At the source of Emperor Akihito's desire to and practice of offering support to those with disabilities was his encounter and friendship with a figure who gave his life to improving the lives of people with disabilities -- and hence the lives of those without.
On June 1, 1975, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, who at the time were Crown Prince and Crown Princess, attended the opening ceremony of the 1st Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled (FESPIC Games) at the Oita Athletic Stadium in Oita. It was a gloriously sunny day, just before the region entered its annual rainy season.
"The sight of everyone who has overcome hardships to participate in this event will give hope and encouragement to many people who have physical disabilities," the then Crown Prince said to the crowd.
FESPIC, to which some 200 athletes had gathered from 17 countries and regions in addition to Japan, was a truly grassroots affair, with much of its funding coming from donations. The Imperial Couple watched events such as archery and track and field, and spoke amicably with the athletes. Looking back on the occasion, 78-year-old Eiji Yoshinaga, who had made an oath of fair play on behalf of all the athletes, said, "Thanks to the attendance of the Imperial Couple, the event attracted a lot of attention and was very exciting."
The attendance of the then Crown Prince and Crown Princess at such a grassroots, "handmade" event occurred against a backdrop of friendship between the Imperial Couple and Yutaka Nakamura, an orthopedic surgeon in the Oita prefectural city of Beppu who served as the organizer's secretary-general. Nakamura, who had been active in promoting sports among people with disabilities, first met the Imperial Couple in the early 1960s, when the couple invited Japanese athletes who had taken part in the International Stoke Mandeville Games in the U.K. -- the precursor to the Paralympics -- and Nakamura, who had accompanied the athletes to the games, to the couple's then residence, the Togu Palace. At the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, the then Crown Prince Akihito served as honorary chief of the games, and Nakamura the head of the Japanese delegation.
In October 1965, Nakamura established a facility in the city of Beppu, where people with disabilities could work. At a time when the notion that people with disabilities were incapable of working, or that making people with disabilities work was cruel was still strongly rooted in Japanese society, Nakamura scrambled to get people with disabilities integrated into society with the belief that they needed "no charity, but a chance." The Imperial Couple first visited the facility, named Japan Sun Industries (JSI), or Taiyo-no-Ie (literally meaning "home of the sun"), in 1966, and have continued to make visits to JSI-related facilities since.
On the evening of Sept. 29, 1981, a discussion was held at a Beppu hotel on the topic of employing people with disabilities. Among the participants were Sony Corp. founder Masaru Ibuka, Omron Corp. founder Kazuma Tateishi, and Honda Motor Corp. founder Soichiro Honda -- all business community heavyweights to whom Nakamura had preached the importance of employing people with disabilities, and who had put that advice into practice.
The Imperial Couple, who happened to be in Oita to attend the first annual nationwide event on creating rich oceans, also took part in the discussion with Nakamura and business leaders in Beppu. The then Crown Prince's remarks remain in records from the meeting. "It is difficult to cultivate a sentiment toward people with and without disabilities getting along well through school education only," he said. "Isn't it important for schools and families to work in conjunction with each other to create a society without divisiveness?"
Nakamura's wife, 79-year-old Hiroko Nakamura, looked back on her husband's relationship with the Imperial Couple. "My husband was not one to follow or fit into norms, and would approach everyone, no matter who they were, with extraordinary passion," she said. "I think that His Majesty accepted the passion with which my husband aspired to a society where people with and without disabilities could coexist harmoniously."
In 1984, Nakamura, the surgeon and advocate, died suddenly at the age of 57. The Imperial Couple sent their condolences: "It's regrettable that you have suffered such a great loss."
In October 2015, a 50-year anniversary ceremony for JSI was held in Beppu. Yoshinaga, who took part in the first ever FESPIC Games and also worked at JSI said in a speech he gave at the ceremony, "Dr. Nakamura and I kept running forward with big aspirations." Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko attended the event, and applauded Yoshinaga's speech.
"The Emperor's warm and affectionate gaze has encouraged so many of us," Yoshinaga said.
This is Part 2 in a series.