Message to the World from Tokyo's Second Paralympic Games - Negi Shinji, Associate Mayor of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Village -
Taking a year to revisit the roots of the Games
This is the first time the Summer Paralympic Games will return to a city that has hosted it previously. With its opening ceremony on August 24, 2021, we have taken this opportunity to speak to Negi Shinji, Associate Mayor of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Village and captain of Japan's wheelchair basketball team at the Sydney Paralympics, on the significance of Tokyo hosting the Paralympic Games for the second time and the "diversity and harmony" that we must embrace as a society.
This will be the first time in history that the Games will be held in the absence of spectators and with the athletes competing in tournament venues that are largely silent. Having been personally involved in Tokyo's bid for the 2020 Games back in 2013, Negi admitted that the manner in which the Games will be held is not what they had imagined at the time, but he believes that this may not be a negative thing after all. We interviewed him about the significance of hosting these Games.
"At the time, the theme of the bid was 'Japan needs the power of dreams now.' In hindsight, that was definitely true. The Olympic and Paralympic Games were meant to be an event that would mark Japan's recovery from the devastation of the Great East Japan Earthquake, but many other things have happened in Japan and around the world since then, including the torrential rains and the COVID-19 pandemic. These challenges have allowed me to appreciate the power of sports and the importance of having the ability to dream."
After Tokyo 2020 was postponed for a year, Negi attempted to revisit the roots of the Olympic and Paralympic Games by looking back on the journey of the predecessors. Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympic Games, had advocated the spirit of "Olympism" since the end of the 19th century, which aims to nurture the spirit of friendship, solidarity, and fair play through sports. He also emphasized the importance of understanding one another beyond our respective cultures and nationalities. Coubertin was the one who laid the foundation for the Olympic and Paralympic education that is now being offered in many pedagogical settings.
On the other hand, the origin of the Paralympic Games dates back to 1945. The physician Ludwig Guttmann was treating returning soldiers injured during World War II at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the suburbs of England when he decided to introduce sports as part of their rehabilitation treatment. The "Stoke Mandeville Games" was held at the same hospital three years later in 1948, which later developed into an international tournament that eventually led to the 1960 Paralympic Games in Rome. "The idea that playing sports can be useful for rehabilitation and is a good way to stay healthy is a common belief these days, but it was only because of Guttmann that we have come to think this way. In other words, he was responsible for transforming our values on this issue. I got injured when I was a third-year high school student, and I found a wheelchair basketball team in my hometown. I have no doubt that our Olympic and Paralympic Games could only have been possible on the back of this storied history," Negi tells us.
Nurturing a mindset of taking on challenges
For 36 years, Negi has dedicated his life to giving hands-on wheelchair basketball lessons to students from elementary, junior high, and high schools throughout Japan. These lessons have benefited over 800,000 students from 3,600 schools. Since 2015, he has also been part of the "Extracurricular Classes of Your Dreams" program (organized by the Twenty First Century Club), whose aim is to create opportunities for children to have their own dreams and goals. Negi has been sharing the fun of wheelchair basketball at elementary and junior high schools in Tokyo while advocating for emotional inclusivity alongside Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko and artists such as members of EXILE, a popular J-pop boyband. He then organized a successful large-scale para-sports event along Ginza's Chuo-dori Street (Chuo-ku, Tokyo) in 2016 and felt that it was the perfect moment to build some momentum. What is the message that Negi has been trying to send for the past 36 years?
"I've been trying to share with others the value of taking on challenges through my own experiences and encounters with wheelchair basketball. I always get students and teachers to give wheelchair basketball a go in my classes, and many of them can't do it because it's their first time, but even so, they enjoy it tremendously. Whenever we talk about dreams, the assumption is that it would be great if we could achieve something. However, I believe that it is also vital for us to be motivated to try things that we want to do in the first place regardless of whether we can succeed in them, as well as to experience the frustration of failing at a new challenge. I want to let people know that the very act of taking on a challenge is incredibly valuable in and of itself."
What makes this possible, according to Negi, is the power of mutual support.
