Strides made but stigmas remain: Japan hesitant in embracing Paralympics

Viewing figures and television scheduling show historical attitudes to disability in Japan may be improving but not quickly enough

When the Tokyo Paralympics opened on 24 August, the Japanese capital became the first city to host the Games twice. The first official Paralympics were held in Rome in 1960 and the second after the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Both the 1964 and the 2021 Paralympics opened in extraordinary circumstances. The first Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics were seen as Japan’s return to the world stage after it resurrected itself from post-war devastation. The current postponed Paralympics are the first to be held during a global pandemic.

In the intervening 57 years, tremendous strides have been made in terms of attitudes to disability in Japan, but stigmas remain in a culture that still places considerable emphasis on conformity to societal norms and not standing out from the crowd.

While it is difficult to assess the exact impact of the pandemic on attitudes towards the Paralympics, it is hard to deny that they have not been embraced in the way the Olympics were, despite significant public opposition in the lead up to hosting the Games.

Nearly 4.5 million tickets were sold for the Tokyo Olympics, compared to around 770,000 for the Paralympics, though ultimately none were able to be used for either event due to the pandemic. By way of comparison, more than two million tickets were sold for the 2012 Paralympics in London.

And the opening ceremony of the Olympics logged viewing figures of more than 54% in Japan, while fewer than 24% tuned in for the Paralympics counterpart.

In terms of coverage, public broadcaster NHK is leading the way with a plan to broadcast more than 500 hours of the Paralympics across all its channels and online. But the situation at the big five commercial stations is very different, each broadcasting one event plus limited highlights of other para-sports.

Nippon TV has come in for particular criticism over this because on the weekend before the Paralympics opened it ran its annual “24-Hour Television: Love Saves the Earth” charity marathon to raise funds for children suffering from disabilities and disease. The event was a ratings and financial success for the station, which enjoys a huge advertising payday from the premium it charges on commercials run over the 24 hours.

Commentators in the press and social media users have accused Nippon TV of hypocrisy over the contrast between the message of the 24-hour charity drive and its paltry coverage of the Paralympics.

Privately, insiders at the commercial networks have said they did not bid for more Paralympic broadcast rights because the viewing figures wouldn’t justify the expense, a stance that may not be unfounded.

Yuko, a Tokyo homemaker in her 50s who requested that her family name not be used, said that while she had always thought the 24-hour charity was hypocritical for showing “a shallow interest in disability”, she is not watching much of the Paralympics.

Successes such as the gold medal for Japanese swimmer Miyuki Yamada have not been enough to spark widespread interest in the Paralympics in Japan.
Successes such as the gold medal for Japanese swimmer Miyuki Yamada have not been enough to spark widespread interest in the Paralympics in Japan. Photograph: Yutaka/Aflo/Shutterstock

“I watched some of the swimming and that 14-year-old girl Miyuki Yamada [gold medallist in the S2 100m backstroke and Japan’s youngest ever Paralympic champion] was incredible. But the swimming is much slower than in the Olympics and honestly it makes me feel uncomfortable watching it,” said Yuko, who volunteered at the Olympics.

“I know they put amazing efforts into their sport, maybe even more than the Olympians, but it feels like I’m just watching because they’re disabled. I think a lot of people probably feel the same way but won’t say so.”

Those sorts of attitudes towards disabled people are certainly not peculiar to Japan, but systemic abuses carried on longer than they did in other comparable nations, and legal protections introduced later. This is a legacy that Japan is still reckoning with.

A Eugenics Protection Law passed in 1948 to “prevent birth of inferior descendants from the eugenic point of view” permitting sterilisation of people with a range of disabilities was not repealed until 1996. The last sterilisation was carried out in 1993. And it was only two years ago that an agreement was reached to pay restitutions to some of the 25,000 sterilisation victims, many of whom are still fighting in court for additional compensation.

Katsunori Fujii, head of the Japan Council on Disability, believes that although the eugenics law is no longer on the books, its repercussions are still impacting society and attitudes to the disabled. He points to the fact the government is relying on the statute of limitations having expired on the sterilisations to avoid paying damages to victims, despite the procedures being ruled unconstitutional by the courts.

At the beginning of August, a court in Kobe became the sixth to acknowledge the unconstitutionality of the law but deny damages to plaintiffs. Five sterilised victims, one with cerebral palsy and two couples with hearing impairments, had sought 55 million yen (£364,000) from the government. One of the plaintiffs, Yumi Suzuki, was forcibly sterilised without explanation in 1968 at the age of 12.

“There are good and bad aspects to the situation around disability in Japan. Advancements have been made in provisions on public transport, especially in the big cities, with elevators and wheelchair ramps. But in terms of prejudice, it has not really advanced,” said Fujii.

He argues that the positive messages on disability being delivered through the Paralympics are largely meaningless unless they are accompanied by fundamental institutional, legal and societal change. Japan, it seems, still has a long way to go on this issue.


Gavin Blair in Tokyo

The GuardianTramp

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