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With over 100,000 paper cranes, man built bridge between disabled and non-disabled

Momoho Yamada in a wheelchair is seen smiling in this photo with Nobuko Hayashi. (Photo provided by "Yatsuo Tsukushi no kai")

Among the spectators at a Rio Paralympics wheelchair basketball game was Kunisuke Yamada, 81, who lives in the Brazilian city that hosted the 2016 games. Yamada felt like he was watching the game with his late brother, Momoho, who was born with cerebral palsy and spent his adult life building ties between people with disabilities and the non-disabled. Kunisuke believes that the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics changed his younger brother's life.

    The Yamada brothers were born into a wealthy farming family in the Toyama Prefecture town of Yatsuo. Momoho was the fifth child of six. Even after turning 1, he was unable to sit or grab things. A doctor told their mother to raise Momoho "with love as long as he lives." He did not attend school, so his older siblings taught him how to read.

    Because Momoho was unable to move his body as he wished, he started making paper cranes to exercise his hands four years before the Tokyo Games. He used his mouth to hold the origami paper on a table and folded cranes with his disabled hands. "He may have used his feet, too," Kunisuke recalls.

    Learning that the Paralympics would be held in Tokyo in the summer of 1964, Momoho thought of donating his paper cranes to the event. After his mother wrote a letter to the event organizer about her son and his cranes, Momoho was invited to the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games on Nov. 8. Until then, Momoho had only gone out in his neighborhood. He later recalled the moment he learned that he had been invited, saying, "It was a joy that could lift me up to heaven."

    A wheelchair gave Momoho wings, and at age 27 he was able to go out on his own. One time he traveled to the downtown of the city of Toyama, at least a 30-kilometer round trip from his home, without even telling his family. If it rained, he would wear a raincoat to go outside. After acquiring an electric wheelchair, he would be out until the batteries died. He charged his wheelchair while out and about. By that point, everyone in the neighborhood knew who he was.

    The number of Momoho's supporters grew, and they launched an organization called "Yatsuo Tsukushi no kai" for people with disabilities and the non-disabled to socialize with each other. Momoho wrote newsletters for the group's members, holding a pencil in his mouth to type. He would also hand-deliver the newsletters to people with disabilities who shut themselves in, and invite them to join the group.

    While he vigorously pursued his activities, Momoho told a visually impaired painter friend, "I can't go where I want to. There were times I thought I wanted to die."

    A former lawmaker, now 93, who supported Momoho said, "I was criticized at first for helping him just as a charitable act."

    Momoho had people around him involved in activities to address issues facing the disabled. They committed to living in harmony with non-disabled residents in a corner of Japan where those with disabilities tended to be isolated from society, hidden in their homes or at care facilities.

    Even after Momoho's sudden death in 2005 at age 65, the Tsukushi no kai group still continued its activities, providing opportunities for local children and elderly people to get together. From the group's activities, a small welfare workshop was launched.

    Momoho continued to make paper cranes. He folded over 100,000 paper cranes in his lifetime and kept sending them to sports events for the disabled.

    Nobuko Hayashi, center, shows children the paper cranes folded by Momoho Yamada, in Toyama on Dec. 10, 2016. (Mainichi)

    At a Tsukushi no kai gathering held in December last year, 78-year-old Yatsuo resident Nobuko Hayashi told children stories about "a man named Momoho Yamada" and showed them the paper cranes he folded.

    Hayashi was one of many people who were persuaded by Momoho to join his activities. She met Momoho when she was feeling insecure about her life after losing her husband in her 30s and trying to raise a child on her own. Momoho would visit Hayashi every day and invite her to join the group. Hayashi was persuaded on the fourth day, and now the group's activities have become her life purpose.

    "We were given wings, too, by the cranes Momoho folded," Hayashi said.

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