Inclusivity in Japanese Society

How the Tokyo Olympics are paving the way for societal change in Japan

Japanese para-athlete, Wakako Tsuchida, hopes to star at her seventh Paralympics. Source: https://www.paralympic.org/feature/

Inclusivity in the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics

The Olympics have held a special place in my heart since an early age. I have always been fascinated by the notion of people from different countries coming together to compete and demonstrate teamwork and friendship. To see athletes push themselves to achieve their goals and earn recognition for their nations gets my adrenaline pumping, and it serves as a source of inspiration for me. But what about the ones who aren’t naturally enabled to compete in sporting events like the Olympics?

Japan is widely considered a leader of innovative and futuristic technology, but many of us are unaware of Japan’s efforts to include members of their society who are affected by disabilities. The Japanese athletic industry is making strides in inclusivity and accessibility, especially at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics — an international sporting event for athletes with disabilities that is held every four years. With the Olympics being right around the corner in Japan, the subject of inclusivity in sports is more relevant than ever, as we often overlook athletes with physical disabilities and exclude them from sporting events.

A Japanese man in a wheelchair gazing at the Paralympic sign displayed on a screen outside at night. Source: https://english.

History of Paralympics

The Paralympics were formed with the purpose of creating “a more inclusive society for people with impairment.” The history of sports for athletes with disabilities started after World War II in hopes of aiding wounded veterans and helping civilians recover. This rehabilitory sport evolved into a recreational sport and eventually into the competitive sports we know today. Soon after, other countries began adopting the Paralympics, including Japan.

Japan’s official call for more inclusivity in sports came in 2018 when the Olympic Committee Chairman Mori Yoshirō declared and pledged that the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic events would help those with disabilities feel welcome. Para-athletes — athletes with physical disabilities — have often been denied the opportunity to compete in sporting events that favored fully-abled athletes. Japan, however, is actively working to increase inclusivity by creating activities for para-athletes, such as long-jumping and volleyball, and by using wheelchairs for competition.

Now, you might have the same thought I did: Wheelchairs for racing!? This idea is so cool, yet we rarely see or hear about it in the United States. Although the first Paralympics were held in Rome in 1960, the first wheelchair-only race was held in Oita Prefecture in 1981, and companies such as Honda and Yachiyo Industry have been supporting the development of wheelchairs for racing ever since. These companies envisioned creating an environment where people with and without disabilities and the able-bodied people can work and live in concert, and supporting inclusivity in sports was a great step in this direction.

A female para-athlete using a wheelchair in a Paralympic wheelchair race. Source: https://www.nippon-foundation.or.jp/en/what

An inclusive society?

Long ago, Japanese society perceived the disabled as weaker than their able-bodied counterparts because in Japan, a person’s value is based on their contribution to the economy. Although the stigma still persists to an extent, many constituents of Japanese society are supportive of integrating people with disabilities into society, especially through physical education and sports.

I, too, believe para-athletes should be able to compete together and be viewed as equal to their able-bodied counterparts. Long-jumper para-athlete, Sayaka Murakami, shares this perspective and hopes for lasting acceptance rather than a medal at the Paralympics. Hoping to end the discrimination, she believes that the Games are a great opportunity to transform Japanese society and bring those with disabilities into the light.

Male para-athletes in a wheelchair designed for playing volleyball. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2014_IWRF

Moving toward inclusivity

I believe Japan is headed in a very positive direction by making sports inclusive for para-athletes. Rather than assuming that disabled athletes won’t participate, we should all consider how sports can be designed for accessibility. I view the Paralympics as a step toward “a society that doesn’t leave anyone behind” and calls for both para-athletes and able-bodied athletes to compete alongside each other so that we can be wholly inclusive and bring about societal change. Besides, where better to start our inclusive efforts than in sports?

I have memories of playing tennis in high school and wishing it could be more inclusive of people with a broader range of abilities, not just those who can rely on their legs to play. I sincerely hope the Tokyo Olympics will be a stepping stone for Japan in their effort to offer more inclusive opportunities to para-athletes and raise awareness of sports for those with disabilities!

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Inclusify by Design creates a space for University of Washington students to learn and share how to apply inclusive design practices in their industries. We aim to identify inclusive practice across industries to show that inclusive design is the responsibility of all.

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