to eliminate prejudice through awareness programmes for young people and communities. “Paralympic sports are for everybody”, he said. Uehara works in Communications at GSK.

In her introduction, Manami Yuasa, Head of Arts, British Council Japan, pointed to the impact of the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympics in transforming culture and arts across the UK, and elaborated upon the groundbreaking three-year “Unlimited” programme that commissioned 29 new works by deaf and disabled artists across the country.

“The London 2012 gave unprecedented opportunities to the UK arts sector as a whole.  The Unlimited programme for which the British Council collaborated with other partners, pushed the boundaries and challenged audience perception of people with disabilities … it was a wonderful opportunity to showcase talented disabled artists to the world”, Yuasa said.

Moderator Suzanne Price addressed the topics raised by panelists in their introductions, including: accessibility, public perception of people with disabilities and mindset shift, opportunities for the social agenda in 2020, concrete action that needs to be taken in Japan, and finally, how Japanese and British companies can support Japan on the road to 2020.

Accessibility and Universal Design

It was recognised by all panelists that one of the biggest challenges for the Paralympians in Tokyo was accessibility and the need for more integrated universal design.

While accommodation, transport, and facilities overseas are often spacious with close attention to design, Japan’s spaces are often cramped and not thought out. “There might well be an elevator to one’s room in a hotel, but the room itself is not designed for wheelchair-users”, Uehara said.

The athlete pointed out that “many hotels and public buildings in Japan install a ramp, but that’s where it ends”. He also highlighted general issues such as the limited number of seats for wheelchair-users on trains (2 seats on the shinkansen) and that dedicated elevators are often used by able-bodied people or for luggage.

Tezuka highlighted the important issue of accessibility to barrier-free toilets in Japan. “It is a bad situation when a person is prevented from being able to access a toilet. Too little thought is given to these simple, but highly important matters which can have profound impact on one’s health and self-respect.”

Uehara emphasised that “efforts might have been made to improve accessibility, but they are minimal and are only a beginning – this is what many facility managers in Japan have yet to comprehend”.

All panelists stressed the importance of universal design when constructing or selecting sporting facilities, and the need for integrated and barrier-free training facilities which can be used simultaneously by Olympians and Paralympians. “Design must be human-centered with everyone in mind, with everyone included, and it should not disadvantage or stigmatize any group of users”, said Uehara.

Akiyama pointed out that while accessiblity for the people with visual disabilities / impairment in Japan is advanced in comparison to other nations (tiled floor paths, braille, audio announcements in lifts etc.), there is still much to be done in terms of the mental barriers in Japanese society. “While people overseas will approach people with a disability and offer friendly support, there is still a culture in Japan of avoidance and embarrassment.”

Shifting the Mindset

Tezuka gave an example of Japanese society’s closed mindset towards people with disabilities. She said that from childhood into adulthood, she was told by others that she “shouldn’t or couldn’t do things” because she was deaf. “Although this protective attitude is meant well,” said Tezuka, “it is actually counterproductive.” The panelist strongly appealed to parents, teachers, and society alike to remember that this is not their call to dictate destiny. “I want to decide what I can and cannot do”, she said.

The moderator, Price, added that this attitude is often reflected in the vocabulary people use, for example the term “wheelchair-bound” or “wheelchair-user” or “the disabled” instead of “person who uses a wheelchair” and “people who are differently abled”. “The person is the subject and should come first, not the disability or enabling object.”

Inclusive approach

Tezuka called for equal funding for Paralympians. “To participate in the Deaflympics I had to cover all expenses myself, while athletes from other countries were all sponsored. Many talented athletes in Japan are prevented from competing due to financial constraints.”

The panelists agreed that Japan could learn from the London 2012 Paralympics with regard to more integrative and inclusive facilities and that Japan would benefit greatly from increased collaboration and joint planning between the Olympic and Paralympic committees. Uehara also lamented the attitude that prevails in Japan that “the Paralympics are only for the disabled”. He pointed out that “Paralympic basketball is simply a basketball game with a wheelchair added”. The panelist also stressed that Paralympic sport requires the same skill, talent, and endurance as Olympic sport: “If you ask an able-bodied person to play a sport in a wheelchair they would find it just as challenging as a person with a disability attempting an able-bodied discipline”. Uehara emphasised “the focus must be on sport and it must be inclusive.” Price added “in fact, many people without disabilities take part in these sports wearing a blindfold for blind football and joining wheelchair sports. It could be said that paralympic sports themselves are an example of inclusivity.”

