SOAS University of London

Japan Research Centre

From Patients to Pros: The Paralympics and the Evolving Image of Disabled Athletes in Japan, 1964-2020

IMG - 2017 Abstract Image
Dennis J. Frost (Kalamazoo College)

Date: 29 November 2017Time: 6:00 PM

Finishes: 29 November 2017Time: 9:00 PM

Venue: Brunei Gallery Room: Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre

Type of Event: Annual Lecture


When organizers first raised the possibility of hosting the 1964 Paralympics in Tokyo, athletes from Japan had never participated in the Games before, and many medical professionals dismissed sports for the disabled as a preposterous idea. Today, the situation could not be more different. As Tokyo prepares to host its second Paralympic Games, the city has actively integrated and featured disabled athletes throughout the bid and promotion process. This paper examines how this dramatic shift came about, focusing on representations of disabled athletes in official and popular materials over the past fifty years. As Japan’s first encounter with the Paralympic Movement, the 1964 Games challenged longstanding social perceptions of the disabled as weak and dependent, but the Movements’ repeated emphasis on the rehabilitative role of sports also reinforced less-progressive notions that disability was an individual, medical issue. Unlike Tokyo’s Games, Japan’s second Paralympic experience in Nagano benefitted from decades of engagement with the Paralympics, increased government support, and widespread media coverage. As important as these changes were, the expanded official and popular attention proved mixed, as older rehabilitation-focused approaches increasingly clashed with athletes’ desires to be viewed as elite competitors. The nascent professionalization seen in Nagano has been even more apparent in promotional materials for Tokyo’s upcoming Games. Although these developments suggest a new willingness to embrace the disabled athlete as a symbol of national pride, they also raise significant questions about the ultimate purpose and benefit of Paralympic sports for individuals with disabilities in Japan and beyond.

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2017 WG Beasley Memorial Lecture

Denis Frost

Speaker Biography

Dennis J. Frost is the Wen Chao Chen Associate Professor of East Asian Social Sciences at Kalamazoo College, USA. He was awarded his PhD in Modern Japanese History in 2007 from Columbia University. He has published widely on the history of sport in Japan, including his 2010 book: Seeing Stars: Sports Celebrity, Identity, and Body Culture in Modern Japan, Harvard East Asian Monographs. In 2016-17, he received an IIE, Fulbright Fellowship for research on the Paralympic Movement in Japan, and is currently writing a book on the history of the Paralympic Movement and disability sports in Japan.

Panelist Biographies


Junichi Kawai is a senior researcher in the Department of Sport Innovation at the Japan Sport Council (JSC) Tokyo, where his role includes identifying Paralympic talent, researching international training facilities and addressing environmental issues facing Paralympic athletes.  He competed in six Summer Paralympic Games, from Barcelona 1992 to London 2012, winning 5 Gold, 9 Silver and 7 Bronze medals in Swimming.  He is the Chairman of the Paralympians Association of Japan, which he established in 2003 to promote disability sports and develop public awareness of the Paralympics.  He was inducted into the Paralympic Hall of Fame in 2016.


Noel Thatcher

Noel Thatcher MBE is a visually impaired distance runner, who has competed in six Summer Paralympic Games from 1984-2004, winning a total of 5 Gold, 2 Silver and 3 Bronze medals.  He carried the Union flag at the opening ceremony of the 2004 Athens Paralympics.   In 1997 he was awarded an MBE for Services to Disability Sport, and on the same day finished third in the Sir Peter Parker Japanese Business Speech Contest.  He studied Japanese at SOAS gaining the Japanese Proficiency Test level 1 in 2003.  He has trained and raced extensively in Japan and credits much of his success to the support received from Japanese coaches and athletes.  Noel was the first visually impaired athlete to be inducted into the England Athletics Hall of Fame in 2009.

Tim Hollingsworth

Tim Hollingsworth OBE is the Chief Executive of the British Paralympic Association.  He also served as Secretary General for ParalympicsGB at the Rio 2016, Sochi 2014 and London 2012 Paralympic Games.  Prior to joining the BPA in 2011, he was first Director of Policy & Communications and then Chief Operating Officer at UK Sport.  Before that, Tim worked for four years as a Director of a strategic communications consultancy, HBL Media, for two years as Head of Corporate Media and Internal Communications at Granada Media plc, and spent five years as Head of Media Relations at the Confederation of British Industry.  Tim is a Board Director of the Youth Sport Trust and the National Paralympic Heritage Trust and a member of the IPC’s Paralympic Games Standing Committee.  He received an OBE in the 2017 Queen’s New Year Honours List.



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Organiser: SOAS Japan Research Centre

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