"The children in my hands-on classes cheer on one another spontaneously. In fact, we talk about why people cheer for others in my classes. It's not because they are practicing or have been instructed to do so, but because they have been cheered on by people around them throughout their lives. They understand the joy and delight of being able to put in their best effort when they are being cheered on, and so they instinctively want to do the same when they see others trying their best. I believe that by expanding our community of mutual support in this way, people will be inspired to take on new challenges no matter how daunting the challenges appear to be."
Serving as Associate Mayor of the Athletes' Village
Having represented Japan at the Paralympic Games in the past, Negi has long been involved in raising awareness of wheelchair basketball. At these Games, he will draw on his experience to serve as Associate Mayor of the Paralympic Village. We asked him about his role in this special village that will be the temporary home of athletes from around 170 countries and regions.
"As the host, one of our duties is to make guests feel welcomed, so we will be greeting the athletes when they first arrive at the Village. We will also be handling any issues raised by the leaders of the various delegations during our meetings, so that we can make sure everyone has a pleasant stay at the Village for the duration of the Games. Finally, we will host dignitaries from around the world and fulfill our media responsibilities as well. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have kept the number of people allowed to enter the Village to the minimum. Athletes are required to arrive five days before their event and leave immediately afterwards. As I have past experience as an athlete, I hope the Village can be an exciting place for the athletes where they can have fun interacting with fellow athletes from other countries after their events. The current situation presents a unique challenge, but I hope we can still make it a place where everyone can enjoy their time as much as possible."
The 1964 Games and the 2020 Games
The Tokyo 2020 Paralympics will be the second time these Games are held in Tokyo. How has the culture surrounding people with disabilities evolved since the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, the first time Japan hosted the Games?
"I think some things have changed, while some have not. One thing that is now different is the stereotype of disability among Japanese people. Specifically, the perception that people with disabilities are difficult to deal with their situation has been totally debunked. It has certainly been a revelation. Fifty-three Japanese athletes competed in the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, of whom many had trained in hospitals and sanatoriums. Until then, people with disabilities in Japan had been living in an environment where it was difficult for them to play sports or go outside in wheelchairs, but the overseas athletes who came to the Athletes' Village transformed this into something that was cool and appealing. After the Games, these athletes even went out to shop in Ginza, a well-known shopping & entertainment district in central Tokyo. There were still many barriers in the streets at the time, but this did not give them any pause. I think the sight of this really surprised many people. I believe it was a massive change for people with disabilities in Japan to realize that there are many things we can do on our own and that many of us are in fact taking on new challenges as our personal commitment."
On the other hand, Negi feels that there are also certain things that have not changed.
"There are some things that are still the same in terms of how people in the world tend to perceive people with disabilities. Paralympians like us take this very seriously, and I believe it is crucial for us to transform this perception with these Games. When I was with Kawabuchi Saburo, Mayor of the Athletes' Village, at an event in 2012, he told me that people around the world are paying attention to us because the Olympic and Paralympic Games are coming to Tokyo. 'If we do not speak up and take real action when others are looking, they will forget about us as time goes by.' His words really resonated with me, and he taught me the importance of acting on our beliefs."
Making "diversity" a personal commitment
As the ideas of diversity and inclusion become global standards, what should we learn from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games?
"One thing that has changed is that people are starting to think about diversity as their personal commitment. At the London Games, the Paralympics sold a record number of tickets, and there was unprecedented media coverage of the events on TV. Unfortunately, this also amplified the discrimination and prejudice against people with disabilities as a result. There is no doubt that as a sports festival, the Paralympics has been highly successful in drawing attention to the incredible abilities and strengths of the athletes, but what about the true meaning of 'diversity'? The IOC's philosophy is to create an inclusive society through the Paralympic Movement, and if you ask me, this means a society where everyone appreciates their individual differences and everyone can shine in their own way. This world is full of people who are different in various ways, including you and me, so I hope that everyone can approach this event as an opportunity to think about what it means to 'accept one another' on a personal level. I believe that the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games can be a wonderful launchpad for this. Tokyo is a city with unbelievable potential, a place where people gather from different regions and countries around the world. There is no better time than now for us to appreciate this diversity. The question is whether we will be able to pass on the baton of 'diversity' to future generations at these Games that will be held in Tokyo, in our home country. All eyes are now on Tokyo."