Integration not separation

Examples of successful integration measures given by the panelists were the participation of Paralympians in the torch race, the joint opening ceremony attended by all athletes, and the many facilities where Paralympians and Olympians could train together. Uehara said that small steps such as these can spark a change in mindset and if maintained can result in a complete change in societal attitudes. The ideal case is sustained acceptance and integration. “In an ageing society such as Japan, in which the number of people with disabilities is fast growing, these issues must be addressed as soon as possible.”

Support at the Workplace and from Business

Another necessary development in Japan in terms of inclusion is increased commitment from companies to ensure that people with disabilities are given not only career opportunities but also recognition by CEOs and fellow employees that they can bring valuable talent and expertise to the business. Efforts should also be made by companies to retain and support employees who become disabled while working. GlaxoSmithKline, a pioneer in this area, encourages other companies in Japan to follow suit.

Speaking from the audience, Jim Fox, Supply Chain Head and Site Director at GSK in Japan, encouraged companies to introduce initiatives internally by motivating and engaging employees to participate in sports events. On an external level, companies should: share best practices, officially support the Paralympics, and lobby the government to enhance the reputation of the Paralympic Games, and encourage collaboration across industries.

Also speaking from the floor, Matt Burney, Director of the British Council in Japan, called for companies not to regard hiring the differently-abled as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) matter as this reinforces the current mindset of disabled people being a charitable cause. “If we view this as CSR we are not making the right adjustments – this is the actual disability in our society”, said Burney.

“The aim of the British Council is to mainstream equality, diversity and inclusion”, he went on. “That means taking diversity into account as we develop and deliver processes and functions, considering it as part of policy decisions and building it into the planning of programmes and projects. We have a variety of tools such as training, monitoring and checklists that support us to do this. We would be happy to share these with organisations that are interested.”

Other practical steps proposed by the panelists to promote better integration during the Paralympics included improved interpretation services (e.g. ensuring sign language interpreters can speak international sign language); encouraging active participation in the Paralympics by citizens, volunteers, and the media; and promoting education and awareness programmes in schools and communities.


Akiyama and Uehara both called for education initiatives for young people to raise awareness and bring about a shift in mindset. Akiyama pointed out that as she was growing up in Japan, her school friends were far more open in their atititudes and ostracized her far less than did teachers and parents.

“Children know instinctively how to include people with disabilities, and adjust to differences naturally. This openess and playfulness among young people can be nurtured and encouraged through friendship and sport. It is of great important to engage people from an early age”. Uehara works regularly at schools and with communities to raise awareness among children and families.

Media role

Not ignored was the considerable influence the mass media has on the attitudes towards and reception of the Paralympics. Price added that the UK’s Channel Four broadcast all Paralympics Games to the British public. “If NHK were to do the same, millions of people in Japan could be reached and attitudes towards people with disabilities in general could change for the better.”

Uehara warned against the tendency of the Japanese media throughout the Paralympics to focus on the disability rather than the sport. “The media thinks this makes for a good story, but this ‘sympathy angle’ simply reinforces stereotypes instead of celebrating athletic performance and talent.” Uehara called upon the Japanese media to report on the Paralympics as a fully-fledged sports event, and to focus on achievement and success, rather than sob stories.

“We also need to see more people with disabilities on TV for the population to feel more in touch with them” said Uehara. “Disability is still being treated as a big taboo on TV and by the media.” Price added that TV programmes in general should represent society and include people who happen to have a disability in regular programmes.

Sport as an agent of change

Event attendees listened with great interest to the many new insights provided by the four panelists, with the atmosphere of positivity in the room and the eagerness to start making changes becoming palpable. 

About the 2012 Summer Paralympics and Olympics in London, Chairman of the London organising committee, Sebastian Coe was quoted: “We want to change public attitudes towards disability, celebrate the excellence of Paralympic sport and to enshrine from the very outset that the two Games are an integrated whole”.

In summing up, moderator Price said: “Mainstream integration; better education of corporations, parents, teachers, and the media; and a cross-pollination of inspiration can achieve a shift in mindset. Let sport be an agent of change.”