"This book provides important new insights on the ways in which sports have shaped—and continue to shape—how disability has been perceived and addressed in Japan"
More Than Medals: A History of the Paralympics and Disability Sports in Postwar Japan (2021) addresses the histories of individuals, institutions, and events that played important roles in the development of disability sports in Japan. In this book, Dennis J. Frost (Japan, 1998/99, 2004/05, and 2016/17) provides new insights on the cultural and historical nature of disability and demonstrates how sporting events have challenged some stigmas associated with disability, while reinforcing or generating others. We caught up with the author to find out more about his research.
More than Medals: Combining Japanese studies, disability studies and sports studies
My goal with this book was to explore the history of disability sports in Japan, a history that is largely unknown. The book focuses on the origins and impacts of several international events held in Japan for people with disabilities. It begins with the 1964 Paralympics held in Tokyo and ends with Tokyo’s now delayed 2020 Paralympic Games. Early in my research, it became clear that understanding this history would require more than just a recounting of different events. In order for me to appreciate—and explain to readers—how and why these events happened and how they influenced Japanese society, I needed to address the broader contexts in which they occurred. Because I was talking about large sporting events held in Japan for people with disabilities, the choice of these three disciplines (Japanese studies, disability studies and sport studies) seemed almost natural. Yet I also knew that these were three fields that had tended not to overlap.
In the end, I can’t imagine having approached it any other way. Each field gave me unique insights. Japanese studies provided me with key socio-historical contexts for each event, allowing me, for instance, to appreciate how the decision to launch an international wheelchair marathon in Ōita Prefecture in the 1980s fit with efforts to address demographic trends that were shaping rural regions in Japan. Sports studies provided me with useful frames for questioning the legacies of “sports mega-events,” and in my case it helped me understand the impacts of disability sports events on accessibility and inclusion. Similarly, attention to the broader global history of disability and other ideas from disability studies helped me to see how efforts to promote disability sports in Japan intersected with international developments in approaches to disability and how the medical and social models of understanding disability were reflected, challenged, or reinforced in sports.
The impacts of disability sports events on Japanese society and culture
Although the specific impacts of the different events examined in the book always depended on the particular time periods and locations in which they occurred, it’s possible to highlight three broader impacts. First, the Paralympics and other events have played—and continue to play—a pivotal role in fostering the development of disability sports in Japan. Such development has included the establishment of new institutions, expanded opportunities for people with disabilities to pursue sports in different areas of Japan, and increased popular and media interest in disability sports and athletes with disabilities. Second, because of their international scope and media prominence, the events examined in the book have also had a disproportionate impact on understandings of disability in Japan. As the book demonstrates, sports challenged some stigmas associated with disability while reinforcing or even creating others. Finally, disability sports events have also repeatedly served as forums for promoting new policies, pushing international ideals, or seeking to address a variety of concerns expressed by individuals with disabilities. While the 1960s saw organizers link the Paralympics to the promotion of new rehabilitation techniques, efforts to use the 2020 Games to promote changes in Japanese approaches to disability were arguably even more apparent as promoters explicitly linked these events to Japan’s need for barrier-free environments for its rapidly aging population. By examining these sorts of promotional efforts and many other aspects of these events, the book provides important new insights on the ways in which sports have shaped—and continue to shape—how disability has been perceived and addressed in Japan.
Changes in Japanse society
I’ve had the good fortune to live for extended periods in Osaka, Okinawa, Iwate, and Tokyo, and I’ve conducted research in several other regions. Those diverse experiences sometimes make it hard for me to know if differences I’m seeing are a result of time or regional variation. The car-centric cultures I encountered in Okinawa and Iwate in the late 1990s, for instance, are a world apart from Tokyo with its convenient (if initially bewildering) mass-transit system, but based on recent visits neither of those elements has changed much. There are also any number of commonalities I’ve run across throughout Japan, not least of all, the recurring generosity of Japanese colleagues, friends, and even random acquaintances.
My research has made me particularly attuned in recent years to Japanese approaches to disability. In this sense, I would note that I’ve seen fairly striking changes, even since 2011 when I made my first research trip related to my recent book. At that point, the Paralympics and disability sports weren’t part of people’s general awareness, and mentions of my topic tended to necessitate follow-up explanations almost everywhere I went. By 2016, the situation was different: the Paralympics were omni-present in Tokyo and beyond. The most telling example of this shift involved a discussion with old friends and new acquaintances during an evening out in Okinawa. We spent several minutes that night debating the impact of the upcoming Tokyo Paralympics on athletes with disabilities in Okinawa. What was most striking for me was the fact that most of those present that evening didn’t know about my research focus, and none of them were directly involved with disability sports. It just happened to be a general topic of interest. Whatever the long-term impact of the Paralympics might be, it was clear to me that night that something had changed in Japan.
Dennis J. Frost is Wen Chao Chen Associate Professor of East Asian Social Sciences at Kalamazoo College, where he teaches courses on East Asian history and society. He holds a B.A. from Wittenberg University and a Ph.D. in modern Japanese history from Columbia University. He has written widely on the history of sports in Japan, including his 2010 book Seeing Stars: Sports Celebrity, Identity, and Body Culture in Modern Japan and his new book, More Than Medals: A History of the Paralympics and Disability Sports in Postwar Japan. His next book project examines the life and work of Japanese disability advocate, Dr. Nakamura Yutaka. The support of the Fulbright program has been instrumental in his research and his professional development.