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Symbol of the state: Emperor, Empress shone light on sports for disabled in Japan

Then Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko watch a Japan Wheelchair Basketball Championship game in May 1981 at Kosei Gakuen in Tokyo's Suginami Ward. Sitting between them is Katsuyuki Hamamoto. At left is Prince Akishino and at right is Princess Nori (now Sayako Kuroda). (Photo courtesy of Japan Wheelchair Basketball Federation Polaris Wheelchair Basketball)

In 1995, soon after assuming the role of chairman of the Japanese Para-Sports Association, Isao Hokugo remembers Emperor Akihito asking him an unexpected question.

"Are there no problems with sports for able-bodied people being handled by the Ministry of Education and those for the disabled being handled separately by the Ministry of Health and Welfare?" the Emperor asked him.

"I was caught by surprise," recalls Hokugo, now 85. He saw the question as a sign that the Emperor was thinking about development of sports for the disabled. It served as the impetus for him to work harder to expand sports for those with disabilities.

In 2000, the Japanese Para-Sports Association joined the Japan Amateur Sports Association (now the Japan Sports Association), and in fiscal 2014 sports for the disabled were moved from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare and placed under the wing of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

Recalling the Emperor's question, Hokugo surmised, "He was looking far ahead of me."

One of the photos with this article shows Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko watching a wheelchair basketball match in 1981, when they were Crown Prince and Crown Princess, at the gymnasium of educational institution Kosei Gakuen in Tokyo's Suginami Ward. The Imperial Family members watched the game from a simple "royal box" set up on the stage, with smiles on their faces. Prince Akishino, then age 15, and Princess Nori (now Sayako Kuroda), then age 12, were also in attendance.

Michio Yamazaki, 71, one of the event organizers, commented, "Their majesties came down from the stage and had good conversations with the players."

In the snapshot, the man sitting between the then Crown Prince and Crown Princess is Katsuyuki Hamamoto, the late chairman of the Japan Wheelchair Basketball Federation, who passed away in 2008. After participating in the Tokyo Paralympic Games in 1964, he formed a club team, and went on to found the federation, serving as a nurturer of wheelchair basketball in Japan.

Then Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko take a commemorative photo with American wheelchair basketball players who came to Japan for a friendly competition in 1981. Pictured second from left in the front row is Katsuyuki Hamamoto. (Photo courtesy of Japan Wheelchair Basketball Federation Polaris Wheelchair Basketball)

There is also an old photograph of their majesties sharing a laugh with American wheelchair basketball team players. In the summer of 1981, the federation invited the American players to Japan, and they played a friendly competition. The photograph was from a reception held at the time. Hamamoto, whom the Empress had called by the affectionate nickname "Hama-chan," was present then, too.

"Their majesties interacted with the players as fans, and enjoyed the game," former wheelchair basketball player Yoshiteru Hoshi, now 70, recalls. At a time when sports for the disabled were uncommon in Japan, the then Crown Prince and Crown Princess knew the names of the teams and players well, he says. A total of 73 teams now belong to the federation, and wheelchair basketball is a star sport for people with disabilities.

"I feel like they have walked together along the path as it (wheelchair basketball) has picked up steam," Hoshi says.

The Emperor and Empress, who encountered various sports for the disabled at the Tokyo Paralympics, have kept a watch over such sports since those sports' pioneer days. It is said that the inaugural National Sports Festival for People with Physical Disabilities (now the National Sports Festival for People with Disabilities), held in Gifu Prefecture in 1965, was pushed forward by the then Crown Prince commenting that he would like to have a tournament like the Paralympics in Japan.

The Emperor has continued to maintain a connection with sports for the disabled since he acceded to the Imperial Throne, such as by inviting Paralympic athletes to tea and garden parties. In March this year, the Imperial Household Agency announced that Emperor's and Empress's cups would be presented at basketball, tennis and long-distance relay competitions. May 19 and 20 saw the staging of the Japan Wheelchair Basketball Championship, in which the first Emperor's Cup was awarded. It was a special event for Yamazaki, who watched the packed game.

"My heart fluttered to see the game having developed to the point of an Emperor's Cup being awarded," he said.

This is Part 3 in a series.

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